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Advice From a Penguin: How to Walk on Ice Without Falling

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Something I did a lot when I was leading guided hikes was teaching people how to walk on ice. One of my favorite winter activities is to walk on ice, but of course it has its risks. I bet we all know someone who has seriously injured themselves from a slip. As long as we are careful and prepared, we can minimize the risk of falling on ice in most situations.

Many animals have evolved to walk and spend most of their lives on the ice. Polar bears, seals, and penguins are the classic animals we think of in icy environments. Polar bears walk on four legs with claws that act as cleats and seals slide around on their bellies like a sled. It's the penguins that are most similar to us, waddling around on two legs across the frozen tundra.

So can penguins teach us how to walk on ice? The logic behind this thought is that we should keep our feet under our center of gravity and move slowly while walking. We end up slipping most often when we step too far forward or lead to the side and lose our center of balance. Some of us may go too far into the role of the penguin and start waddling back and forth as we take our steps. Remember, moving our weight away from our center of balance is how you’re more likely to lose traction on the ice. If you walk slowly taking small steps, place your foot down flat on the ice directly below your body before putting the weight on it then carefully shifting your weight, you should do just fine.

It becomes more difficult on uneven terrain like slopes or bumps. Honestly, if you can, you should avoid walking on ice if it is not flat and smooth. It's always a good idea to hold onto a railing. If you want to add more biomimicry (copying the structures of other lifeforms to serve a similar function) into your lifestyle, you can put on some ice cleats to act like the polar bear’s claws! The second link below has a video of reviews of cleats.

Walking on ice can be a thrilling winter experience but also a dangerous one. If you do as the animals do, you can successfully navigate the frozen land with less risk of falling. Another note, do not walk on a frozen lake unless you are absolutely sure the ice is strong enough to hold you, otherwise stick to the sides where if it were to break, you would not fully submerge. Falling into frozen water is a whole different challenge with its own risks.

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