One of the most significant issues we struggle with in colder climates during the winter is all the ice we have to walk on. Knowing how to walk on ice is actually a bit of a learned skill.
The cold doesn’t always bother us, because you can layer-up with your best thermal underwear, fleeces, and a nice outer shell. But even if you are keeping yourself warm, you can’t always escape the ice!
Whether we’re talking about hiking along trails, trekking across a frozen lake pulling your ice fishing shelter, or on neighborhood sidewalks and stairs, walking on slippery frozen surfaces can lead to sudden falls that can cause serious injuries. The joy and magic of snow and winter is unfortunately replaced by the dread or treacherous ice that barely allows us to remain on our feet. Although it’s a bit challenging, there are a set of rules that, if properly followed, will ensure the battle against slipping is an easier fight to win. Take it from someone who has lived in the winter zone for several decades.
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast who loves hiking and trekking during the winter or you simply want to enjoy injury-free walks during the cold season, the following tips will help you stay safe when walking on ice.
Wear the Right Shoes or Boots
If you’re planning to go for a hike or simply try to be active on potentially icy surfaces, you need to buy outdoor boots that are specially made for traversing hardpack snow and ice. These offer a solid grip and hit all the marks you are looking for to keep your footing safe. They should be waterproof, comfortable, have beefy treads (larger treads provide better grip), and an ample insulation (flawlessly retain heat). You can also opt for boots with steel studs for improved safety.
Even if you’re not going out on a trek through the winter wonderland, there are still a lot of shoes especially created to be worn on ‘urban ice.’ These are slip resistant and have many of the features of hiking footwear. In addition, there are plenty of styles and colors to choose from for the fashion-conscious. For longer walks, go for boots with a low shaft. Shoes with built-in small crampons are amazingly stable on frozen ground as well.
One product we like is the Merrill Tremblant Ice Boot. It is a good winter boot with Vibram’s original Arctic Grip outsole. The sole is designed for walking on ice and slippery conditions, and because it is a rubber surface and not a metal crampon, it won’t chew up an indoor floor or sidewalk the same way that strap-on crampons will. The only downer is that they are not entirely waterproof and are a lighter boot, so you if you need something for, say, a fishing boat in Alaska or spending a day on trails with the temps below zero, they might not be perfect. For less-demanding use though, they are great. You can find them on Amazon.
You can also get crampons that simply strap on to your shoes temporarily, providing excellent traction. In fact, if you live in the north, owning a pair of crampons is really a smart thing even if you only use them a few days per year. Heck, when it is an icy period in the north, we wear crampons just to take out the trash! They work.
Crampons are rubber, just stretch over the sole of your shoe or boot, and provide some amazing traction. You just need to be careful not to forget you have them on and then wear them indoors — they would definitely mark up a hardwood. Our favorite is the Yaktrax Pro (here on Amazon). They slip on easily, and are not so aggressive that they will feel weird on a sidewalk or concrete surface. You can find many crampons on the market that are ultra-aggressive and really meant for ice climbing. That is not what we are going for here. The crampons we like are more all-purpose. You need something that you can go on a long walk or hike with that won’t make your legs feel awful.
If your work requires you to wear elegant shoes, the best thing to do is put them on only once you arrive at the office. While you’re outside, stick to footwear that’s designed to be worn for such conditions. Safety first!
Take Small Steps
This suggestion may sound funny, but it will help you avoid slipping. Walk with small steps and keep your feet under your body, with your knees slightly bent. Walk with focus, but stay relaxed. If you’re very tense, you might not have the ability to intuitively react if you do start to fall. When you have to go up or down slippery steps, place each foot parallel on the stair and hang on to the railing. Don’t rush and be very careful.
There is an old adage that wide receiver coaches give to their players, to help them from slipping on turf: “Hips over knees, knees over ankles.” The point is that once you have extended a leg too far forward or behind, your weight is no longer centered safely. We think the same adage can be applied to walking on ice.
Leaning your gait slightly forward can help you keep your center of gravity and balance on ice. It is much more common to have your “legs kick out from under you” in a forward manner rather than behind you. This means that making sure you have a slight forward lean, with your knees bent, can help you be more centered than otherwise.
Additionally, leaning forward will help ensure that if you in fact fall, you will fall forward rather than backward. Falling forward allows to you brace and catch yourself with your hands and arms. A backward fall often has little to break the motion, and poses a greater risk of a back injury or a hit to the head.
Beware of the Outside Temperature
Before going out, check the outside temperature. Keep in mind that if the temp is just below freezing, it is often more dangerous than when it’s very cold. The risk of ice formation is enhanced, thus you have to walk with a lot of caution. It can also be deceiving because you will cross a sizeable stretch of terrain that is ice free, and then you suddenly hit a shady spot that is full of it.
If it’s very cold outside, there will still be ice, so you should be extremely careful and definitely apply the tips we talked about. However, most old-timers will tell you that the colder it gets, the more traction they seem to have on ice. This perhaps can be explained by the suggestion that what you slip on is actually not ice, but a very thin layer of water on top of the ice. That water is made slippery by a combination of friction and pressure. But the colder the ice, the colder the water, and the more friction and pressure that is needed to create slippery conditions.
What Should You Do If You Can’t Avoid Falling?
For people who hike or work in the cold outdoors, or who practice winter sports (such as skiing and skating), they know slipping at some point is inevitable. That’s why experienced cold outdoors enthusiasts know that they can prevent injuries by adopting a ‘correct falling position.’
The first thing to keep in mind when you’re walking on ice is maintaining balance. Never keep your hands in your pockets; instead, use them to keep your body stable and balanced. Use the tips described above. If you realize that you can’t avoid slipping, the ideal fall would be on to the lateral side of your body (to avoid damaging a shoulder). The next best is to brace your fall with your hands and arms.
Keep in mind that you don’t want all your weight on fall onto a single hand — you could hurt the hand, wrist, arm, or shoulder. Rather, you can to use your arms — both, ideally — to help you balance, and break the fall, which is very different than having a hand absorb the entire fall. It definitely helps to be wearing some good winter gloves if this happens.
Falling forward is generally preferable to falling backward. With a forward fall, you at least have a little control over how you may fall — your arms and your knee bend can alter your ultimate impact. When falling backward, you often are at the mercy of gravity and the moment.
Whether you live in a colder climate or you just love to go hiking on snow or ice fishing on frozen lakes, you’re not going to be able to avoid ice altogether. Therefore, the ice-friendly tips we discussed above will help you get across slick and unforgiving frozen surfaces safely and enjoy the beautiful, white scenery for all its worth.