Ice Safety for Winter Fun

     Going out into nature is both fun and restorative, but a bad experience might ruin the season for you. This winter we encourage you to enjoy the many beautiful natural areas New England has to offer, but we also remind you to stay safe. A well-prepared winter excursion might just keep you from cursing the cold and bring you a newfound love for the season.

     With the recent record-breaking cold, our freshwater has nearly all turned over to ice (even some of the saltwater). This means lots of excursions out on frozens ponds, marshes and beaver impoundments. These treks provide a chance to see water from a whole new perspective, and if you have a chance to go out with an experience leader, jump on it (not the ice)! Whether you’re heading out with a guide, or especially if you’re going without, make sure you understand these ice safety tips:

Damp patches hint at unsafe ice beneath the snow. Photo by J. Schneider.

     Watch out for thin ice where there may be natural springs. Groundwater is several degrees warmer than surface water and moving water is less likely to freeze. This means natural springs are a double-punch of danger. Keep an eye on where you’re walking to avoid these areas. When in doubt, just avoid.
     Read the bubbles! The bubbles frozen in the ice aren’t just beautiful to look at, you can use them to gauge the depth of the ice. Four inches is the minimum thickness needed for ice to support a person’s weight. If you don’t see any bubbles, take care, that ice may be thinner than you think.

Bubbles in the ice.

     One at a time. The ice may be thick enough to hold you up, but don’t ask it to support everyone you’re walking with at the same time. Keep a reasonable distance between yourself and your walking buddies while you’re on the ice, unless your guide has assured you the ice is over 6 inches thick.
     Don’t walk on snow-covered ice. Ice is cold, snow is cold, so no problem right? Actually, a covering of snow will insulate the ice, so unless there has been a prolonged period of extreme cold don’t risk it. Even if you feel it has been cold enough, please check with someone experienced!

Open water surrounding a beaver lodge. Photo by J. Schneider.

     Beware beaver lodges. While their sturdy lodges and well-stocked pantries mean beavers are fairly content to while away the cold months at home, they do work to keep an open area of water as an entrance near their lodges. Look out for areas of thinner ice near the lodges, as well as channels where they might have been swimming.
     River ice cannot be trusted. Remember, flowing water is less likely to freeze and areas that have inflow from groundwater will be warmer. This means that rivers are a dangerous place to head out on the ice. Do not attempt this unless you are with an experienced guide who has already checked the area’s safety.
     Nice and easy. Stay on both feet when possible to evenly distribute your weight. Walking on ice is not your usual walk; think penguin and do more of a shuffling motion. For added grip you can wear trackers, but don’t wear spikes.
     Stay warm. If it’s cold enough to safely walk out on the ice, it’s pretty cold. Wear layers, don’t restrict your circulation, and be mindful of your hands and feet. If you’re spending your outing in a misery of cold, you’re not going to have a good time.
     Most importantly of all: don’t go out alone! Make sure you bring a friend with you on your winter adventure. This is important for possible emergency situations (and to help you get up if you do fall), and a winter hike enjoyed with a friend will be twice as fun. Stay safe, stay warm and have fun!

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