Cold Water and Ice

Drowning doesn't just happen to non-swimmers in the summer. Approximately 35% of drownings in Canada occur from October to April when most people have no intention of going into the water. Snowmobiling and ice accidents account for most of these incidents, but it's important to realize that even at the height of summer, water in Canadian lakes and rivers is usually below 20 degrees Celsius. To stay safe, check the ice to make sure it's thick enough and always wear a lifejacket during activities around the water.

Ice Thickness Card


Ice Safety and Cold Water Facts

  • Water in Ontario is colder than you think.
  • Cold water shock.
  • You can only survive a few minutes in cold water.
  • Most drownings occur in water less than 20 degrees Celsius.
  • No ice is without risk.
  • Snowmobiling over frozen bodies of water poses a large risk.

Ice Safety Tips

  • Check the ice thickness.
  • Wear a lifejacket, it buys you time.
  • If you are going out onto ice, know what to do if you break through.
Minimum Ice Thickness for:
  • a single person - 4 inches (10 cm)
  • a snowmobile or ATV - 5 inches (12 cm)
  • a single car - 8-12 inches (20-30 cm)
  • a vehicle (full-size pick up truck) - 12-15 inches (30-38 cm)

CSBC - Cold Water Awareness Videos

The Canadian Safe Boating Council (CSBC) has a series of Cold Water Awareness videos with tips on how to prepare for and survive in cold water, including the important 1-10-1 principle. Visit for these and other important water safety campaigns.

Stay alive, stay ice smart

Thick ice

The Lifesaving Society encourages you to be ice smart - know the basics and be sensible. Most winter drowning victims are male snowmobilers. But everybody needs to be careful around frozen lakes, rivers and streams. Year after year we hear of owners drowning while trying to rescue their dogs (incidentally, the dogs usually survive).

The Society's drowning data shows:

  • Almost two thirds of ice-related incidents occur on lakes and the rest occur on rivers.
  • Most snowmobile incidents involve open water/ice holes (62% of all snowmobiling incidents) or thin ice (38%).

Here's how you can be ice smart. First, understand the importance of determining the quality and thickness of ice before venturing onto it. No ice is without risk. Even thick ice may be weak so be sure to measure clear hard ice in several places. The quality and thickness of ice can change very quickly and its appearance can be misleading.

There are several steps you can take to stay ice smart:

  1. keep away from unfamiliar paths or unknown ice,
  2. avoid travelling on ice at night - clear hard ice is the only kind of ice recommended for travel,
  3. if you must venture onto the ice, wear a thermal protection buoyant suit to increase your chances of survival if you fall through. If you do not have one, wear a lifejacket/PFD over an ordinary snowmobile suit or layered winter clothing,
  4. avoid slushy ice, thawed ice that has recently refrozen, layered or rotten ice caused by sudden temperature changes, and ice near moving water (i.e., rivers or currents),
  5. never go on the ice alone; a buddy may be able to rescue you or go for help if you get into difficulty,
  6. before you leave shore, inform someone of your destination and expected time of return, and, ideally,
  7. assemble a small personal safety kit no larger than the size of a man's wallet to carry with you. The kit should include a lighter, waterproof matches, magnesium fire starter, pocketknife, compass and whistle. You should also carry ice picks, an ice staff, a rope and a cellular phone.

Ice myths and cold realities

Be Water Smart® in summer, and winter! Always check the ice before you go on it, measure clean hard ice in several places and be wary of varying temperature conditions. Here are some myths and realities to remember:

1) Myth: Waterlogged clothing pulls you down in the water and makes you drown.

Reality: Actually, air trapped in your clothing will help keep you afloat temporarily. Once the clothes are soaked with water, they will be heavier, making moving and swimming more difficult.

2) Myth: The better you swim the better your chances of rescuing yourself if you fall through the ice.

Reality: Swimming proficiency plays only a small part in ice-related rescues. After as little as five minutes, cold water begins to rob you of your ability to move your limbs. This makes it very difficult for you to get out of the water, no matter what your swimming ability.

3) Myth: Snow on a frozen lake or river makes the ice surface stronger.

Reality: Snow acts as an insulating blanket, actually hindering ice formation and growth.

4) Myth: If the weather has been cold, the ice must be solid and safe.

Reality: Other factors that are largely independent of air temperature (e.g., wind, a layer of snow on the ice, currents and fluctuating water levels) can weaken ice and make it unable to bear weight. A sudden drop in air temperature, which is actually more dangerous than a sudden rise, can create cracks in the ice.

5) Myth: Thick ice is stronger than thin ice.

Reality: Even thick ice may be weak if it is "rotten" or contains layers of water. Rotten ice has frozen and thawed repeatedly, making it potentially fragile even when it appears solid.

Check the ice before you go on it.

Thin ice is responsible for many fatalities each year. Hypothermia, which is a decrease in body temperature, kills people in cold water by reducing their ability to swim or stay afloat. A person who has fallen through the ice can eventually die of cardiac arrest if he or she is not rescued or rewarmed.

Although most victims who fall through the ice are men, it is important that safety tips are practiced by all.

Safety Tips:

  1. Always check ice thickness before venturing out. Snowmobiles require at least five inches of clear solid ice and autos at least eight inches to a foot of clear solid ice.
  2. Be suspicious. You cannot tell the strength of the ice by its appearance. Temperature, thickness, snow cover, water depth, size of water body, currents and distribution of the load on top of the ice are all factors affecting ice safety.
  3. Before you head onto any ice, check with a local bait shop operator or resort owner for known ice conditions, thin ice areas or dangerous open water conditions.



What to do if you break through the ice?

  1. Don't panic - the clothes you're wearing will trap air and keep you buoyant.
  2. Turn toward the direction you came from and place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface.
  3. Kick your feet and try to push yourself forward on top of the unbroken ice on your stomach like a seal.
  4. Once you are lying on the ice, don't stand up. Roll away from the break until you're on solid ice.

Learn to Swim

Basic swimming ability is a fundamental requirement in any meaningful attempt to eliminate drowning in Canada. The Lifesaving Society offers training programs from learn-to-swim through advanced lifesaving, lifeguarding and leadership.

Our Swim for Life program stresses lots of in-water practice to develop solid swimming strokes and skills. We incorporate valuable Water Smart® education that will last a lifetime.

Swim to Survive is a Lifesaving Society survival training program. Swim to Survive is not a subsititute for swimming lessons; instead, it defines the minimum skills needed to survive an unexpected fall into deep water. People of all ages should be able to perform the Society's Swim to Survive standard.