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Wild Ice Skating in the Eastern Sierra

Safety tools and tips for skating on frozen lakes in the winter.

By: Kristen Fuller + Save to a List

Ice skating on wild ice in the mountains is by far, one of the most magical things I have ever experienced. Three years ago, I bought a pair of pink and black women's hockey skates and went out on a frozen lake a few miles from my house with a trusted friend who was knowledgeable about wild ice skating. I was hooked, but I was also nervous. The thoughts and anxiety about falling through the ice, not knowing how to self-rescue or watching my dogs fall through the ice and drown made me question if this beautiful experience was really worth it.

Like every outdoor adventure in the mountains, there are risks involved and it is our job to measure those risks, and develop the tools and knowledge to properly reduce these risks to ensure that we are safe. Ice safety is no different.

This past winter, a tragic accident in Lake Tahoe where 6 people fell through the ice and one body was recovered 2 days later.

I remember hearing about this just as the temperatures began to rise and the sun was out for a little longer each day. It was a couple weeks after prime ice skating conditions on wild ice but unfortunately ice can change within hours. The angle of the sun, the amount of daylight, day time temperatures, wind conditions, nightime temperatures, the depth of the lake, and the size of the lake are all important factors that play a role on whether the ice thickness is safe for skating.

I am not an expert in ice safety or wild ice skating but I am gaining knowledge and experience each season and wanted to share some of the information I have learned over the years.

Before you skate

  • You can't always tell the strength of ice simply by its look, its thickness, the temperature or whether or not it is covered with snow.
  • Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, and is very porous and weak.
  • Ice covered by snow should always be presumed unsafe. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice.
  • If there is slush on the ice, stay off. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.
  • Be especially cautious in areas where air temperatures have fluctuated. A warm spell may take several days to weaken the ice; however, when temperatures vary widely, causing the ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, the result is a weak, "spongy" or honeycombed ice that is unsafe.
  • If you are walking out onto a frozen body of water with a group, avoid crossing ice in a single file.
  • As a rule of thumb, frozen bodies of water happen when nightime temps are in the single digits for multiple nights in a row and daytime temps remain below freezing without any snow in the forecast. 
  • It is best to skate early in the morning and be off the ice by 10am. 
  • It is always important to know the depth of the lake you are skating on and keep an eye on the weather patterns before you measure the ice thickness. As a general rule of thumb, ice is safe to skate on when it is at least 4 inches thick in multiple areas such as the shore and the middle of the lake. 
  • Just because there are many people out skating does not mean that the ice is safe. 
  • I no longer skate with my dogs as it gives me too much anxiety thinking about what if they fell through the ice. The risk is too much for me, but if you want to skate with your dog, try to always keep them on a leash in case the worst does happen.
  • Never venture out alone without telling a responsible adult on shore your plans; never ice skate alone without someone on shore.
  • If you are with a group, avoid standing together in a spot. Spread out.
  • Take a cell phone or Garmin inReach for emergency use.
  • Look for large cracks or depressions in the ice and avoid those areas.

If you fall through the ice

  • Try to remain calm. Freaking out wastes energy and you need energy to get yourself to safety.
  • Inflate your life vest.
  • Blow your whistle or yell for help to alert others.
  • Have someone throw you a rope (if possible).
  • Don't remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes won't drag you down, but instead can trap air to provide warmth and flotation.
  • Turn in the water toward the direction you came from - that is probably the strongest ice.
  • If you have them, dig the points of the ice picks into the ice and while vigorously kicking your feet, pull yourself onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice.
  • Roll away from the area of weak ice. Rolling on the ice will distribute your weight to help avoid breaking through again.
  • Once you arrive at the shore, get out of your wet clothes and change into dry clothes as soon as possible to prevent hypothermia.
  • Call 911 if you have any signs of hypothermia.

Wild ice skating safety gear

  • Whistle
  • Portable drill with 9 inch wood auger bit or ice screw
  • Personal flotation device
  • Pick-of-Life- Ice awls
  • Throw rope
  • Extra warm dry clothes and towel to help prevent hypothermia after the rescue

Thanks for reading 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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