5 out of 6 winter boots fail slip test on ice, Marketplace finds

Marketplace looked at popular brands for sale in Canada — Merrell, Sorel, Kamik, Ugg, Timberland and WindRiver — to see how some of these companies’ winter boots would fare on a wet, icy surface. 

Biomedical engineers tested Merrell, Sorel, Kamik, Ugg, Timberland and WindRiver boots

Scientist Sophia Yue Li watches as CBC Marketplace reporter David Common tests winter boots on an icy surface. (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

Winter boots equipped with fibre-embedded soles may be the answer to fewer slips and falls on ice this winter, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found. 

Marketplace looked at popular brands for sale in Canada — Merrell, Sorel, Kamik, Ugg, Timberland and WindRiver — to see how some of these companies' winter boots would fare on a wet, icy surface. 

The investigation of the boots selected by Marketplace found that the WindRiver Backwoods Waterproof Hyper Dri 3 hiking boots, which include embedded fibres in the sole for extra traction, had the best grip on a wet, icy surface compared to the boots with outsoles made of different materials. WindRiver is a brand owned by Mark's (formerly Mark's Work Wearhouse).

Marketplace went to the KITE Research Institute in Toronto, which is part of the University Health Network's Rehabilitation Institute, where biomedical engineers conducted a footwear slip test assessing the Maximum Achievable Angle (MAA) for each pair of boots. An MAA is the highest degree of elevation at which a boot is able to be worn before slipping on the ice.

Marketplace chose boot models that were warm and good for walking, and based on recommendations from customer service staff from each company. 

Marketplace took several pairs of men's winter boots to be tested by the KITE Research Institute in Toronto. (CBC)

Test included floor angle up to 15 degrees

While wearing each of the boots, CBC host David Common walked up and down an ice-covered floor in a chamber where hydraulics changed the angle from zero to 15 degrees of elevation. To ensure maximum safety, Common was strapped into a harness attached to the ceiling of the climate-controlled room. Guidewires were at his sides and a mattress was mounted on the downhill slope to cushion any slips.

The angle of the floor was incrementally increased until the boot treads lost traction on the ice.

In general, accessibility ramps and curb ramps shouldn't exceed a slope of about seven degrees in Ontario.

"If a pair of footwear does not enable you to walk on that gentle slope both ways then it's not safe footwear [for walking on ice]," said Sophia Yue Li, lead for the project, and staff scientist and manager of strategic projects and partnerships at the KITE Research Institute.

WATCH | Marketplace's full investigation:

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), there were 67,418 hospital emergency department visits in Canada due to unintentional falls on ice in 2019.

While wearing the WindRiver boots, Common was able to walk uphill at an angle of 15 degrees without slipping. While walking downhill, he was able to reach an angle of 14 degrees without slipping on the wet, icy surface. 

Li said the key difference is in how the soles are made. The tread of the WindRiver boot had features the other models did not. According to Mark's, which is owned by Canadian Tire, the sole has "abrasive materials mixed with the soft rubber compound to provide traction on wet ice."

The WindRiver Backwoods Waterproof Hyper Dri 3 hiking boot is made with a sole that has ‘abrasive materials mixed with the soft rubber compound to provide traction on wet ice,’ according to Mark's. (John Lesavage/CBC)

According to Li, these microfibres "grab on the ice and that enables you to walk up all the way to 15 degrees and 14 degrees."

On its website, Mark's says these boots are "engineered to help prevent slips and falls," and the company has conducted its own testing in Li's lab to determine what works. 

Lab tests hundreds of winter boots and posts results online

Li is the brains behind the Rate My Treads website, and her lab tests hundreds of winter boots. For that protocol, every set of boots is tested with four different participants, who walk inside the chamber on both wet and cold, dry ice. The lab looks at the results of all four rounds of testing and gives an overall rating based on the lowest score achieved for a particular boot. 

The lab awards a "one snowflake" rating to boots that make it up at least seven degrees of elevation on both wet and dry ice. If boots don't make it to that angle, they fail the test. 

For the Marketplace test, Common tested the boots on ice with a slick layer of water on top, which is considered more dangerous for slips and falls than colder, dry ice, according to Li. 

The WindRiver boots were the best in the Marketplace test. However, Li said there's still room for improvement in the overall boot market as about 90 per cent of winter boots available for sale in Canada won't pass the slip-resistance test. 

"The challenge here is, by just simply looking at the tread, you have no idea whether it's good on ice or not," she said. 

Marketplace tested how these winter boots would fare on a wet, icy surface. The boot brands from left to right are: Merrell, Timberland, Sorel, Ugg, Kamik and WindRiver. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Varied results for other brands

Marketplace also tested Merrell's Thermo Kiruna Mid Shell Waterproof boot, which, according to the company's website, has an outsole that provides "durable traction that grips when and where you need it." While wearing these boots, Common was able to walk at an angle of three degrees without slipping. 

In an email statement, Merrell said the Thermo Kiruna Mid Shell Waterproof boot is a "fantastic" boot, but that the company offers other models for customers specifically looking for traction on wet ice conditions, with soles specifically engineered to perform on wet ice. 

Li stands in front of the exterior of the lab that moves on hydraulic lifts to test boots on an icy surface at different angles. (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

The Ugg Butte boot had a similar outcome in the Marketplace test, where Common was able to walk up the wet icy slope at three degrees, but on the downhill he only made it to two degrees before slipping.

According to its website, that product is "crafted to handle the harshest winter elements." In a statement, the company said while the boot is a customer favourite, it would never recommend walking on an icy surface while wearing the Butte boot. 

"They're available in the Canadian marketplace, then I would expect them to live up to Canada's 'harshest winter elements,'" said Ela Veresiu, an associate professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business. 

"Any boot that is meant to be used in the winter in Canada … where winter can start early, can go late and can be extremely icy, you would expect [those boots] to keep you warm, keep you dry and make sure that you don't slip and fall." 

Sorel's pull-on Buxton boot was also put to the test. The boot has an "injection-moulded, waterproof thermal-rubber shell," according to its website. Common made it to an angle of one degree for both the uphill and downhill slopes. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Ela Veresiu is an associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto (Submitted)

While wearing Timberland's Chillberg Mid Sport Waterproof boot, Common was able to walk on a flat surface, but once the floor was tilted to one degree of elevation, he was not able to walk without slipping. On its website, Timberland claims the boot's outsole "offers durability and traction on any surface." 

Timberland said that it tests its boots using international standards and that the Chillberg boot performed above average for traction compared to its competitors in the hiking category, but that wet ice is an extreme condition that requires specialized outsoles. 

Kamik Griffon 2 fails on flat ice 

Finally, Common tested Kamik's Griffon 2 winter boot, which is marketed as having a "synthetic rubber outsole with multi-directional lug design to offer better traction." Common could not walk on a flat surface without slipping. In a statement, the company said that this particular boot is no longer in production and that the Canadian company is proud to offer boots for every type of weather condition.

While the WindRiver boot offered the best traction, Li said the other brands offer similar treads, just not on the boots Marketplace tested. 

When out shopping for winter boots with better traction, Li said to look for ones with embedded fibres that "act as tiny spikes that can bite into the ice." 

She recommended soles made with ICEFX, Green Diamond technology or Vibram Arctic Grip. Several of the boot companies in the Marketplace test sell other boot models with this technology in the soles. 

"We do see more and more, this different, special material being developed and researched," said Li. "Our hope is we will see more of those types of footwear on the market." 

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