Walking Well from Head to Toe in Summer and Winter

person using white cane to walk down sidewalk --photo provided by Guide Dogs for the Blind

By Elizabeth Sammons and other contributing APH VisionAware peers

Whether it’s to stay fit, maintain independence, or enjoy nature, many of us who cannot drive due to blindness or low vision walk more than the average person. As experienced peers who are blind/low vision, we want to share our advice on staying as comfortable as possible when walking, even in extreme weather conditions from the avenues of Atlanta in summer to the sidewalks of Siberia in winter. Below you’ll find some tips and tricks to keep you cozy and safe when you walk outside by yourself or with your service dog.

Tips for Head Protection

We gain and lose a lot of heat through our head and neck. To protect ourselves, we can bundle up or dress down, but those of us who are blind or low vision have audio considerations as well as physical comfort to consider when walking.

In summer

  • Consider using a small squirt bottle with a mounted, battery-operated fan blade. A compressible lever sprays out some moisture while activating the plastic fan blade.
  • Using a small umbrella can keep you in the shade. However, particularly when it’s raining, umbrellas can make it harder to hear sounds around you. Instead, you can use a soft cap to keep your head dry. If you don’t mind getting wet, you can often go without an umbrella.
  • Use a damp scarf or golf towel wrapped around your neck to provide extra cooling.
  • If you have long hair, one peer suggests, “I sometimes wash my long hair and pile it atop my head for added insulation and cooling.

In winter

  • Avoid hats with ear flaps, ear muffins, or hoods since these can muffle your ability to hear vital navigation sounds.
  • Choose close-fitting hats; alternatively, cover your head with a scarf, and wrap the loose ends around the neck, tucking them into the coat collar.

Tips for Comfortable Bodies

The following are considerations for regulating our body temperature and providing protection from the elements while outdoors.

  • Carrying objects, such on a shopping trip, can affect our body temperature. While many of us carry bags over our shoulder, it’s often easier and safer to consider a backpack of any size. Today, drawstring backpacks are available that weigh only ounces, but they can provide ample room for many items. Backpacks leave both hands free for exploring the environment as needed, and using white canes or dog guides, while not greatly influencing our body heat.

In summer

  • For those who wear dresses, wearing a light-weight dress and putting on an attractive shirt over it gives you the choice of keeping the outer shirt on or taking it off, depending on heat and air conditioning.  

In winter

  • Evaluate your wardrobe, planning to dress in layers so you can remove clothing as needed. Sweaters, turtlenecks, and flannel shirts are great items under a coat or heavy jacket to help you adjust per your comfort level.
  • Similarly, rolling up a small wrap-around scarf or vest and putting it in a bag or purse offers a convenient way to adjust wardrobe to temperature preference.

Tips for Comfortable Hands and Feet

While we don’t think about protecting our extremities as much in summer, here are a few tips for more comfortable hands and feet while walking outdoors in warm and cold climates.

In summer

  • Wearing open-toed shoes can be dangerous. One peer shares, “I never wear open-toed shoes, since I’ve found that even as an experienced walker using a cane, it’s easy to stub a toe while hurrying along.”
  • Soft-soled shoes provide both less slippage and a lot better feel for the ground than other footwear, including awareness of the kind of cracks or twigs that can create hazards.

In winter

  • Mittens and gloves keep your hands warm, but they can be difficult to use with a white cane or service dog. Some people cut off the tips of their gloves for better sensitivity. Others remove the glove piece but keep the lining in place for coverage. Or you can adapt your mittens for holding a cane by cutting a hole at the tip, inserting the cane into the hole, and putting your hand in the mitten to grip the cane or leash.
  • Gloves are available with special fingertips to enable the wearer to use a smart phone, thus keeping hands warmer.
  • Other mittens/gloves are available with fingers bare, but with a hood that can be extended to cover all fingers or rolled back to allow using fingers directly.  
  • Winter boots for walking should be water resistant, with soles offering traction. However, if soles are too thick, you risk losing sensitivity from the ground surface.
  • Properly fitting boots may be an entire size above normal shoes, given the use of thicker socks and/or a little air layering to help with insulating.
  • Consider using traction devices that attach to the boot soles that grip the snow/ice and make walking easier and less slippery. Be aware that these decrease foot sensitivity to ground surfaces.
  • Not all socks are created equal. Thick cotton socks can wick water and perspiration, and like wool or wool blends, they provide a cozy warmth most synthetics lack. 

Dog days

Our four-footed travel companions can’t always tell you how they feel. Here are some tips from peers to keep them healthy and hardy:

  • “My dog has boots to protect paws from hot tarmacs and icy sidewalks.”
  • “I can wet bandanas for cooling, and I can mist his belly with my spray bottle.”
  • “I carry a water bottle and a folding dog bowl to give us both extra hydration.”