Blue ice and red flags: How to stay safe when skating on lake ice

By: Caroline Wagner, Communications Advisor
Maybe it’s happened to you: You’re skating along the frozen surface of a lake, when CRACK! You see a fracture in the ice shoot out from under your skates. Suddenly you’re wondering… How thick is this ice? Should I be this far out?
A frozen lake with people skating on it.If that’s what you’re asking yourself, your instincts are headed in the right direction, says Canadian Red Cross ice safety expert Lynn Kolba.
“The water freezes, and everyone kind of forgets that it’s a 30-foot-deep, arctic lake that they’re skating on,” she says. “If you fall through, that’s a pretty serious situation. But a lot of the risk mitigation can be really simple and cost effective.”
Here are Lynn’s tips for having a safe day on the ice.

Assess the ice

The best way to know if ice is safe is to know how thick it is. If you are going out on a local pond, the city or municipality may already have done a measurement. The ice should be 15 centimetres thick for walking or skating alone, and 20 centimetres for a group or a hockey game.
If you have an ice auger and know how to use it, you can take your own measurement. If not, try to find an ice fisher who may have already drilled some holes.
Ice colour is a good hint as to how strong the ice is. It might seem counter-intuitive, but clear blue ice – where you can see down into the depths –  is actually the strongest. “It speaks to the calmness of the water,” explains Kolba, “which allowed it to freeze thick and strong and stable.”
White ice, also called snow ice, is cloudy because it has frozen and thawed several times over, making it roughly half as strong as blue ice. Grey or slushy ice is the weakest and you want to avoid it altogether.
Paying attention to weather patterns can also help. As Kolba explains, consistent sub-zero temperatures are key.
“You need to be familiar with the weather in the week leading up to the day on the ice,” she says. “If you have a sudden cold snap, that could create the perception that the ice would be thick and strong when, in fact, components of the ice could be shrinking which creates pressure ridges. So cold doesn’t necessarily mean safe.”

Carry safety gear

Once you are on the ice, you should carry rescue gear in case someone falls through. Kolba suggests the following:
  • Wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
  • Carry a tow rope, or any kind of weighted rope
  • Carry ice picks
  • Don’t skate alone
Not familiar with ice picks? These little lifesavers are designed to be worn inside your sleeves so they’re right at hand when you need them. The sharp picks are retractable but will provide that all-important grip on the ice should you fall through.
And as with all safety gear, Kolba says that practice is important. Give your rope a couple practice tosses and jam those ice picks into an icy snowbank so you can see just how much strength you’ll need to make them stick.
For rescue techniques, visit:

Watch for red flags

As you’re skating, you should be watching and listening for any signs that the ice isn’t safe.
Cracking isn’t necessarily a bad sign, but if you are hearing cracks, pay attention to the frequency and intensity. If those change, be wary. And you should always be on the lookout for open water, and air bubbles, which are another a sign of weak ice.
Pressure ridges are another red flag. “They’re kind of like tectonic plates,” explains Kolba. “They broke apart then refroze together. And they’ll break apart again with the right temperature.”
Take a Red Cross water safety course to learn more about staying safe on the ice:

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