Walking In A Winter Wonderland

Photo of WSBVI student and O&M teacher walking in the snow

By David Ballmann

With the strange weather we’ve been having the past couple of weeks, we’ve been experiencing snow, ice, rain and everything in between.  This makes for unpredictable street and sidewalk conditions, and it is very easy to slip and fall, and possibly get injured, if you do not step up your orientation and mobility skills.  As I was walking home the other night on the icy sidewalks, I began to think about how different my cane techniques are in such weather.

First of all, ones choice of cane is pretty important.  I still use a telescopic, carbon fiber cane, which I’ll admit is not the best cane in winter travel, but I still like it for its portability and ease of getting in and out of cars.  A lot of people say they don’t like telescopic canes as they often collapse when walking, but I find the opposite problem in winter, it often will not collapse when I want it to.  As great as telescopic canes are, their enemies are cold, salt and sand.  Both straight canes, those that do not collapse and folding canes will give you more stability.

Cane techniques vary a lot, depending on the conditions.  When walking on a clean, uncluttered sidewalk, I typically use the two-point cane technique, swiping the cane from side to side like a big white windshield wiper.  However, when there is anything more than an inch or two of snow on the walkway, this technique does not work well, and I will hold the cane in a more vertical position, just like what is best practice in a crowd.  With the cane in this position, I still use the two-point technique, however, I try to stab the cane down to make sure I am still in contact with the sidewalk.  With experience, you generally will get some feedback to know whether or not you are on the sidewalk.  If you do veer off the sidewalk, you can generally tell with either your cane or your feet.  Occasionally, particularly in deeper snow, I have found that I have veered off of the sidewalk.  When this happens, I find myself listening to the parallel street traffic to help orient me to where the sidewalk might be.  Other clues might be to look for a curb, driveway or trees or signposts between the sidewalk and street.  If the snow is very deep, I try to stay on routes that I am familiar with, although I must admit, there is a great sense of adventure in traveling in such conditions.  This definitely is not the time to explore a new mobility route though as it can be quite easy to get off of your route and become disoriented as the snow can greatly alter your landmarks.

Nicely shoveled sidewalks are a breeze to walk down, as it’s easy to stay between the snow banks, but this is rarely consistent.  In most communities, home owners and business owners and the city are required by law to remove snow and ice from sidewalks, however, this is rarely enforced, and depending on when and if somebody shovels, there is a lot of inconsistency.  Also, even though somebody shovels their sidewalk, they often neglect the curb cuts, making crossing streets more difficult.  When snow gets deep, I often find myself climbing over snow banks either to get to the crosswalk or to get back to the sidewalk on the other side.  In addition to being challenging to walking through the deep snow, if you veer off of your path, it may be difficult to locate the sidewalk again.  Again, trying to identify landmarks or street noise may be helpful with this. Icy sidewalks call for a completely different technique.  When you can’t see the ice, it is easy to hit it with your feet before you know it, which can be very dangerous.  I have known many people over the years, both sighted and blind, who have fallen and injured themselves as a result.  For this reason, I would highly recommend that anyone who has issues with balance or motor skills or who does not feel comfortable walking in such conditions really try to avoid the ice.  Ice generally forms when daytime temperatures are above freezing, causing snow to melt, which then freezes at night when temperatures drop.  So in spring, I may come home to sidewalks that are just wet but the find ice when I leave in the morning.  Also, sidewalks may be dry in most parts, leading me to walk with confidence only to come upon a frozen puddle that is now slick ice.  In these conditions, I use the two-point technique again, only being a lot more careful to focus on the cane tip to try hard to identify the ice before my feet hit it. 

I recommend focusing 100 percent on your travel and not checking your phone as I did and almost fell.  Another technique, which I learned from skiing, is to lower your center of gravity.  To do this, you focus on your ankles, knees and hips, just slightly flexing them, which allows you to be more flexible and fall easier if you have to.  The other thing is to pay a lot more attention to your movements.  A couple of days ago, I was going up a curb cut on an angle, stepd on some ice on the side and fell on my butt.  So it’s important to go at curb cuts and ramps straight on, using your cane to find the ice before your feet do.  Sometimes it’s helpful just to pause while using your cane to explore around you before proceeding.  Likewise, steps may be inconsistent with only one or two icey ones, so using a hand rail is recommended.

In extreme cold, it’s good to have a hat that covers your ears.  However, when your ears are covered it does block your hearing some.  For this reason, I like a hat that has ear flaps that flip up or flipping my hood back when crossing a street.  I also prefer gloves over mittens, as mittens make it more difficult to hold a cane.  Lastly, if I am out walking and somebody is shoveling or cleaning ice off of their sidewalk, I always thank them so that they will know that it is appreciated and be more likely to keep it clean in the future.  So be careful, use good judgment and good technique, and don’t be afraid to get a ride, use a taxi or Uber if you do not feel comfortable traveling in poor conditions.