Everyone’s adventurous side should be begging them to ice skate a frozen alpine lake. But, everyone’s responsible side should be asking how to safely ice skate frozen lakes? There are plenty of ways to make sure your frozen lake ice skating is safe and enjoyable.
Know the area or talk to someone that does. If a lake rarely fully freezes, that is a red flag. Perform your own ice thickness tests. Bring gear that will allow you to recover from breaking through the ice. Finally, bring a buddy or spotter that can help if the ice gives way.
The dangers of ice skating frozen lakes
The thickness of the ice can be unpredictable. The gear you have makes swimming more difficult. The cold weather makes hypothermia a serious risk.
Ice skates drastically inhibit your ability to swim. According to researchers about 30% of swimming forces come from the legs. Even though most of the work is done by the upper body when swimming, ice skates drastically reduce your ability to swim. Not only do you lose 30% of your ability to swim, but ice skates will act as bricks strapped to your feet. When water logged, ice skates can prevent you from staying afloat.
Extra layer create more drag which inhibits swimming. Wearing layers that are bulk are encouraged to keep you warm and to let you adjust when you start working up a sweat. But, if you happen to go through the ice the layers work to your disadvantage. The loose clothing creates a lot more drag than what you are used to. There is a reason professional swimmers wear tight clothing and compression caps. The increased drag makes treading water a struggle.
Ice is difficult to self recover on. You will need to recover your self if you go through the ice. As seen in countless youtube videos, pulling yourself back up on the ice is extremely difficult. The ice is slippery with no place to grip or gain traction. The ice may also tend to keep breaking around you once there is a large hole already made.
Cold water shock causes immediate loss of breathing control. When falling into the cold water hyperventilation sets in and your body closes blood vessels in the skin. This will increase heart rate and makes breathing uncontrollable. These are all worst case factors when swimming. It is important to make sure you have the proper gear to prepare for these worst case situations.
How to find a lake to ice skate on
One of the thrilling parts of backcountry alpine ice skating comes from being secluded at 12,000ft ice skating a crystal clear lake looking over the world. With that said, it is recommended to start on more popular frozen lakes where other people are around.
Before you go looking for a secluded or popular lake you need to determine if you can skate it. Not every frozen lake can be ice skated. Some lakes are frozen and buried under a foot of snow. Other lakes do not freeze over smoothly and will give you a bumpy ride. With that said, even if it is a little bumpy or snowed over (an inch or so) it can still be skated. The only real way of determining the conditions is by asking a local or finding out for yourself.
To get into backcountry ice skating first start at more popular spots. Backcountry ice skating is not too popular so even locals might not know the best spots. Generally, popular ice fishing spots will also act as good ice skating locations. Look up ice fishing in the area you want to go skate and scope it out for yourself. In Colorado some popular ice skating spots right off of the road include Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County or Ridgway Reservoir in Ridgway State Park.
To find a backcountry alpine lake to ice skate use google maps! This is where you get to really find the dream ice skating spot. Look for higher altitudes or places that have consistently cool temperatures. Just beware of the added challenges. A backcountry alpine lake will almost inevitably require hiking. Even if you see a 4WD forest service road that goes up to the lake, chances are it is snowed out. For example, forest service road 198 goes by Rainbow Lake in the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range in Colorado. From google maps it looks easily accessible with 4WD. The reality is the road is unbroken and snowed in after the first mile. The snow on the road gets 6ft deep in some places and is sometimes used as a backcountry skiing route. Depending on the lake you pick avalanche danger may also exist. Even though there is a lot of dangers, frozen lake ice skating can still be done safely and responsibly. To find the best lake also requires trial and error. Just don’t give up!
Once at your desired lake, determine which parts are frozen and which parts are not. Ice is thinner near the shore and by running water. Once at the lake do your best to stay away from places where the lake fills or drains. Also try to stay away from the direct shore.
Another big debate is are reservoirs just as safe as lakes to ice skate? Reservoirs are safe to ice skate but require just a little more precaution. Water will not freeze if there is moving water and reservoirs always have two points where there is moving water. The area where the river fills the reservoir should be avoided as well as near the dam itself. Ice will be thinner by the river and the dam and there is a small risk of being sucked under into the dam depending on the how the reservoir is constructed. With that said, most of the backcountry places I ice skate are reservoirs (reservoirs always have roads to them too). There is a slightly heightened risk, but its usually negligible.
How to test ice thickness and safety for ice skating
The only true way to determine how safe the ice is is by drilling and testing. Ice should be about 8 inches thick to support a person to ice skate on. When I do not have to hike 12 miles I bring a DeWalt cordless drill with a 10 in long wood drill bit. Do not bring a super cheap drill that does not have the power to go through inches of thick ice. A wood drill bit is the best type of drill bit for drilling through ice. Also, make sure to test the ice thickness in multiple places.
The safe consensus is that if you see open water you should not ice skate that lake. While this is the safest conclusion, backcountry ice skating is a measure of risk versus reward. Some of the lakes will have fingers that freeze solid while the main part of the lake remains unfrozen. At this point use your judgement and ice depth testing techniques to make your own conclusion.
Safety gear needed to ice skate frozen lakes
If you only get one piece of equipment a life jacket or life vest should be it. All of the dangers listed above can be mitigated with a life jacket. Not having to worry about swimming while wearing skates, layers, and hyperventilating is a literal life saver. Just make sure to get an adjustable size one or a couple sizes larger than what you are. All of the layers turn you from a medium to a large really quick.
An ice axe can be a bit extreme, so anything that will grip the ice and allow you to self recover will do. I use a backpacking shovel that has two ends and doubles as an ice axe. It is a little heavy but extremely compact. If you do get an ice axe you need to make sure if fits your size. While standing hold your arms at your side. The ice axe should be the length from your wrist/palm to the floor.
Rope is super important for self recovery or assisted recovery. With an assisted recovery the other person can stay at a safe distance while assisting. Make sure the rope is rated to handle your weight plus your water logged clothes.
Tie Down or Clamps
If you do not have a buddy to pull you out with a rope then you need some tie downs or clamps for your rope. I use pressure clamps to attach my rope to a near by tree.
Make sure you have a good drill that is powerful enough to drill through 8+ inches of ice.
Long Wood Drill Bit
Wood drill bits are the best type of bit to penetrate thick ice.
Extra Clothes and Towel
Always make sure you have extra clothes and a towel. If you fall in hypothermia can set in quick and wet clothes are just a catalyst.
The second most important thing to bring next to a life jacket is a buddy. Some one who knows where you are and what you are doing is important. Some one who is on scene to help if anything goes wrong is invaluable.
Ice skating backcountry lakes can sound scary. If done by taking precaution it is safe and exciting. It is important to understand the risks associated with the activities you want to take. The real danger is ignorance. Now that you are educated on the required tools and strategies to go alpine ice skating go out and have fun! Your friends will be jealous, and you will for sure get some amazing picture for your next Instagram post.