The Science Behind Not Wiping Out on Ice This Winter

A team of researchers is finding out how to make a better boot.

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Dec 14 2016, 3:45pm

Your winter boots probably suck.

I'm sorry, but it's true. No matter how much your boots cost, how warm they are, or how many treads are on the bottom, they probably won't keep you from falling over on the ice and looking like a tool.

Don't take my word for it. At the University of Toronto Rehab Institute's WinterLab research space, scientists recently tested 98 pairs of boots in a high-tech ice chamber and found that only nine adequately kept wearers aright. To find out why most boots are so crappy, and talk about the materials science behind how we can make them better, I visited WinterLab and spoke with lead scientist Geoff Fernie.

Fernie is every inch the archetypal stoic researcher, and the first thing I noticed is that, of course, he was wearing really nice boots. He's serious about what he does, he told me, because for elderly folks, slipping on the ice can mean severe injury or even death. For me, though, the goal is mostly to not look like an idiot.

The lab is in the sub-basement of the research hospital, and consists of several discrete chambers that simulate different conditions for testing assistive devices—there's StreetLab, StairLab, and my reason for being there, WinterLab. The chambers can be tipped on a slight incline, but sometimes that's not enough for testing. At one end of the lab are gigantic metal doors, like the kind you'd see in an airplane hangar, that open into an even larger room. The test chambers in the main lab can be moved out through the doors and onto a massive platform that rocks them around like a 4D Disney ride.

This set-up is necessary to test how boots stand up on ice, Fernie said, because up until now boots have mostly been "designed." That is, they're made to look really nice and have what Fernie calls "masculine" treads. But after extensive testing, the researchers concluded that treads have little to do with walking on ice without falling. Instead, it's the material the sole is made out of that matters.

One boot's sole was embedded with shards of a diamond-looking material—this is the pair I wore into the WinterLab test chamber—and they performed very well, Fernie said. Another pair felt smooth on the bottom, but actually were covered with fur-like fibers that grab onto the ice.

As for why the latter works, "We don't know," Fernie said. "There might be some origin in nature." Indeed, he said, we might look to animals like polar bears for clues as to why this material works so well.

The goal is to encourage boot-makers to push products to market that actually help you in the winter, instead of merely emptying your wallet and making you look warm. And based on my experience at WinterLab, Fernie and his crew are off to a solid start.

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