How to

10 March 2017

Being Safe on Frozen Lakes

The first thing to know about walking on a frozen lake is this: if you’re not sure, don’t do it. There’s no reason to endanger yourself for the sake of curiosity. Just ask all those cats. Oh wait, you can’t, they’re dead. If you do end up walking around on a frozen lake though, you should always know what measures to take to make sure that you’re as safe as you can be.

Some frozen lakes are so safe that people walk, slide and ice-skate on them quite happily. For this to be possible, the ice has to be so thick than it would take a great deal more than the weight of a human to crack it. Most of the time, natural skating rinks and similar environments have ‘life-guard’ staff tasked with making sure that, if in some unfortunate twist of fate, somebody does fall through, they’re rescued as quickly as possible.

That’s not always the case though, and if you aren’t surrounded by other people and trained safety staff, you need to take precautions. The main thing you have to do is plan for the worst. Even if it isn’t all that cold, if you know you’re going to be on a frozen lake, dress extra warmly, and keep a dry change of clothes to hand, the last thing you want is to be walking in the cold in sopping wet clothes, shivering yourself to an early grave. Even more important is a life-jacket, or some form of flotation device. An ice axe is also wise, icy edges are slippery and if you’re trying to pull yourself free of the water it can quickly tire you out trying to grab on.

Of course, falling in is the one thing you’re absolutely trying to avoid, so what’s really important is being able to look at the ice and judge how thick it is. There are a few key things to look out for to determine this. Firstly, you need to know the air temperature that day, as well as the size of the water body, the currents and the snow cover. In an ideal world, local officials will have already taken a measurement, but if not you can actually do it yourself by drilling into the ice (a cordless drill will do for this) and using a tape measure – hooking the end onto the bottom of the ice sheet.

Generally speaking, anything thinner than 4” is unsafe to walk on. From 4” and above, you can walk on it, with 5” and above being safe for snowmobiles, 8” for cars and 12” for a mid-sized truck. The issue is that ice is not the same thickness consistently across an entire frozen body of water. If you’re walking along the ice and you see cracks, ridges or slush, avoid it.

If the ice actually changes colour, that’s another potential risk. Generally if the ice has measured as thick enough to walk on and it’s either clear coloured or hued in blue or green, you’re fine. If it’s white, that means there’s air trapped in it and if it’s getting darker it means it’s thinning. Avoid walking on any ice showing these signs.

Lastly, when you’ve decided point of fact that you’re going to walk on the ice, having measured it, spoken to locals, checked the weather and done a visual scan, test it. You need a buddy for this, and you need to secure yourself with the aforementioned flotation device, as well as a rope (which the buddy holds the other end of), and take the first few steps. If the ice stays where it is, you can keep going. If there’s even a shadow of a doubt, get off, and find an alternative route. Playing around on frozen water isn’t worth dying over.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.