Cold Water Safety

Ontario has experienced unseasonably cold weather so far this winter, leading to an early start to many outdoor winter activities that take place on our frozen lakes and ponds. While these activities can be great fun for you and your family, it is important to always be aware of the risks involved any time you are near cold water. Every year, preventable deaths occur as Canadians venture onto ice that is dangerously thin. This article will highlight a few safety tips that will help keep you and your family safe this winter season.

It is important to remember that cold weather alone does not guarantee that ice is safe. A number of different factors determine how strong ice will be including the depth of the water, water currents, and the type of ice. The strongest type of ice is clear ice which forms when the lake water freezes. White ice is created when wet snow freezes on top of clear ice. White ice is only about half as strong as clear ice, and can have the dangerous effect of insulating the clear ice, causing it to freeze more slowly. The photo below shows the layering that can occur during ice formation.

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The first step is to determine that the ice you want to travel on is safe for the intended activity. A game of pond hockey requires less ice than riding an ATV. If possible, ask a local about the quality of ice. This can be people such as marina owners, snowmobile tour guides, or marine police officers.

You should also always check the ice thickness yourself. This can be done using tools such as an ice auger or a cordless drill. Once a hole is drilled, measure the thickness with a measuring tape. The below diagram illustrates general guidelines for thickness requirements of different activities.

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It is important to remember that ice quality can often be inconsistent from location to location. Avoid areas where logs or other objects break the surface of the water. If an area of water is narrow or shallow, the current may be greater, which will weaken the ice.

Even after determining the ice is sufficiently thick for your desired activity, additional steps should be taken to ensure your safety. These include:

  • Have at least one person with you when travelling on ice. If this is not possible, tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to arrive
  • Bring a cell phone in the event of an emergency
  • Always travel with icepicks, these can save your life if you break through

This time of year, it is important to always put safety first when exploring the outdoors. Following the tips outlined above will help keep you and your family safe this winter.

Colleen McHugh


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