Marie-Claude Dulac

By Marie-Claude Dulac

January 3, 2019


Can you safely drive on a frozen body of water?

Love heading outdoors during winter or skating on frozen bodies of water? Do you sometimes drive your snowmobile or ATV on frozen lakes? If you think using bodies of water as winter playgrounds is OK, remember that it could very well cost you your life! It is in fact very dangerous to tread on frozen surfaces, which claim many lives every year. Let’s take a closer look!

Tips for snowmobile and ATV drivers

According to the Canadian Safety Council (CSC), drowning is the leading cause of Canadian snowmobile fatalities. Furthermore, according to statistics from the Canadian Red Cross, over the last 20 years, 59% of snowmobile-related incidents occurred on lakes, causing nearly 400 snowmobile immersion deaths.

Here are a few tips to reduce the snowmobile or ATV related risk of accident, drowning or hypothermia.

  1. For starters, don’t drive your leisure vehicle if you’ve consumed alcohol.
  2. Before you venture on the ice, do your own due diligence. Even if others are driving on the icy water surface, you shouldn’t be relying on their judgement.
  3. Only take marked trails, or those monitored by a club or federation, and always follow signs.

If you are in unmarked or unmonitored areas, the ice may not be thick enough to support the weight of your vehicle. Disobeying traffic signs or leaving marked trails increase the likelihood of a collision.

In both cases, there’s an increased likelihood of the ice breaking under your vehicle and of you falling into frozen water. The suction effect created by the weight and size of a snowmobile or ATV that gets stuck in frozen water would likely mean you would not survive. These odds would be even worse if alcohol or injuries suffered during a collision also reduced your alertness and inhibitions..

  1. Take a good look at your surroundings and be on the lookout for obstacles hidden by snow, such as docks and rocks, to reduce the risk of a collision.
  2. If you normally cross over frozen bodies of water or think you might do so in the future, consider purchasing a flotation suit.
  3. Know exactly what to do if you end up in frozen water.
  4. Be well prepared when you set out. Follow our tips to avoid unpleasant surprises when you set out on your ATV or snowmobile:

13 tips for well-planned outings
Checklist before you take off on an ATV ride

Tips for pedestrians, skaters and fishers

Don’t underestimate the risk of drowning and hypothermia as a result of winter activities on frozen surfaces! Make sure you always take the necessary safety precautions to stay out of dangerous situations, and, if there’s any doubt, play it safe and sit it out.

1. Verify whether the ice is safe with a competent authority

The Red Cross recommends you always check with local authorities to make sure the ice is thick enough for your activity before you step on the surface.

The thickness of the ice on a body of water and the dangers related to it vary based on several factors. That’s why it’s always best to pick a spot that is monitored by a competent authority.

ActivityIce thickness required
Walking or skating in small numbers15 cm
Walking, skating or playing in a group20 cm
Driving your snowmobile or ATV25 cm
Installing ice fishing cabins 35 cm

For example, according to the Red Cross, ice tends to be weaker on bodies of water due to factors such as:

  • Currents, tides and other moving water
  • Chemicals including salt
  • Floating or submerged objects such as logs, rocks and docks
  • Many vehicles circulating on the ice

2. If you cannot get the information from the authorities, be extra careful.

Pay attention to the colour of the ice. It will give you an idea about its thickness and strength.

  • Clear blue ice is strongest. You can normally perform your activity without risk.
  • White opaque ice is formed by wet snow freezing on the ice. It is typically half as strong as blue ice.
  • Grey ice is weak. The grayness indicates the presence of water close to the surface. Grey ice is therefore unsafe.

Make sure there are no puddles on the ice surface. It’s a sign that the ice is cracked or very thin.

Since you can’t check for these things without sunlight, avoid going on the ice at night.

3. Be prepared to act in case of an emergency

You can never be too cautious! Make sure you know what to do if the ice breaks by following the recommendations of the Red Cross.

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