Natural Ice Skating Safety
23rd May 2014

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Some Safety Tips for Skating on Natural Ice

Please use these as a guide only, YOUR SAFETY depends on YOUR ACTIONS, common sense is your best friend.

We strongly recommend NEVER SKATING ALONE, and having at least one prearranged method of pulling someone out of the water/ice. (I always take a towrope and have it handy on the ice)

After over 30 years of skating on Natural Ice in the South Island I still look forward each year to the Skating season and take every opportunity to head up to the mountains with my friends. Skating on Natural Ice is a very special experience and once bitten by the bug its there for a lifetime. I don’t know whether it’s the sound the ice makes when it cracks or just being out and about in the high country but I highly recommend it.

Before you leave!
Check the weather at the Met Service, go to the High Country reports, Southerly Fronts and strong Northwest conditions are to be avoided. Rain and snow make it unpleasant. Check for "Severe Weather Warnings"
Check the AA Roadwatch website for road conditions before you leave (

Getting there!

It pays to have a 4WD and/or chains in the vehicle that you use to get there, as access can be icy and snowy, however a front wheel drive car if that's all that's available will probably get you close enough. :-)
Access instructions are being added to our Ice Skating locations so you know how to get there.

The Obvious: Drive carefully!!!! Keep the speed Down and the following distances Big as Icy roads can be treacherous.

Once you are there!

Every time you go to the Ice, it will be different.
What was good today might be no good tomorrow or later the same day.
Conditions in the mountains can change very quickly.

Testing the Ice:

When you arrive at a lake/dam/pond, the best way to test the ice is to gently place “ONE” foot on the ice and put a little weight on it.

If the ice cracks and your foot gets wet…………’s too thin to skate on, if it doesn’t: break pick a shallow area, if you can find one and try 2 feet. Ice moves, so some cracks can be expected.

I would then move about on the Ice testing the area available, until you have an area big enough to skate on. Then find a shallow area and play: “the last straw broke the camels back
game, start with one person on the Ice and then two standing in the same spot and then find how many people it takes to put a major crack in the ice. This will give you an indication of how many people can stand in one place on the ice.

As you skate round you can increase the area you skate on, Ice is quiet vocal and will move and make lots of noise as it gets thinner, I usually figure out where is safe and then tell everyone with us to stay within that area.

Getting On the Ice

When you are looking at Ice try to find somewhere that is shallow and is in the shadow/shade (out of the Sun) all day, the ice will be stronger there closer to shore and should give you access.
Lake Idaburn
Idaburn 2010, Another method of getting on to the ice, a board or tree, Photo David Young
Areas to avoid are: the edges of Dams, places where the sides of the river/lake/dam get thinner and anywhere there is current running underneath the Ice. This is not only where the ice gets thinner, it’s where it is the most dangerous, because when you fall through you risk the chance of being carried under the ice by the current, which is not good.
I recommend watching the film Damien: Omen II as a reminder of what can happen.

Some Advice on Falling Through the Ice!!!!

Some advice on falling in: when you feel yourself going into the water spread your arms wide and grab the biggest block of ice you can, Ice floats so it will help keep you up. In the 30 plus years I have been skating I have only fallen in once and on that occasion I was able to pull myself out. It was a cold 1km skate back to the car and a dry set of clothes.

Of course most times you go in will only be up to you knees or ankles, embarrassing but not too serious.

If you should fall in and move under the ice the only way to break the ice from under it is to try kicking it with your skates, work really hard to never have to try this.

Recovering Someone Who has Fallen Through

It pays to establish two people responsible for recovering someone if they do fall through the ice. They will be the ones responsible for getting the method of recovering people you have decided to use, this can either be a car tow rope a long tree branch or something similar. That way if one person designated falls in the other person can retrieve them. Whatever everyone else does: don’t rush towards the person who has fallen through as this will lead to more people having a very cold swim.

Types of Ice.

Most Natural Ice will fall into one of the following categories; it can be one or more or made up of a mixture of all of them:

Black Ice
This is the best ice to skate on and the strongest ice for any given thickness.
Lake Red
2009 Black Ice Red Lakes East, Photo by Ron James
It appears as if there is nothing there and you are walking/skating on a sheet of glass, Black ice occurs when you get a series or single very heavy frost and the ice all freezes in one go. Good examples of this are after a thaw when the ice all melts and then the water refreezes. Or when you get hoar frosts in Central Otago the temperature doesn’t get above zero degrees for days at a time.

Snow Ice

Appearance: Ice covered with snow this can either be fresh snow or frozen snow (a milky white colour almost grey)
Lake Poolburn
June 2009 on Poolburn Dam Photo David Young
Be careful when you skate on ice with snow on it because it difficult to see what’s underneath.
Problems with snow ice include a crust forming on top which you can drop through when you are skating causing your skates to just stop, not good for your knees which are usually the next thing to hit the ice. It can also be just very soft slushy ice/snow.

This can also be good to skate on as long as the freeze is complete.

After rain, snow ice can go like orange peel or become very bumpy to skate on.

Refrozen Ice

Appearance: milky white with jigsaw like pieces.
Lake Clearwater & Camp
June 2009 Ron and Alan Knowles on Lake Clearwater, Photo Fred van Slooten
This is also characterised by clearer ice around the crack edges.
This can also so be good to skate on, or, the most dangerous to skate on. It is caused by the ice thawing and then braking into lots of pieces then refreezing. The ice can be fine if the refreeze is complete, but a partial refreeze is like standing on a pane of glass that has had cracks scratched in it, the pieces brake up along the crack lines. I have skated at Stavely Ice rink  which is only knee deep on ice like this, jumping from block to block, fun but you usually end up with wet feet.

Different Thicknesses of Ice

Thickness in ice is related to strength: the thicker the better, but Black ice is significantly stronger than the other sorts of ice, and some thick Snow and Refrozen Ice when its thawing can be very deceiving. When this ice breaks it usually breaks into small (dining table size and smaller) pieces.

A good way to measure the ice strength is: how many people you can get to stand in one spot before you get a big crack, it also pays to think about this when you are getting together to take group photos. So you get one person ice, two person ice, etc etc

Of course a battery drill with a big auger also does the job of measuring thickness. Just be aware that thickness of ice on its own is not an absolute measure of strength.

It's also possible to have thin areas of ice on a frozen lake caused by springs or thermal currents. Lake Lyndon and Little Lake Ida, both have springs in, which cause holes in the ice up to 3-4 meters across.
Lake Lyndon
July 2006, Ted and friend jumping the hole on the South West end of Lake Lyndon, where the Spring made a 2 metre hole in the 150mm ice, Photo Glen Cameron

When the Ice is frozen and the moon is out,
Ice Skating on the lakes is the only place to be!

Some of the events above may have no  association with the Aardwolfs Ice Hockey Club.
All graphics and written material (c) Aardwolfs Ice Hockey Club 2004