Managing Arthritis

7 tips for winter walking safety

A woman looking out the window in winter

Winter walking can be challenging, and the fear of falling may make you want to hide inside until the weather warms up. While a fall can cause serious injuries, taking simple precautions can make it safer to enjoy the outdoors. 

Karen Gordon, Registered Physiotherapist with Arthritis Society Canada's Arthritis Rehabilitation and Education Program, says, "Fresh air and outdoor activity is one of the best things for you if you prepare for the weather and take necessary precautions. However, use your common sense; if it's really icy or bitterly cold, have plans that allow you to stay indoors, if possible." 

Whether you're walking your dog, looking for exercise, or heading out to an appointment, these seven tips can help you walk safely in the winter:  

1. Plan ahead

To prioritize safety, choose the warmest and sunniest time of day to be outside. "This gives the ice a chance to melt, and the warmth is better for your joints," says Karen. Walk with a friend or take your cell phone with you and let others know your planned route if you go for long distances. As a wise safety measure, choose a well-maintained and frequently travelled route. If you must go out at twilight or in the dark, remember to wear reflective clothing so others can see you. Know your limitations and adjust your outing accordingly. 

2. Be weather wary

Prepare for snow and ice by keeping a snow shovel inside to clear your path as you head out. Store sand or de-icing salt by your door to spread ahead of you for added traction on your stairs, walkway and driveway. Leave yourself enough time to get to your destination safely without rushing. 

3. Get good gear

Comfort and warmth are key! Wear insulated winter clothing and consider double layers, thermal underwear, cozy socks, a hat and gloves. When it comes to footwear, Karen says it's important to choose footwear that has traction and a good grip. "Invest in comfortable, supportive and warm boots that have a low wide heel no higher than one inch," she says. "Wear ice cleats or ice grippers on your shoes when walking on packed snow and ice, but remember to remove them before stepping inside since they are slippery on smooth surfaces." 

4. Walk like a penguin

Mastering the penguin shuffle can help prevent falls on snow and ice. When navigating a slippery surface, channel your inner penguin by moving slowly with small baby steps — like a shuffle. "Bend your knees slightly to lower your center of gravity and keep your feet flat on the ground, spread out a little wider than normal," says Karen. "Point your toes slightly outward to distribute your body weight for better support." Stay relaxed with your head up and try not to lean forward. Keep your arms at your side and slightly out (like penguin wings!). This will help your balance and have your hands ready in case you fall. To keep your hands free, wear a backpack or bag with a shoulder strap to carry your belongings. 

Watch this helpful video from Alberta Health Services to see the penguin shuffle.   

5. Use caution when getting out of a vehicle

When getting out of a vehicle, remember to slow down and move with intention. First, swing both feet out and plant them flat on the ground, then hold onto the doorframe as you cautiously stand up. 

6. Consider walking aids

Use handrails on stairs and ramps to help reduce the risk of a fall.  If you use a cane, consider buying an ice tip to attach to the bottom for added traction on icy and packed snow surfaces. Additionally, Karen suggests trying out walking sticks. "Walking sticks, including hiking poles, ski poles, or Nordic walking poles, are helpful for stability and balance," she says. "Many walking poles have a rubber bottom suitable for dry surfaces like sidewalks but can be adapted by removing the rubber to expose the ice pick underneath, providing essential traction on slippery surfaces like ice and packed snow." 

7. Warm up your body

Start off slowly and gradually build up your pace as you move outdoors. Additionally, you can warm up your body with these exercises before stepping out: 

  • March in place for 1-5 minutes and swing your arms. 
  • While sitting, move your foot and ankle in a circle 5-10 times with each foot. 
  • While sitting, bend your foot and ankle up and down 5-10 times with each foot. 

Here are some extra warm-up exercises you can try. 

Don't let the winter weather keep you inside. By adapting your routine to your environment and following these tips to stay warm and walk safely, you can enjoy Canada's winter wonderland! So, lace-up those winter boots, embrace the chill, and let the fresh winter air refresh you on your safe and enjoyable walks. 

*As always, it is important to use common sense and follow the guidance of your health professional.