Just because the winter months or cold doesn't mean you should stop walking or hiking. Layer up properly and you'll stay plenty warm. Still, if the streets, trails or parking lots are icy -- or if you've decided to go strolling on a frozen lake, which can provide a lot of fun in the right conditions -- you need to take a few extra steps to avoid dangerous slips and falls.
Most summer shoes won't offer much traction on ice. Winter boots with beefy soles are usually a little better, but they're usually meant for handling snow more than ice. The solution is to either use footwear with a non-slip sole designed specifically for use on ice, or to add slip-on ice grippers. Slip-on ice grippers have a stretchy rubber or plastic harness that slips over the toe and heel of each shoe, holding metal spikes or coils in place beneath the sole where they can bite into the ice for extra traction.
The Ice Shuffle
If you don't have access to the proper footwear, reduce your risk of falling on ice by shortening your stride and walking flat-footed with your feet close to the ground; think of shuffling like a penguin. Keep your knees loose and your weight centered over your feet as much as possible. As you get in and out of your car -- a classic opportunity for your feet to slip out from beneath you -- hold onto the car for support until you're stable.
Hiking on Steep Trails
Evaluate the potential consequences of a fall before you hike on an icy hill or mountain. Ice grippers and trekking poles with metal tips can bite into the ice and offer some stability. But if the hike is on steep or exposed terrain where a short slip could turn into a long fall and you're not sure you can keep from slipping, wait until conditions have improved.
Walking on Frozen Lakes
Strolling across a frozen lake provides a sense of otherworldly exploration, but a fall through the ice can be deadly -- even if you manage to get back out of the water, you can still freeze to death from the immersion and exposure. Clear, solid lake ice should be at least 4 inches thick before you walk on it; old ice or white "snow" ice should be twice as thick. Ice thickness can vary across the lake, especially near inlets, outlets or hidden springs where the water moves or varies in temperature.
Checking Ice Thickness
Check the thickness of the ice with an ice auger or chisel and measuring tape. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends checking every 150 feet. If this is not an option for you, at least be vigilant for changes in the appearance of the ice. If you find yourself on thin ice, crawl or lie down and roll to spread your weight out as you work your way back toward stronger ice.
Experienced travelers may walk long distances over frozen lakes without drilling holes every 150 feet, but this is not for beginners. The smart traveler will synthesize many sources of nuanced information, including temperature records, reports from other travelers, familiarity with that particular body of water, direct observation of the ice and sometimes even striking the ice with a spud bar, to determine whether it's safe. Do not attempt this sort of experience-driven trip without a savvy, trusted mentor to guide you.