walking on ice steps

One of the most significant issues we struggle with in colder climates during the winter is all the ice we have to walk across.

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 frozen lakes or on neighborhood sidewalks and stairs, walking on slippery frozen surfaces can lead to sudden falls that often 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 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

ice walking cramponIf 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 specially 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, so you if you need something for, say, a fishing boat in Alaska, they might not be perfect

You can also get crampons that simply strap on to your shoes temporarily, providing excellent traction.  These are rubber and just stretch over the sole of your shoe or boot, and they really 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 or other floor.  Our favorite is the Yaktrax Pro.  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.

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,

walking on ice steps
Small steps will help your balance

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 (in football) give to their players, to help them from slipping on turf.  They say “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.

Lean Forward

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.

falling on ice
Try not to fall backward!

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. Take small steps and keep your knees slightly bent, leaning forward so that your fall will not be directly back. When 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.

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.

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