Montreal

4 tips to avoid slips on icy sidewalks this winter

David Pearsall, associate professor in McGill's kinesiology and physical education department, shares his suggestions for how to stay upright on Montreal streets and explains why even your winter boots may not give you the grip you need.

Most winter boots not reliable on icy surfaces, according to lab tests

Montrealers have had to contend with many slippery sidewalks this winter. (Charles Contant/CBC)

With fluctuating temperatures and some slow snow clearing, Montrealers have had to contend with many slippery sidewalks this winter. Here are a few expert tips on how to (try to) avoid a bad fall. 

​1. Limber up

Most people don't think of walking to the bus stop as a physical activity that needs a warm up, but in icy conditions, you don't want to head out the door cold, according to David Pearsall, an associate professor at McGill's kinesiology and physical education department, who focuses on the biomechanics of human movement.

Even if you don't fall, you could pull muscles in your back and legs if you lose your balance and tense up suddenly.

Squats and lunges, Pearsall said, will engage the muscles that you need to stabilize yourself if you start to slip.

"We think of front to back, but the side to side, we're less able to adapt, because our knees and ankles don't want to do that. So even by doing some squats toward the sides, so you can anticipate those movements if it happens," he said.

David Pearsall, associate professor in McGill's kinesiology and physical education department, recommends using crampons that slip on over your boots to increase grip. (CBC)

2. Do the shuffle and tread lightly

Many people instinctively change their gait and slow down, but those who insist on maintaining a brisk pace may be setting themselves up for a fall.

Pearsall said heel-toe walkers should shorten their strides and try land their steps with a flat foot.

"The problem with the ice is the low coefficient of friction. So if you land on your heel, it's just going to slip right out from you," he said.

Another technique, he said, is the shuffle: pushing your feet along the ice instead of picking them up, to avoid being off balance.

3. Get a grip

Proper footwear is key when treading on icy sidewalks, but even if you have a pair of winter boots, it doesn't guarantee a good grip.

That's because many winter boots aren't designed to hold fast on ice on an inclined surface, such as a hill or even a curb ramp.

At the iDAPT lab in Toronto, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Pearsall has participated in research to measure how well certain kinds of footwear protect against slipping.

One method researchers have used is to have a person in a harness walk on an ice surface that is gradually tilted to become steeper.

Only 10 per cent of footwear the lab tested could even make it to a seven-degree incline, a slope that you might find on a curb ramp, according to the iDAPT lab's website.

The lab gives common brands a score using a "three snowflake rating system," with three being the maximum grip on ice (above a 15-degree incline).

If your boot soles aren't cutting it, crampons that you slip on over your boots work very well on ice, said Pearsall.

But take them off before going inside, where they could damage flooring or even cause a fall if they can't grip into the surface, he said.

"The challenge is that you're moving from indoor, to outdoor, hard ceramics, so it's not a universal thing," said Pearsall.

Pearsall said some boots have a combined soft rubber sole with harder crystal-like fibres that dig into the ice, making them ideal for walking on different types of surfaces.

Proper footwear is key when treading on icy sidewalks, but even if you have a pair of winter boots, it doesn't guarantee a good grip. (CBC)

4. If all else fails, fall with grace

"It's sort of instinctive if you slip, the automatic response is that you extend your arms out backwards, or you extend your legs to try to stop it. But that just accelerates the response."

Pearsall said instead, if you can, you should try to bend your knees and crouch to absorb some of the shock. If you keep falling, do your best to protect your limbs.

"Fall backwards, or roll, keeping your arms tucked in, not fully out, so you don't have those common Colles' fractures of the wrist," he said, referring to fractures that usually happen when you fall onto an outstretched hand.

Unfortunately, reaction time is working against you, according to Pearsall.

"When you start to slip, it's a rapid event over say, 10-20 milliseconds. And the fastest the body can respond in terms of neuromuscular [response] is 80-100 milliseconds," he said.

One way to help your reaction time is to give yourself an artificial third foot: a cane or a walking stick.

Pearsall, who carries a hiking pole with him even on urban excursions, says it helps him feel which surfaces are safe and which ones are slippery: sort of like an early warning system that sends a signal to his brain if he may be about to fall.

"If you know the threat sooner, you can adapt sooner," he said.

About the Author

Ainslie MacLellan is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCAinslie.

With files from CBC's All in a Weekend

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