Trudging through the snow in the middle of winter isn’t exactly an ideal plan, but if you must do it during an emergency, your feet are often the first casualty. As such, you should take extra care to keep your feet warm, dry, and protected from the elements. You should also know when to rest for a few minutes, as well as what kind of terrain to avoid. These ten tips will give you a basic primer on keeping your feet nice and functional no matter what winter throws at them!
Wear Proper Socks!
Socks are the inner line of defense against moisture and the biting cold, so don’t neglect them! I strongly recommend wool (particularly Merino wool, which is much gentler on the skin) socks that are high quality and durable. Always keep an extra pair of dry socks waiting in a pocket so you can switch them out just in case you should step into a puddle of freezing water.
Wear Proper Shoes!
Ideally, you should purchase boots appropriate to the temperature (hiking in -40 degrees is significantly different from hiking in 20 degrees!) and appropriately flexible. Mukluk-style boots are suitable for flat or gentle terrain, insulated hiking boots are generally ideal for moderate to dense hilly terrain, and specialized mountaineering boots are best for when your trip takes you over Mt. Everest. Be aware that using boots unsuited for the territory can do more harm than good: the stiff mountaineering boots would be decidedly uncomfortable on long stretches of flat ground. The soft Mukluks would be torn apart, trying to scale a rugged cliffside. Choose the right boot and save your feet.
Choose Firm Terrain Whenever Possible
Although it may not seem like a big deal to walk across ice now and again, it puts extra strain on your muscles to stiffen or flex against potential slipups. Long-distance walking already puts your muscles through a lot of wear and tear, so in some cases, you may be better off taking a longer but less slippery path to your destination. Snow is more of a middle ground since thicker snow often requires more effort in your upper legs, while powdery stuff tends to act more like ice underfoot. I’d personally choose denser snow over the long run if only so you don’t end up falling on your face!
Maintain All Footgear Properly
Having the right stuff doesn’t do you any good if it is improperly used. One common mistake is to leave the boots laced up much too tight in the belief that they’ll offer better support this way. Although you do need them tight enough that they don’t slip all over the place, making them too uncomfortable can constrict the blood vessels in your feet and keep warm blood from getting to the toes as easily. In an extreme situation, this could result in an earlier onset of Frostbite in your toes.
In terms of general wear and tear, any sock or shoe lacking proper cushion owing to continued use should be avoided unless there is no other option. That cushion isn’t just there for comfort; it also prevents blisters and nastier conditions from harming your feet. In a worst-case scenario, you could be temporarily lamed by a lousy set of boots, so make sure they’re correctly maintained.
Warm Up Your Feet and Leg Muscles Before Setting Out and After Every Stop
In the cold, your muscles become very stiff, and it is more difficult to heat them up to a more flexible condition just by walking along. Stiff muscles are more likely to rip, tear, or just become sore, which is especially bad owing to the poor footing conditions in most winter treks. Not only that, but cold muscles simply don’t react as quickly to rapidly escalating situations, meaning that a sudden emergency could leave you flat-footed if you’re still warming up. Take a few minutes before walking to warm up your body gently to keep this danger to a minimum.
Take More Frequent Breaks
In winter, your feet are constantly adapting to a changing environment. You have snow, slush, ice, and then normal ground to walk over, and you don’t always know the difference in elevation or slope as well as you would in the summer. This puts more strain on your muscles, which in turn will require more frequent breaks to avoid causing a sprain. Generally speaking, try to rest if you begin feeling stiff and sore despite having warm muscles. If you don’t frequently run or walk long distances, this may require quite a few breaks, but its better than forcing your muscles and potentially leaving you unable to walk.
Keep an eye out for Frostbite
We discussed Frostbite in a previous article, so take the opportunity during each break to check for signs of Frostbite. Unless your need is truly dire, you would be better off seeking shelter for a time to heat up your hands and feet properly should Frostbite begin to set in rather than trudging on. You do not want to be left with gangrenous toes out in the freezing weather!
Keep Your Core Nice and Toasty
Although that’s just good winter survival advice anyway, it actually helps your toes too. Once the body decides to stop heating the center of your body as much, it may elect to spare some resources to help heat those extra extremities and keep Frostbite to a minimum. Wear layers, keep dry, and do what you can to stay out of the wind to maximize your chances.
Eat a Little Extra When You Can
Walking in winter wears you out, and being tired is particularly dangerous for your feet and legs since you tend to slip or get stuck more easily when you aren’t focusing. Since you’ll be burning lots of extra energy just staying warm much less walking through snow, make sure you eat larger, more calorie-rich meals so that you’ll have energy available to keep your muscles strong for the duration of your walk.
Avoid Winter Foot Travel When Possible
This may sound silly, but it really is the best advice. The harsh depths of winter are no place for your feet or any other part of you, so really weigh your options before walking any distance when it’s icy out.