Winter Safety

Be safe while adventuring during in winter activities, and learn everything you need before leaving.

In wintertime, many of Canada’s millions of lakes and ponds call many adventurers to come out and play. Frozen bodies of water offer great opportunities for sports such as ice fishing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, skating and snowmobiling. Because no ice surface is without some risk, ensure you become ice aware and take all necessary precautions before you venture out. If not, you could literally find yourself on thin ice!

The recommended minimum depth for activities on new, clear, hard ice is:


7 cm (3 in) or less

10 cm (4 in)

12 cm (5 in)

20-30cm (8-12 in)

30-38cm (12-15 in)



Ice fishing, walking, cross country skiing

One snowmobile or ATV

One car or small pickup

One medium truck (pickup or van)

If you break though:

  • Do not panic. Your clothing will trap air and keep you buoyant.
  • Turn towards the direction you came from and place your hands and arms flat on the unbroken surface.
  • Kick your feet and try to push yourself up on top of the unbroken ice on your stomach, like a seal.
  • Once you are lying on the ice, don’t stand up. Roll away from the break until you are on solid ice.

If your buddy breaks through:

  • Stay calm and think out a solution.
  • Don’t run up to the hole. You might break through and then you’ll both need help.
  • Use an item to throw or extend to your friend to pull them out of the water – if you don’t have a rope, improvise with items such as jumper cables, skis, etc.
  • If you can’t rescue your buddy immediately, call 911 on a cell phone.


    The best way to prevent hypothermia and hyperthermia is to avoid it. Know the signs and symptoms and take immediate action before it becomes a medical emergency.



    Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. If the body’s core temperature drops too low, it will become a life threatening situation.

    Hypothermia is easy to avoid: hydrate, keep dry, snack and avoid excessive heat loss.



    Hyperthermia is the term we use for illnesses related to too much heat. Our body perspires to cool our rising core temperature as we paddle.

    In the event of hyperthermia, take a break, find shade, hydrate or go for a swim.


    1-10-1 Principle—Cold Water Immersion

    1-10-1 relates to the three phases of cold water immersion and the approximate time each phase takes.

    • 1 minute—cold shock: An initial deep sudden gasp followed by hyperventilation that is 6 to 10 times more rapid than normal breathing. You have one minute to get your breathing under control.
    • 10 minutes—cold incapacitation: Gradual loss of effective use of your fingers, arms, and legs. If not wearing a lifejacket, drowning is likely because of swim failure.
    • 1 hour—hypothermia: Even in ice water it could take 1 hour before becoming unconscious due to hypothermia. In order to lose consciousness the body core temperature has to go below 30 degrees; this time can vary depending on the temperature of the water.

    The longer one spends immersed in cold water, the less the chance of survival. Self-rescue skills and the ability to alert SAR usually dictates whether the outcome is a rescue or a recovery.

    Practice self rescue methods to reduce the use of SAR and lower the risk of distress during water incidents.

    Tree Wells

    What is a tree well?

    A tree well is the void or area of loose snow around the trunk of a tree enveloped in deep snow. These voids present a danger to hikers, snowshoers, skiers, and snowboarders who fall into them.

    A tree’s branches shelter its trunk from snowfall, allowing a void or area of loose snow to form. Low-hanging branches such as on fir trees contribute to the forming of a tree well, as they efficiently shelter the area surrounding the trunk. They can also occur near rocks and along streams.

    Tree wells may be encountered in the backcountry and on ungroomed trails. The risk of encountering one is greatest during and immediately following a heavy snowstorm.


    How can I protect myself from tree wells?

    • To protect yourself from tree wells, steer clear of areas near tree trunks, close to low hanging branches.
    • You decrease your chance of harm if you ski or board with a buddy: they can help get you out, or get help if needed.

    How do I get myself out of a tree well?

    • Stay calm; don’t panic.
    • Keep breathing.
    • Turn around slowly so you are facing upwards.
    • Grab hold of the tree trunk or branches and begin pulling yourself up.


    What is a cornice?

    A cornice is formed when wind blows snow over sharp terrain breaks, such as on the top of a mountain, ridge or along the side of gullies, creating an overhanging shelf of snow.

    Although these overhangs look solid enough to stand on, they can be fragile. There are many potential dangers related to cornices:

    • Due to the structure of a cornice, it is very difficult to see its edge from the ridge, making it challenging to know where to stop when travelling on a cornice.
    • Cornices often break off further back from the edge than expected, making it risky to venture further towards its apparent edge.
    • They can collapse suddenly, putting people travelling above and below at risk of serious injury.
    • Cornice collapses can cause avalanches.

    How can I protect myself from cornice collapses?

    • Leave a generous distance between you and the edge of the cornice when walking along ridges.
    • Look up to make sure that you are not about to walk under a cornice that might collapse.
    • Avoid travelling on or near overhanging cornices.
    • Limit the amount of time you spend travelling under a cornice, especially during periods of warming temperatures, low visibility and active weather.
    • Know your route and ensure that you are avoiding hazards like cornices and are taking extra caution when travelling on ridges.
    • Look into weather conditions before leaving, as heavy snowpacks, previous or occurring storms, gusting wind, limited visibility and warming temperatures can all increase the risk of a cornice collapse.


    Every winter, more people head out to play in Canada’s beautiful, mountainous backcountry. Frequently, they end up recreating in avalanche terrain, sometimes without even knowing it. We commonly associate avalanche activity with the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, but fatal avalanche accidents have occurred in every province and territory in Canada, except for Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and PEI. 

    Avalanches are possible anywhere enough snow has accumulated—at least 30 cm—on a slope steep enough to slide, which is about 30°. You don’t need to be deep in the mountains to be at risk of an avalanche; even open slopes along creek banks can be dangerous. 

    If you’re heading into the backcountry during the winter, you need to be aware of where there may be the potential for avalanches, and how to respond in the event of an avalanche incident. Are you avalanche aware?

    Trip Planning

    The first step is to check the avalanche forecast at Use the forecast to decide what terrain is safe to enter that day (or if it’s even safe to go out). Many popular backcountry recreation areas have been rated using the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale. The Online Trip Planner is a great tool to decide where to go based on your risk tolerance. If there is no avalanche forecast for your region, use The Dangerator to estimate the local danger level. Always have a Plan B if conditions aren’t what you expect!

    Leave a trip plan with a friend of family member with details such as your itinerary, information for each group member, a description of your snowmobile (if necessary), and all other important information listed on the Trip Planning page. If you’re going somewhere without cellphone reception, bring a satellite communication device like a Spot, Zoleo or InReach so you can call for help in an emergency.


    Essential winter travel skills for outdoor enthusiasts include the abilities to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain, recognize dangerous avalanche conditions, and effectively rescue a group member buried by an avalanche.

    Begin your avalanche education by visiting the Avalanche Canada website at The Start Here page is an excellent introduction to avalanche basics. Follow that up by going through their online tutorial, Avy Savvy. This six-chapter tutorial features hundreds of photos, videos, and interactive exercises that is great preparation for a field-based course. 

    If you plan on spending any time recreating in avalanche terrain, you should check out the Avalanche Canada Training program, the national standard for recreational avalanche training. These courses will teach you how to identify avalanche terrain, understand the avalanche forecast, plan your trips, and rescue a friend in case something goes wrong. Look for an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Provider in your area to find someone to take the course with. 

    Want your kids to learn the basics of avalanche safety? Avalanche Canada’s Youth Outreach program provides education for students from kindergarten to grade 12. It also offers resources for educators looking to provide avalanche education to students. 

    AdventureSmart offers avalanche safety programs through the Snow Safety Education Program, the Survive Outside Snowmobile Program and the Survive Outside Program. Snow Safety Education is designed for school children in grades 4-6, and teaches the essentials of winter outdoor safety – in bounds and in the backcountry. Survive Outside Snowmobile is designed for children in grades 9-12 and adults, and teaches winter safety, and avalanche awareness, with a snowmobiling focus. Survive Outside is designed for children in grades 6-12 and adults, focusing on the 3 Ts: trip planning, training and taking the essentials with additional avalanche awareness components when requested.

    Keep an eye on the snow and weather conditions and if they’re different than expected, switch to your Plan B or go home. Keep an eye out for avalanche terrain and either avoid it or do your best to limit your exposure.

    If you see small avalanches on small slopes, chances are the same conditions exist on larger slopes. If it’s snowing heavily, warming up rapidly, or the wind is howling, these are indications the avalanche danger is increasing and you should be extra cautious. You don’t have to head home; instead, simply head to a safer area. Sound judgment and knowing when to save it for another day are key survival skills.

    Taking the Essential

    Once you’ve made a plan, make sure your take the essentials, this includes making sure your avalanche gear is packed and ready to go. Check the weather forecast and make sure you have the right clothing for your day out. Remember to carry extra in case it’s colder than expected, you get wet, or you get stuck. 

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