Stay on Your Feet This Winter

Preventing icy injuries comes down to having the right boots. Which ones are "right"? Toronto-based WinterLab is trying to find out.

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More people slip and fall in winter than in any other season. Icy conditions on the streets create a slip hazard that most winter boots are ill-equipped to handle. Unfortunately, falling on snow or ice can cause serious injuries that can impair mobility for years or for life. Last year in Ontario alone, 21,000 people were sent to hospital after a major fall on winter ice.

Beyond inspecting treads on the soles of boots in the store, consumers often have little information to help them decide whether their boots will help keep them safe and upright on ice. Scientists at iDAPT want to change that by testing boots worn by volunteers walking on ice, and giving their results to the public on their website, ratemytreads.com.

WinterLab puts boots to the test

iDapt, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – University Health Network, recreates winter conditions in the lab all year round in a chilly temperature controlled environment. The floor of the WinterLab is a solid sheet of ice that that can be tilted to simulate walking on a hill or ramp. Volunteers wear brand new pairs of boots, and a harness to keep them safe if they slip.

The test begins on dry level ice, and the volunteer walks back and forth as the testers slowly increase the tilt of the floor until the volunteer slips. The test therefore simulates walking both uphill and downhill, and records the maximum safe incline. The test is then repeated on wet ice.

Most boots weren’t made for walking

It may surprise you to learn that of the 98 pairs of boots tested in the WinterLab, which included a mix of both casual and work boots, only nine pairs managed to pass the simple test of walking without slipping at a 7 degree incline. This is the equivalent to the shallow grade of a curb ramp, which pedestrians navigate on a daily basis.

This was the lowest rating that the lab considered a success, and it doesn’t even account for some of the trickier real life situations, such as snow on ice, or boot performance as soles and treads wear down with use. Some of the boots tested didn’t even allow volunteers to stand on level ice.

WinterLab did identify two materials that gave the best performance: Green Diamond, a rubber sole with embedded grit, and Arctic Grip, which appears smooth but has microscopic crampons for grip. The lab is already working on alternative materials that they hope will improve on these results.

The list of boots rated continues to expand as the lab tests more pairs. They invite people to recommend boots to test, or even to join as walking volunteers. But it’s chilly, they warn – so don’t forget to bring your coat with you.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.