Winter weather can bring with it many dangers. While we're often aware of the big ones, like frostbite or snow-covered trees, we can underestimate the way the ground we walk on turns against us when it's covered in ice.
Unintentional falls accounted for almost 32,000 deaths in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so having a plan to stay upright while you're walking in icy conditions — even if it's just to get to the mailbox — can make a big difference. Luckily, nature, as it often does, provides a model of how to navigate icy terrain without slipping and sliding and potentially hurting ourselves.
It's time to walk like a penguin.
The first step to achieving the penguin walk is the stance. Spread your feet out a bit to broaden your base and keep your knees loose to maintain a lower center of gravity. And while you may want to keep your hands in your pockets for extra warmth, extending your arms out slightly will help you maintain your balance. Just double up on warm gloves or mittens to make up for losing that precious pocket heat.
Now for the actual walking part. Our normal way of walking splits how we support our weight mid-stride, and that results in our legs supporting our weight at angles not conducive to being safe on the ice. Instead, waddle. Place your center of gravity over your front leg and take short, shuffling side-to-side steps.
If you feel like a penguin, you're doing it right. You may feel a touch silly, but feeling a little silly is better than feeling the pain of a fall.
More safety tips for walking on ice
1. Wear the right clothes. We mentioned wearing good gloves so you resist the urge to shove your hands in your pockets, but there's more to consider regarding your winter clothes when walking on ice. Thicker coats and pants or extra layers will keep you warm, yes, but they can also help cushion you in the event of the fall. Your shoes should offer plenty of traction, with flat soles made of rubber and neoprene composite. Sunglasses are certainly helpful on sunny, icy days because of all the light that gets reflected, and wearing them can help your eyes spot slippery patches before your feet find them.
2. Ignore your phone. This is just good advice when walking anyway, but it's especially good advice when the sidewalk is slippery. If your attention is on your phone, it's not on the ice, and if your hands are holding your phone, then they're not helping your balance. A wireless earpiece connected to your phone may help alleviate these issues, but it will still split your attention from walking, being aware of the ice and being alert to other potential dangers around you, like automobile traffic or distracted fellow pedestrians.
3. Minimize what you carry. Walking on ice is all about balance, so loads that change your sense of balance will also change how you walk. And if your hands are filled with bags, then they're not free to help you if you do slip. Speaking of ...
4. Expect that you will slip and fall. Even with all this preparation, there's still the possibility that you're going to fall anyway, so be prepared for that. If you feel yourself falling backwards, lean forward a little bit, tucking your chin, so your chin and the back of your head don't take the full impact. Try to land on your thighs, hips or shoulders, whichever your body will be happiest with in the situation. If you're falling forward, do your best to twist and roll to your side. Either way, try to relax as much as possible; tensing up in this situation won't help you.