Winter Ice Safety Tips

A few tips help cold-clime dwellers cope with the inevitable ice.
Toby Raymond
January/February 2010
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Snow can insulate your garden from the ravages of sub-zero temperatures.
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With heartfelt conviction, if not absolute certainty, folks often say there are two seasons in Vermont: winter and construction. While many regions in the country can make similar claims, I would pit our Green Mountain State against any of them.

As a devoted horse mom and avid gardener who spends a virtual eternity chipping ice chunks out of water buckets and sheltering tender seedlings from the elements until what seems like the Fourth of July, I have joined the unspoken fellowship of country dwellers who have endured more than their share of blizzards and frozen water pipes.

Although it appears I have earned the dubious respect that comes from being resourceful, as evidenced by a slight nod from my “true” (fourth generation and beyond) Vermonter neighbors, I must confess to a feeling of pride at achieving such recognition as I grudgingly reacquaint myself with the rigors of cold- weather living. The most challenging aspect of the ordeal by far is coping with the ice. Unless you are engaged in a sport for which ice is required, there is little to recommend it – the potential hazards far exceed the fun to be experienced.

Nevertheless, you can combat the worst of it, starting with your cars.

Good tires

I have to get to the barn at least twice a day to take care of my crew – three hot-house-flower, off-the-track Thoroughbreds and two dogs – so getting stuck in a driveway that hasn’t been sanded yet or skidding into a snowbank is not an option. Having dedicated snow tires with studs has been a lifesaver, especially during storms, which have been prolific of late.

A word of warning in this regard: I won’t scrimp when it comes to buying quality tires. The name brands with a good warranty have proven their worth when it comes to reliability and outlasting less expensive alternatives, which makes name-brand tires a more cost-efficient choice in the end; also consider the amount of driving you do and the road conditions, of course. I have found if I keep my tires adequately inflated, they last longer and help with better gas mileage, and, as I have been told by my mechanic, improperly inflated tires are a precursor to losing traction in many conditions.

I also keep a scraper and snow brush handy; mine is an all-in-one gadget. No matter what your preference, you will likely have to clear your windows even as the defroster is blasting away, and get the ice and snow out of the wheel wells (I keep a hammer in the trunk for the occasion) to reduce tire wear and gas usage.

Although that five-minute drive can seem like time without end, I opt for creeping along in order to be safe. As elementary as that sounds, even if the roads have been cleared and treated with de-icers, my temptation to speed up is tempered by the knowledge that overlooked areas, especially along the sides of the road, or rapidly changing warm to cold temperatures, can set the stage for spinning out of control. I do the best I can to ignore the car traveling too closely behind me. Succumbing to the pressure to accommodate a tailgater on a slippery road is a surefire prescription for disaster, as I unfortunately have seen too many times.

Sand and de-icers

Mike Erskine of R.B. Erskine Grain and Supplies, who is the go-to guy around here on all things “country,” recommends putting tube sand – cylindrical bags, approximately 7 inches in diameter by 2 feet long, each weighing 70 pounds – over the back fender wells of a truck, or in the trunk of a car as close to the sides as possible, to increase traction.

If you should get stuck, he says you can open the bags and use the sand, which gets him on the topic of how we need to have traction under our feet, without which we might not be able to get to our vehicles in the first place.

Mike begins by comparing all-purpose sand with barn calcite. While sand is considered to be the standard, barn calcite, a limestone product, is actually less expensive, but he says prices will vary based on location.

I, for one, have used both and have found them to be equally effective at keeping my animals and myself upright.

I use an old metal feed scoop, although any sort of shovel or small recycled container will do the trick, and sprinkle it wherever I think anyone might want to venture. I concentrate on the walkways and paths that my animals and I have created over the course of the season.

As far as de-icers go, they have their place, especially if you need to completely clear an area. Either sodium chloride, also known as rock salt, or calcium chloride is the stuff of choice. The less expensive sodium chloride reigns supreme at my place, even though it is only able to do its magic to zero-degree temperatures. Calcium chloride is recommended for melting ice at temperatures below zero degrees – it’s also more expensive and known to destroy concrete over time.

Regardless of your pick, be aware that most de-icers are detrimental to plants, and they should be avoided around barn animals and pets due to chemical properties that can lead to cracks in hooves and paws. You can find pet-safe de-icers; they are expensive and come in colors for higher visibility on the ground.

Keep your footing

Another saving grace, ice grippers are standard issue on my icy outdoor adventures. I wear the toughest grippers, ones that advertise formidable metal studs. So far, knock on wood, they have kept me from losing my balance, even on sheer ice. I asked Mike about other options. He says several types of grippers are out there, including models with straps that buckle over your instep, models with hard metal spikes and others that approximate tire chains for your boots.

Mike has one guiding rule. “Regardless of whether you are looking to wear them as you make your way to your car parked 10 feet away, or you are planning to trek up and down ice-packed trails, look for grippers made of heavy-duty flexible rubber,” a piece of advice with which I agree wholeheartedly. Having had a gripper snap in half as I attempted to stretch it over my boot, I’ve learned my lesson.

Garden protection

Mike and I next talked about protecting the garden. We both agreed that mulching is huge, especially where delicate vines, shrubs and perennials are concerned. After cutting them back in the fall, mulch these plants completely to protect them from the icy ravages of winter.

Plants that live below the eaves or several feet away from a building roof’s drip line are especially vulnerable to ice (and snow) cascading from the roof – greenery situated in harm’s way needs to be protected.

Mike says to construct a designated wooden structure to “tent” plants and bushes until spring. Use at least 3/8-inch plywood panels – high enough to provide adequate cover and connected by hinges that allow you to adjust the width accordingly. He also suggests coating them with exterior paint for long-term use.

In icy conditions, ensuring the safety of everyone and everything that walks or blooms requires a proactive approach. Though not a task for the faint of heart, you can get through it unscathed. I know, because I have been doing just that since giving up my city ways for a country life many years ago.

Toby Raymond loves the country and loves to write about it. She lives in Vermont with her horses – the hot-house-flower Thoroughbreds – two dogs, and Sneakers, her cat who rules supreme.


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