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Wild Ice Play with Kids

Wild Ice Play with Kids

Spending time on wild ice is always an activity that carries risk. There is no such thing as safe ice, and you should always be prepared with some safety essentials. But the times we spend out on the ice are always some of my favorite, and with some simple steps to help mitigate risk I’m comfortable having myself and my three children out on the ice.

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I am not an expert in ice saftey, I am just an ice enthusiast. It is very helpful to join local groups and be part of the discussion of potential dangers in your specific area, and if possible travel with people who know more than you about wild ice so you can pick their brains.

This article will discuss the following topics:

  • Ice Safety Precautions
    • Go Places that you Know
    • Always Test the Ice Yourself
    • Carry Safety Gear
      • Self-Rescue Ice Picks
      • Throw Rope
      • Backpack and Dry Bag
      • Ice Screw
      • Sonic Tube
      • PFDs
  • Safe Exploration Locations
  • Activities for the Ice
    • Ice Skating
    • Ice Sweeping
    • Under the Ice Explorations
    • Lake-Side Ice

Ice Safety Precautions

I’m going to detail my personal rules for going out on ice with my kids. Everyone is comfortable with different amounts of risk, and I advise you to formulate your own plan. You may want more safety gear, or more likely you’ll be comfortable with less.

Go Places that you Know

First, go to waterways that are familiar. Never go out on an unfamiliar lake especially if it’s covered with snow. We stick to lakes that we recreate on in the summer, and are aware of a number of factors like the range of water depth, any streams or outlets with moving water, biotic activity (causing methane bubbles and potential unstability), and salinity content (in most climates this won’t make a lot of difference).

Do you need to have a science degree to safely explore wild ice? No! But some basic observations won’t hurt (and are fun!).

You may also find a frozen waterway and think oh great this looks like a great place to skate, and don’t realize that it’s actually a channel of a river; moving water is always going to carry a lot more risk. We never go out on a frozen river. Most deaths caused by falling through the ice happen on rivers (and most are attributed to being in vehicles or snowmachines).

There are some lakes we go on weekly, and other lakes that are popular ice fishing spots so are checked regularly, and I’m comfortable being on them even when they are snow-covered. But again, never assume it’s safe, when you go out look and listen, clear patches with a scraper and use an ice screw or do some power-jumps up and down on it (more on this below). If we lived somewhere that didn’t have consistent cold I’d be a lot more wary about venturing out when you can’t see the ice.

The particular lake pictured above is a place that we go weekly all year round. We’re very familiar with it, and the ice is usually very thick all winter long. However, this lake has a hot spring small area on the southern shore, and the ice is thinner there and we never approach it. We see bubbles from the area occasionally in summer, and in winter when the ice is thinner and is still open water in this area.

The ice gets thick enough that there are times that it is probably just fine to walk over the hot spring, but we never go on that portion of the lake because there is no reason to go there and it just adds unnecessary risk to your outing. I’d love to explore the difference in ice thickness over that area compared to other portions of the lake, but if I undertake that sort of study I won’t be towing the kids along with me.

If you’re on a saltwater pond, the freezing point is slightly different. Ocean water will freeze at 28.4 degrees Celsius compared with 32 degrees of freshwater; brackish water will freeze somewhere in-between. In most environments these small differences will not have any impact.

The exception to most of the ice testing is ice that is what I’m going to call semi-wild. This is ice that your town regularly measures and maintains. We have several areas like this around here and while I still carry my ice picks mainly out of habit (and because the 2018 earthquake is still fresh in my memory), but I don’t carry anything else. The ice is hot-mopped with trucks and this is about as safe as you can get on ice.

View of kids enjoying some freshly-mopped ice, with the mop truck in the background (and my son falling… helmets when you skate!)

Always Test the Ice Yourself

Always always test the ice, even if you were there recently or heard it was “safe”. Inspecting can be as simple as clearing off snow and testing your weight by jumping on it, or examining the depth of ice cracks or bubbles.

You can also test ice with an ice auger or ice screw (more on that one later). We don’t really do any ice fishing but I have an ice auger because we like making ice holes, and some day will maybe get around to actually ice fishing.

Sometimes people have done this for you, and you can inspect old ice holes.

Know the signs of rotten ice. I discuss this more later as rotten candled ice can be really fun to play in and with, but it is not weight-supporting. Especially in spring this is something to be very cautious of.

Cracking of thick ice does not (usually) mean the ice is about to break; ice expands as it freezes and cracks are going to form as part of the expansion process and do not mean submersion is imminent. However, knowing that doesn’t make it any less unnerving even when you’re on over a foot of solid clear ice and you start hearing it talk to you! Some lakes are more talkative than others.

I know many adults who will go out on ice between 1-2″ thick. Under 2″ thick you’re increasing your risk considerably, and I would not go out on lakes with that thickness with kids. We go out on 2-3″ when we’re on the “pond” we play at where the water is very shallow, but on a lake I like it to be 4″.

Carry Wild Ice Safety Gear

Always carry some safety gear. Our ice here is usually very thick, and I’m often out on ice that’s thick enough to drive a truck on. Still, it is an environment where you can die in minutes if something happened, and it puts my mind at ease to be prepared.

Testing ice in a very shallow area that I knew was probably too thin, would not have taken children to this area.

Safety gear that I consider to be essential for any trip out onto ice includes helmets if you’re skating (or for young kids even if they aren’t, a slip on the ice can cause them to whiplash themselves into a hard head-slam on the ice), and basic rescue gear.

I consider basic rescue gear essential, especially if you’re going out with kids. The bare minimum I’d suggest that everyone be in the habit of carrying would be ice picks and a rope.

I carry self-rescue ice picks, a throw rope, an ice screw, and a drybag in a backpack for floatation. In some situations PFDs would be wise. These items and the reasons to carry them are listed below.

Self-Rescue Ice Picks

Ice picks come in many varieties, and are an absolutely essential piece of equipment for anyone traveling onto wild ice. My ice picks were around $12 from amazon, and there is no excuse not to carry these with you. The ones I use have a coiled cord (like an old-fashioned telephone), and I either thread it through my sleeves or wrap it once around my neck and let the ends dangle.

Note that these particular ice picks do not float. This is fine with me, because I have them tied in a way that secures them to my body. The sharp spikes are recessed and while gripping the yellow portion (one in each hand) you claw them into the ice, exposing the picks underneath and allowing you to pull yourself out of the water onto the ice (see someone using the ice picks here).

There are many other options for ice picks. The most popular are the Zandstra Ice Claws. These float and you secure them high up by your neck. They’re said to be easy to access and use.

You can also make some DIY versions of these with dowels and screws. Because you can buy these so cheaply and they can be a dangerous item if they’re not properly secured/fitted, I don’t recommend going this route; but you can find an Instructable describing how to make them.

Throw Rope

The throw rope we use is currently unavailable, but there are tons of options ranging from $30 (Best Marine Water Rescue Throw Bag) to $65 (Mustang Survival Corp Throw Rope) and beyond. You want the bag (the part you toss) to float, and be durable material.

Throw rope pictured attached to ice screw

Longer isn’t better for this purpose, mine is 50 feet but really the shorter the better for being out with kids as you won’t be that far away from them. But 50 feet is a good multi-purpose use if you want to use it kayaking also.

50-foot rope extended completely

You could also bring a regular rope, and tie something bouyant to one end. Make sure you tie it well, and tie a loop at the throwing end also.

Backpack and Dry Bag

I carry a backpack that fits securely, and inside it I have a drybag with gear to use in case of an immersion (or a picnic, which is how we often use it). The drybag contains at the bottom a sheet of bubble wrap. This is to step on in case you get wet and need a slightly insulated place to dress. It weighs nothing and adds some buoyancy.

Next I have some layers. I don’t usually have a full set of layers for everyone, as I don’t pack for catastrophe usually. But I have socks and some baselayers and a set of knit wool mitts and a hat that would fit most of us.

On top of the layers I have a small microfiber camp towel and a down blanket. Down is probably not everyone’s choice here, but we use our down blanket nearly every time out on the ice anyways and it’s lightweight and easy to pack and would help add extra warmth inside the bivy (mentioned next). We also usually bring a waterproof blanket which makes sitting on the ice more comfortable.

A heat-reflective bivy is another cheap, lightweight, small thing that is a great addition to your pack, and is what we’d get someone inside ASAP if they got wet, after drying them and quickly putting on a new layer. A small ice scraper to clear patches of ice for checking (and for play) is also a good thing to bring.

I also have other things I carry year-round, which includes a knife (good to carry in case zippers freeze and you need to cut off clothing), first-aid kit, snacks and water, etc.

Ice Screws

Ice screws are a rather expensive climbing tool, but they can be really useful on lakes. The first thing I love about ice screws is they’re really useful for quickly checking the ice thickness (and ice quality) without carrying around an ice auger.

Digging through the snow on a lake to check the ice

The other reason I recommend ice screws (and really how I justify the expense), is because I assume that if a child falls through somewhere I won’t be able to just throw them a rope and trust that they’ll grab it and pull themselves up (though with older kids it is what I would try first).

If a child falls through, panic is inevitable. So I would place an ice screw, secure the rope to it and to myself with a climbing-rated carabiner, and either slide on my stomach towards the child to help pull them out, or encourage them that help is there and to take the rope while I pull them out.

Playing rescue with the ice screw as an anchor which allows me to get closer to the child I’m helping; the 50 foot long rope is wrapped around my waist several times here.

An ice screw is a large purchase, but you can place them in seconds and this is a time where every second counts.

This is a very unlikely scenario. If you aren’t on ice often, or are only out on very thick ice, you can likely skip ice screws. For me, they’re a cool tool that also give me piece of mind because of how much time we spend out on the ice.

Sonic Tubes

We bring our LLBean sonic snow tubes with us on most trips out onto the ice. The potential safety benefit is not why we carry them, but they do float. I don’t think they’d provide much rescue benefit on thin ice but they do spread weight over a larger area and they’d be a safe way to slide my youngest away from thin ice if necessary.

We carry them to easily transport gear, and a tired child. They’re easy to pull across snow or ice. And my middle daughter feels safe when she has a sled close by, so it serves as a security item for her.


Some people will feel more comfortable wearing a Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) while out on the ice. It’s not an option I personally choose in most conditions because I’m mostly out with the kids and only explore ice that has a very low risk, but there are some situations where it may be a good idea.

We have a great list here of our favorite PFDs for kids.

If you’re ever going ice skating on questionable ice (or going long distances where the conditions may change) it’s always best practice to have a PFD, helmet, knee pads, and a full compliment of safety gear.

Safe Exploration Locations

If you can find places with very shallow water (more like an oversized puddle than a pond), they can allow you to safely explore ice of all depths and conditions, and get kids started on checking ice properties for themselves.

The kids exploring some fresh overflow on a frozen stream

We frequent this small pond and stream all year long, and explore the overflow, slush, thick ice, thin ice, rotten ice, and icebergs.

Exploring some slush and water

The car is parked lake-side and the water is shallow enough to stand in. You can experience every season and stage of ice here!

Last spring we were testing out iceburgs of rotten candled ice. They would support the kids but would not support me. Spring ice has been going through a cycle of thaws and freezes during the day and night when temperatures oscillate above and below freezing. If you want to learn more about lake ice properties and formation, this Lake Ice site is fantastic.

Rotten Candled ice also makes the most beautiful crystal sound and is wonderful to play with.

Candled ice, slushy surface and crystallized bottom that fractures easily in your hand

Bring a rake to grab icebergs and to chip away at them to expose the structure of the ice.

Exploring refrozen shattered ice in the fall.

Activities for the Ice

So, we’ve talked about all this ice safety, and it seems like a lot. Is it really worth it? You know my answer is going to be “of course”. There are experiences on the ice you just can’t have anywhere else.

Wild Ice Skating on Lakes

Ice Skating is probably the most popular activity people do on the ice. Safety gear specific to skating includes helmets and knee pads. Because you’re moving faster, be cautious about ice that you’re skating over and if you ever suddenly encounter thinner ice always turn around and come back the way you came where you know the ice is solid.

If you’re using figure skates, remember they have almost no insulation. If your kids run cold, it will be very hard to keep them warm while skating for any length of time unless they are very good skaters (and thus, moving). We also find them stiff and uncomfortable, so my kids have been wearing the Lake Placid Adjustable Skates. These work OK and they fit across a size range of four sizes so the value is excellent.

My son has become a really good skater and next year I’m hoping to get him into some better quality hockey skates, or find some nordic skate blades that are small enough. I was introduced to the world of nordic skating this year, and am a big fan. You use cross country skate ski boots and then clip on a long blade to them. The beauty of this is you can clip and unclip the blade, and still have boots to walk around on.

This functionality is helpful when you cross from skating on one creek to another, but is also great for being out with kids as there are various times that you’d love to not have skates on while helping one of them out but don’t want to have to switch out your skates for boots!

Ice Sweeping on Lakes

We almost always bring at the very least the ice scraper from the car to a lake. It’s helpful for clearing patches to check the ice, but is also great for fun. This won’t work once you’ve had many snowfalls and the snow is packed and “stuck” to the ice, but it’s tons of fun and will occupy my kids for hours.

Under the Ice Explorations

Exploring methane bubbles is something I could spend my whole life doing and never tire of. You find the most bubbles in lakes where there is more biotic activity. Dead organic matter (fish, animals, plants, etc.) fall to the lake floor and are decomposed by methane-producing bacteria.

This occurs year-round, but the bubbles get trapped in the ice in the winter. In summer, the ice will thaw and methane will be released into the atmosphere.

Looking for fish swimming underneath the ice (or frozen in the ice!), plant life, feathers… there is lots of nature that can be frozen in time in the ice. The Alaska Blackfish is one we spotted a lot this season frozen, trapped between layers of ice. This remarkable fish can often survive this freeze! It has a number of fascinating adaptations and is a wonderful creature to study.

Frozen Alaska Blackfish and Methane Bubbles

Exploring ice is an opportunity to learn about your local ecosystem while it’s frozen in time.

Lake-side Ice

Some lakes that have what we refer to as “ice curbs” for lack of a better term. These fascinating areas can allow you to explore thick ice sheets full of bubbles and plants even after snow has covered most of the lake. These happen after the ice has initially frozen solid. Cracks develop out on the ice. Then water flows into these cracks and freezes, expanding the ice sheet again and the ice heaves up onto the shore.

Of course make sure that kids don’t wedge themselves into or under any unstable ice, these thick “shelves” are incredibly heavy. Most of them are very stable and won’t move at all when I jump on them. But be aware of recent temperature changes and look for weak spots before engaging in play underneath them.

Every week, different areas are exposed, different hoar frost has formed creating always-unique snowflakes and patterns sticking delicately out from the ice. You discover new plants frozen in interesting shapes, feel different small holes underneath the ice cubs with ungloved hands.

So go ahead, get out there and get excited about winter and exploring some ice!

Ice Excitement!

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Wild Ice Play with Kids

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