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Safe Winter Walking in Canada

Safe Winter Walking in Canada - For newcomers and long-time residents


  • Marguerite Oberle Thomas, RN., BSc, Consultant Liaison for the Loop Fall Prevention Community of Practice. Marguerite has worked in injury prevention since 1996. She is a senior, living in rural southwestern Ontario, who enjoys writing, presenting, gardening, walking, and sharing resources.
  • Cynthia Menzies, B.Ed., MHS, Injury Prevention Specialist, Manitoba Population & Public Health. Cynthia loves being outside in nature and walks and runs year-round wearing well-fitted shoes with excellent treads. Safe footwear allows for more adventure, especially when out on Winnipeg’s frozen river trails.

Winter in Canada can be a time of great fun and enjoyment, or it can be a time when people may be tempted to just isolate themselves at home. We always have opportunities and challenges, and the coldness of winter gives us both – the joy of an invigorating walk on a crisp and sunny day and the desire to stay indoors when it is dreary and frigid cold.

To help long time and newly arrived people to Canada to enjoy winter more, consider the following before, during and after the walk practical safety tips in order to avoid slips, trips and falls during the winter months.

Before the walk

  • Consult with your healthcare provider about your medical status and medications that may cause side effects, especially dizziness
  • Have your eyes checked regularly to ensure that you can spot any hazards in your environment
  • Tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back
  • Take your cell phone or wearable technology with you
  • Be aware of forecasts for extreme weather and icy conditions
  • Dress in layers so you are prepared for changing winter weather
  • Remember that your legs can get cold too, so wear leggings, long underwear or lined pants and a longer coat
  • Wear a hat, along with a hood, scarf, and gloves inside mitts to help stay warm
  • Wear bright clothes during the day and reflective clothes after dark Because the winter days are shorter, wear clothing with reflective strips, a reflective vest, or add ankle and wrist reflector bands to your outdoor gear
  • Choose well-insulated and well-fitting footwear with a non-slip tread sole. Check out Rate My Treads for the best information on non-slip boots. 

During the walk

  • Concentrate on walking, not distractions such as chatting or the scenery
  • Give time to let your eyes adjust when going from indoors to outdoors and vice versa
  • Be aware of your surroundings, always scan for hazards, such as hard to see black ice, clumps of leaves, snow drifts and uneven or changing surfaces
  • Move slowly around ice and other hazards, keep knees loose, shorten your strides, and shuffle your feet
  • Keep your hands out of your pockets to stay balanced
  • Take extra care when stepping from the last step of a set of stairs – many slips and falls happen there
  • Use handrails whenever possible for extra support 

While navigating slippery streets and pathways

  • Choose well-cleared paths where snow has been removed or find a path around the snow or ice when you can. Avoid shortcuts that have not been cleared
  • Avoid hills and areas known for ice build-up if you can. Keep an eye on vehicles when using crosswalks – drivers may have trouble stopping if the area is icy
  • For warmth and stability, wear lightweight winter boots that are well-insulated and waterproof, with a non-slip, tread and with wide, low heels. Check out Rate My Treads for the best information on non-slip boots.
  • Consider using a trekking pole (similar to a ski pole) with a sharp tip that digs into the ice. Or ask for help you move over an icy surface
  • If you have items to carry, use a backpack. That will keep your hands free in case of a fall.
  • To avoid a painful slip and fall, do not rush. Take small steps, keep your head up, not leaning forward. Point your toes out slightly to make yourself more stable on icy paths and walk slowly

After the walk

  • Remember: wet footwear can lead to slips on smooth indoor flooring, so be sure to wipe down your feet, especially the sole of your shoes or boots
  • Assess how you feel. If you are sore and achy, switch to shorter walks and gradually increase walking time and distance
  • Drink water often as dehydration can increase your risk of falling

Walking in winter can be enjoyable when you are prepared. Remember to ask for support if needed and take the time to plan a safe route before your walk. So, get out there, be safe, and have fun. For further information contact mthomas@parachute.ca

Helpful suggestions for and from newcomers to Canada

  • Enjoy the novelty of the snow and play safely and wisely in it because it is genuine fun
  • Keep your walkways clear of ice and snow buildup, pacing yourself when shoveling
  • Use salt, sand, or kitty litter as appropriate to give better traction as needed on the sidewalk near your home entrance
  • Choose appropriate winter gear for changing conditions. Look at what others are wearing in terms of coats, hats, scarves, and gloves/mitts
  • Cover exposed areas such as your face, ears, and hands when the weather is cold
  • Wear mittens or mittens over gloves to help keep your fingers warm
  • Dress in layers that you can remove if you get too warm
  • Check out Rate My Treads for the best information on non-slip boots
  • Avoid fashion boots with high heels
  • Seek shelter from the wind if you feel yourself getting chilled
  • Drink warm non-alcoholic liquids to keep yourself hydrated
  • Respect weather warnings especially for severe cold and icy conditions. Falling, frostbite and freezing are all potential dangers

Using gait aids for added independence during the winter months

As we grow older, many body functions change slowly with time; our sight, hearing, muscles, and nervous system can all decline, and these can contribute to mobility issues. Changes in our gait include walking slower, and reduced or stiff movement in our hips, knees, and ankles, which means we take slower steps. We become more unsteady. Osteoarthritis of the hip and knee affects about 45 per cent of Canadians over age 60. A restriction in physical activity has the adverse consequence of leading to muscle weakness, reduced endurance, and balance problems.

 According to Dr. Susan Hunter, Researcher from  Western University, London Ontario, a gait aid can compensate by providing extra support, which gives us the independence to continue to be engaged with activities within our community, especially during the winter months. Before choosing a mobility device:

  • Insist upon adequate and correct training for using your mobility device
  • Ensure that you have your wearable tracking technology with you, including a cell phone
  • Ensure that your mobility device is maintained, in good condition and the perfect fit for you
  • Be cautious of multi-tasking as you will need full concentration to navigate the snow with an assistive device

Moving safely in the winter with assistive devices

Winter conditions can also prevent effective use of assistive devices such as canes and walkers, which are more likely to slip on ice and snow. People with disabilities and other accessibility challenges, cyclists and those pushing strollers may need to pay extra attention when moving outside during the winter months. Consider the following tips:

  • If you are a transit user, dress warmly for waiting at outdoor stops. Check the transit schedule for delays and service interruptions before you begin each journey. Take care entering and exiting buses, as snowbanks and ice can be present and make it difficult to get on or off the bus
  • Winter weather conditions can be problematic on entry into buildings, as wet footwear can lead to slips on smooth indoor flooring. Such conditions can also prevent effective use of assistive devices such as canes, walkers, and cleats, which are more likely to slip. Tires on wheelchairs and scooters can lose traction or become obstructed by snowbanks and ice mounds
  • Take extra care on stairs, ramps and building entrances and exits where snow may have drifted, or ice may have formed. Use available handrails and do not forget to give people around you space to safely navigate too

When seeing a professional for assistive devices choices

  • Be assessed by a physiotherapist or skilled healthcare worker to ensure that you have the best fit for your needs. Discuss your needs, preferences, and concerns
  • Determine if assistive devices will help with independence, mobility and being out socially
  • Determine if these devices help you to age at home and improve quality of life
  • Request to see a variety of samples and choose one that is most attractive and useful to you to ensure you are motivated to use it
  • Find out what funding may be available to help with offsetting the cost of assistive devices

Choosing your boots wisely

by Tilak Dutta, Scientist | Director - Engineering Health Lab KITE, Toronto Rehab Institute,  University Health Network, Toronto Ontario

The KITE (Knowledge, Innovation and Talent Everywhere) Research Institute, which is the research arm of Toronto Rehabilitation Institute at the University Health Network, developed the Maximum Achievable Angle (MAA) test to assess the slip-resistance performance of footwear in icy conditions. The MAA test takes place in the WinterLab, part of the Challenging Assessments Environments Laboratories at KITE.

This self-contained lab simulates winter conditions and is mounted on two electrically powered actuators which can tilt the lab up to 15° as participants walk up and down ice-covered slopes to test footwear. The MAA test determines the maximum ice slope angle that participants can walk up and down without experiencing a slip. The results of the MAA test have shown that most footwear on the market provides poor grip on ice. The results of the testing are available to the public on the website (www.ratemytreads.com) to help individuals select safer winter footwear.

Nearly all the footwear that does perform well in the MAA test belongs to a new family of footwear that incorporates novel composite materials in their outsoles. These composite materials tend to consist of a soft rubber substrate with hard particles or fibres embedded within them extending out to the surface.

These harder elements are responsible for the superior grip as they penetrate the icy surfaces and provide traction via mechanical interlocking. Previous work found that a group of personal support workers given footwear with high MAA scores reported 68% fewer slips and 78% fewer falls compared to a group of workers wearing their own existing footwear over an eight-week period in the winter. For most people, walking is accessible, affordable, and enjoyable. With a few simple precautions and great boots, it can be a safe and effective way of getting where we need to go, even in winter.

Additional resources:

Related stories from Canadian Red Cross:

Resources on winter walking: