Ice safety guide

Ghost Reservoir on the eastern edge of the rocky mountains is a deep lake that in the cold months, of which there are many, freezes solid thoroughly and attracts many for ice fishing, ice skating, snowmobiling and also – driving.  A few driving clubs offer winter driving courses here, but also many people get out on the ice to drive their vehicles and play around with slipping around on the ice just for the joy of it.

I was always impressed when people get out on their cars or snowmobiles in the early season after we’ve only had a few days of very cold weather.  In Canada, we’ve had a very mild winter in most parts of the country.

How do you know the ice is safe enough to walk on, and to drive your vehicle or snowmobile on? Here are a few points to remember.

How to stay safe on the ice

Frozen lakes look very inviting to go out on them and skate, they are also used for ice fishing. How do you know when the ice is thick enough to support your weight? A good, reliable layer of ice takes more than just a day to form.

Here is how you know when you should go:

  • 5 cm or 2 inches: this is a dangerous thickness, you may think it’s enough but it won’t be able to hold your weight. Avoid it.
  • 10 cm or 4 inches: thick enough for ice skaters and ice anglers, walking and cross country skiing
  • 12 cm or 5 inches: good for one snowmobile or ATV
  • 18 cm or 7 inches: good enough for a few snowmobiles or ATVs
  • 20-30 cm or 8-12 inches: one car or small truck
Ice thickness guidelines. Image from manitoba fishing

Ice thickness guidelines. Image from manitoba fishing


Assume all ice is unsafe at first.  Presence of river currents, freeze-thaw cycles, and snow depth are all important issues.

Tips for traveling on the ice

  • Never go out in the ice alone
  • If you’re traveling in a group, walk single file and well spread out
  • Avoid traveling on the ice at night
  • Stay off of river ice, the currents keep the ice from forming properly
  • Carry a long pole. You can use it to test the ice to check for it’s safety, and also you can use it as a safety device by holding it horizontally in case you fall in
  • Take safety equipment with you. Things such as ice picks, matches and firestarter, pocket knife, whistle and rope in case you get into trouble.

What to do if you fall in through the ice

Most importantly, you must stay calm. If you panic and thrash in the water you’ll use more energy, and heat, and dramatically speed up hypothermia. Attempt to bring your body to a horizontal position, but keeping your hands and arms on the ice while treading with your legs.

You must get out of the water as fast as possible. If the water is just above freezing, 0.5 degrees Celsius or 32 F, you have less than 15 minutes before you will loose consciousness.

What to do if you fall in through ice. Image from

What to do if you fall in through ice. Image from

Stay safe out there!

Have you had any close calls or seen any one fall through ice?



Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts