How to Walk Through Snow and Ice: Safety Tips
As a pedestrian commuter in Seattle, I've had the pleasure of commuting every day in wintry conditions, whether I wanted to or not. Most people associate Seattle with rain, but in the winter Seattle also gets a fair share of ice and snow storms, some of which cover the city in a sheet of ice for weeks at a time. This is still a new phenomenon for locals. Climate change has caused these conditions to become an annual occurrence—rather than the "once every 20 years" anomaly it once was.
As an office temp with no vacation time, and as a person who is very susceptible to cabin fever on days off, I don't get to stay home when it gets icy. I brave these conditions frequently enough to get to know them well. I have learned not only how to navigate them safely, but also how to enjoy my commutes and walks through an icy, winter wonderland.
Prepare for your trip. Dressing for the cold weather is essential, but it does not require a nuclear suit's worth of layers. A warm overcoat over a thick top like a sweater, thick-fabric pants over one or two pairs of thick socks, strong shoes, gloves, and a warm hat are usually enough protection from the elements. As you start walking, your circulation warms you up.
Avoid handbags and purses. I suggest carrying your belongings and a change of clothes in a backpack. You need to keep your hands and arms free for reasons I'll get into later in this piece. Plus, in the heaven-forbid event you slip and fall backwards, the bag can break your fall (rather than the back of your skull).
Make sure you wear shoes with textured soles. Flat-soled shoes slip on thin snow and ice. You will still have slipping issues with textured soles, but not as many, as the grooves will help you keep traction on slippery surfaces. You can also get YakTrax, or a similar product, to place on your shoes and assist with traction. If you walk or take the bus in any place where it snows and ices over, I would suggest getting a pair of these for use with your shoes.
Allow extra time. Walking in snowy conditions is invigorating, but don't expect to walk at your normal speed. At best, the layer of snow will make taking steps more difficult. More than likely, you're going to encounter ice patches that are easy to slip on. If you are walking to get somewhere on a schedule, I would suggest allocating extra time to get there. How much you need will depend on where you're going.
Some tips for a safe and otherwise pleasant walk through snow and ice conditions:
- Along sidewalks, look for darkened or shiny patches and avoid them. These are ice patches and the most likely spot for walkers to slip.
- Try to stay on snow, where you can maintain easy traction. If you need to walk off sidewalks and pathways, along grass or even the fringe of a roadway to avoid icy patches, do so.
- Walk with short and relatively quick steps along thin, hard snow or ice. Slips happen when you firmly plant your foot on slippery surfaces. Shorter, quicker steps reduces the leverage that enables slips.
- Keep your weight leaning slightly forward: You would much rather fall forward than backward.
- Keep your arms out so that, in case you do fall, you can save you face and head from an unpleasant landing.
- Watch the ground and, akin to a chess player, try to think a few steps ahead. Look ahead for icy patches and try to plan your next steps so you avoid encountering them or minimize the steps you need to take through them.
From there, it's a matter of playing it by ear, staying physically balanced, and being careful. It's not easy, but it takes experience to comfortably find the nuances of the right approach for you. It will help your fitness: Walking through snow and ice gives you a more full-body workout than normal walking simply because of the whole-body balance required to maintain your balance and avoid slipping in icy conditions.
It's also more dangerous. Obviously, if it's at all possible to avoid going out when the streets are icy, please stay in. But for those of us who have classes to go to, appointments to keep, errands to run, work to do, and no vacation or sick time with which to opt out... we need to learn how to safely navigate the sidewalks in snow and ice. Even if you can drive or take the bus, the conditions could shut down roadways and force you to hoof it to get around. It's best to get your snow gear on, get out there, and get used to navigating the adverse conditions. If you ever end up in this position, best of luck.
You're not alone, and you can do it. Happy trails, snowwalker.