When I was a kid, I downhill skied in Montreal. When I was in my sixties my wife and I spent many pleasurable hours cross-country skiing in Muskoka. My choices are different now, but I still want to get all I can out of winter without freezing or hurting myself. So here are the winter tips that I think about every time I head out.

1. Wear a hat because it feels good, not because it’s “going to keep most of your body heat in.”

Losing most of your body heat through a bare head is a myth. I dug this out of a 2008 British Medical Journal article published by two University of Indiana doctors, Drs. Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll, and reported in the university’s news letter, UI Newsroom. According to their research, you’d lose as much heat if you walked around in shorts in winter cold. Of course, if your head is uncovered when all the rest of you is dressed, that’s where you’re going to lose heat soonest. But there’s nothing special about the head.

2. Cover your ears.

As long as the windchill is above -28C, there’s little risk of frostbite, according to Environment Canada’s Windchill Hazards chart. So keep an ear open for windchill announcements on the radio or TV weather reports. From my point of view, wind-blown ears in winter just feel darned cold regardless of whether there’s a risk of frostbite. So I’d wear some kind of ear covering if I planned to enjoy a winter walk. This could be one of my brighter winter tips.

3. Dress for your age, build and activity.

Obviously, dress for the weather. But remember that older people just don’t generate as much body heat as younger. Lean, tall people don’t retain body heat as well as shorter, heavier ones. More activity creates more body heat – and with that comes the risk of sweating. Perspiration is a risk because wet clothing can lose heat almost as quickly as an uncovered body.

One approach is to just wear the warmest outerwear you have. Simply regulate your body heat by opening and closing your outer clothing to cool down or warm up again.

Most current advice recommends using several layers of clothing. The air trapped between layers is an insulator. If you do layer, stay away from cotton next to your skin. Cotton soaks up perspiration and can become a chilling agent. Better to wear a polypropylene undergarment that is designed to wick away moisture. It will transfer any perspiration moisture to the next layer of clothing, which should be a knit, Wool is warmest, purely artificial fibres less warm. Down is excellent but heavy when wet (and takes a long time to dry). Your outer garment should be windproof.

If you plan to walk vigorously, layering can be a good choice as long as you remove and reapply the layers to maintain a dry, comfortable body.

Below -9C, wear insulated boots. And be sure there’s ample insulation in the sole.

4. Wear mitts rather than gloves.

Leather mitts with real fleece inside are very warm. Artificial fleece lining is good too. Some of the new “technical” gear sold at sports stores can also be quite good. If you have poor circulation, like my wife, and your fingers feel cold very quickly, you can wear a polypropylene liner, usually a glove. It will add insulation and also give you some dexterity while keeping your hand somewhat warm if you remove the mitt.

Gloves are never as warm as mitts, which share your hand’s warmth among all your fingers. They also allow you to ball up your hand for extra warmth.
Good Housekeeping rated a number of gloves for warmth.

Some stores sell hand-warming packs to wear inside your mitts. These chemical sachets generate their own heat. There are even battery-powered hand heaters.

5. Stay in the sun.

According to Canada’s Wind Chill Index, “bright sunshine can make you feel as much as ten degrees warmer.” That can be very nice if you’re browsing main street in a small town.

By the way, the winter sun still contains harmful UV rays, so use a sun screen on your face.

6. Be ready to use your hands – one of the more surprising winter tips.

No one wants to fall, Be smart, don’t go out if it’s obviousy or slippery. When you are out, keep your hands out of your pockets. You’ll find it easier to keep your balance and to avoid falling.

If you do slip and fall, try to fall on your buttocks because it will reduce your chance of more serious injury (most hip fractures are caused by falling sideways on to the hip). Putting your arm or hand out may help – you may still hurt yourself, but perhaps not as badly as you would have otherwise. Wearing hip pads may help minimize fractures.

7. Be aware of the surface you’re walking on.
Even if you bought winter boots that have a slip-resistant sole, you must pay attention to where you’re walking.

There are so many variables that come into play in winter walking:

  • exposed ice
  • dry or slightly melted ice
  • snow-covered ice
  • level or sloped surface
  • partially melted and refrozen, lumpy ice
  • soft or hard-packed snow
  • going uphill or down.

There’s no one kind of sole, heel or ice cleat that can solve all the challenges. Elevated heel height appears to be a real issue, as is footwear without proper closures such as laces or Velcro. That’s what I learned from the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo’s School of Architecture paper titled DR-08 Protective Footwear.

8. Be especially careful of where you place your heel.

When things get slippery, we have a natural tendency to plant our feet down flat. That’s good, because a heel strike often starts a slip and fall.

9. If you use a cane, switch the tip to an ice grip

Its spikes provide extra traction and more stability in winter. Just attach the ice grip to the end of your cane. It flips out of the way so your regular rubber tip functions indoors. This is a Canadian online source: http://www.canescanada.com/retractable-ice-grip

You’ll find the handle of a cane or crutches much more comfortable in winter if you use a fleece cover.

Winter tips for dog walkers

10. Winter tips when walking your dog

My 6’1″ son was literally pulled off the front porch by his golden retriever. Luckily it was summer time and he landed on a soft, grassy lawn and was okay. But keep in mind even small dogs can catch you off guard, bolting after a squirrel or neighbourhood cat. Pay attention to what going on around you and you’ll be less likely to be yanked off your feet.

11. Boost stability and fitness by walking with Nordic poles

Think of ski poles without the skis. Nordic poles come with a variety of tips for various winter conditions. There’s even one designed specifically for individuals with chronic conditions, those recovering from injuries as well as older adults who require more stability and balance when walking. You can adjust Nordic poles to match your height. Not only do they increase your sure-footedness on snow and ice, they can boost your fitness as much as 20% by making you use your upper body and arms as well as your legs when you walk. They also take a big load off your hips and knees. Check out three how-to videos from Urban Poling.

12. Follow the winter tips above and you may never want winter to end!

Down to wind chill as low as -27C, we can be reasonably comfortable and safe if we’re prepared, dress appropriately, and limit our time outdoors accordingly. That gives us plenty of opportunity to make the most of winter. After a fresh, thick snowfall, we might even be tempted to try a snow angel. Well….you first!

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