Every winter in Ontario, 20,000 people end up in emergency rooms after slipping on ice. They get cuts and bruises, break bones and some even die from their injuries. The reason for all those hospital visits lands at our feet, says Geoff Fernie.
Specifically—bad winter boots.
When Fernie, the research director at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s Winter Lab, studied how well winter boots grip on ice, he found that more than 90 per cent failed to stick on typical sidewalk angles.
“Tread isn’t such a big deal,” he says. “It’s the surface of the sole that matters. But when you look at the bottom of boot you can’t really tell if it’s a good boot or bad boot.”
Fernie uses a living room-sized indoor ice lab to test boot soles with the goal of preventing slips-and-falls. The ice in the Winter Lab, located in the basement of the rehabilitation centre in Toronto, can be precisely controlled to change the condition of the ice, wet or dry, and shift the angle of the surface from flat to a 22-degree incline.
The lab has tested more than 100 pairs of boots. Fernie or one of his staff put on the boots, hook into a harness system to support themselves if they slip, and walk back and forth across the rink. After each successful pass, they increase the rink angle. Once the boot slips, the lab records the last successful angle as the boot’s score, or Maximum Achievable Angle (MAA), in the lab’s terminology.
To share the results, Fernie created the website ratemytreads.com. It should make everyone pause before stepping outside or opening their wallets for a pair of winter boots. Only eight winter boots managed to grip seven degrees or more, the maximum angle for ramps leading from the sidewalk to road.
“Most boots and shoes are designed by graphic designers who are trying to make them look sexy,” says Fernie. “Some of boots labelled ‘winter boots’ can’t even stand on level ice. Only recently has there been attention to the materials involved.”
Fernie scored boots on a three snowflake rating system. To score one snowflake, the boots had to navigate at least seven degrees in wet and dry ice, going up- and downhill. Two snowflakes had similar demands, but at 11 degrees. And the golden threshold was gripping beyond 15 degrees.
Just one scored two snowflakes, a boot made by IceBug—the Speed BUGrip (pictured at top). It’s equipped with steel carbide tips, but the metal will damage indoor surfaces and is dangerous on harder surfaces. The seven that earned one snowflake are made with one of two kinds of soles.
The first is a sole with little bits of carbide embedded in a soft rubber. The bits of metal work like sandpaper, scuffing up the surface. The other uses fibre bits to mimic animal paws. The latter is where the future is, says Fernie. He’s tested experimental versions that have gripped 22-degree wet ice in his lab.
“In years to come, we’re going to get to two to three stars,” he says.
Even then it will be buyer beware. Fernie continues to test boots, so start by checking out the ratings at: ratemytreads.com. Along with the IceBugs, the highest-rated footwear are runners with carbine tips, or boots with Vibram Arctic Grip or Green Diamond soles.