Six Top Tips for Handling Winter in a Wheelchair

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This winter has been one of the worst on record.

With temperatures falling below -10°C, some serious snow fall and red alert weather warnings, everyone has had to adjust their lives to accommodate for the artic conditions.

Wheelchairs users are no exception.

Snow and ice reduce mobility – they make it difficult to navigate outside. Also, freezing conditions can affect a wheelchair users’ temperature regulation. This is of particular concern to those with a spinal cord injury or neurological condition who’s bodies struggle to maintain an optimum and safe temperature. Their bodies often can’t respond to changing temperatures. In the cold, below their paralysis point, they will not be able to shiver to increase body temperature or adjust their capillary flow. Neither will their body hairs stand up on end to trap warm air and heat them up. Lack of sensation will also affect their ability to know if they are cold at all.

Temperature regulation is a subject close to our hearts here at wheelAIR, as we strive to eventually be the centre of heating and cooling in the healthcare industry. Getting too cold is not only uncomfortable, but can be potentially dangerous. Critical cases risk developing hypothermia or frostbite.

Because of this, we have been doing some research as well as talking to wheelchair users about some of their top tips for staying in control whilst out in wintery conditions.

So here are our top 6 tips for handling winter in a wheelchair. Follow to stay warm, mobile and safe.

1. Get your apparel right

It is essential to wear many layers of breathable clothes. This means that warm air can get trapped between each layer and act as a protective barrier to the cold. Wool is particularly effective since it’s an active fibre, which keeps you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Wearing layers also means that if you are moving from outdoors to indoors, you can remove layers accordingly.

Make sure that all areas of the body from top to toe are covered. If any body part touches the metal of a wheelchair with bare skin can lead to dramatic heat loss, so keep this in mind.

Wear bright clothes. If pavements have not been cleared from snow, wheelchair users may have to use the road instead. Wearing bright or high visibility clothes will alert drivers of your presence and keep you safe.

Gloves are an essential piece of clothing during the winter months. Moving wheelchair wheels without them can leave hands extremely cold and wet. Therefore invest in a good pair of waterproof & durable gloves with elasticated cuff to keep the cold out and the heat in. Equally, warm hats and boots are extremely important as the head, hands and feet are key areas of heat loss.

2. Make the most of warming accessories

Hand warmers are a fantastic way to instantly beat hand chill factors. Buy reusable ones to keep your hands warm all winter. You can also put them in your shoes to warm them before use.

Make sure you take a blanket with you when out and about as it can be a great extra layer if outside for a long period of time.

3. Keep moving

When outside, keep active. Keeping your circulation going is essential when in cold temperatures. However, if you are exercising when in the cold, bear in mind that exertion can lead to sweating. It is important not to get too sweaty, as sweat cools on the skin and can ultimately lead to further chilling the body when outside. So try to adjust layers accordingly to accommodate for this or take a break.

4. Eat & drink plenty (…of the right stuff)

It is essential to stay hydrated. Indoor heating systems and dry climates can cause dehydration. Dehydration makes you more susceptible to cold.

Even though it seems as though it should, drinking hot drinks does not actually help the body stay warm. The warm liquid feels as though it is heating your hands and stomach up, yet in reality it does not affect your internal temperature. There is not enough liquid in a tea or a coffee to make any real impact. In fact, on the contrary, some scientists have even argued that drinking something hot can make your brain think your body is also hot. This kick starts your cooling systems, like sweating. Thus, drinking warm drinks could actually make you colder.

Therefore, we would advise you to drink water and cold drinks to remain hydrated. In a similar way, cooler drinks encourage the body to react further to the cold temperatures and you stay warmer… even if it doesn’t feel like it!

Eating certain foods also helps keep the body warm. For example, the herb ginger can help stimulate the body and increase blood circulation. (…So that’s why ginger bread is so popular over Christmas!) Other foods that reportedly keep you warmer are hot peppers, which cause sweating, and complex carbohydrates (like brown rice) because they are harder to digest.

5. Get kitted out to tackle winter terrain

Change the tires on your wheelchair. Contact your supplier or local bike shop and get some wider wheels with enhanced grip. If you don’t want to invest in a whole new pair of wheels, putting zip types round your existing ones is an excellent way of achieving higher traction on snow and ice. Chains can also be used on wheels for this purpose.

Equally, adding a pair of Wheelblades to your wheels can considerably increase mobility for manual wheelchairs. They allow the wheels to glide right through snow as long as it is not too deep. Freedom Trax also can be attached to power you through the snow!

If you want to ensure mobility whatever the weather, consider purchasing an all-terrain wheelchair. These chairs are specifically designed to handle anything and will prove a wheelchair users best friend in wintery conditions. For example, the Going self balancing electric wheelchair or the BOMA7 wheelchair by Molton Rock, can handle most terrains and allow for incredible freedom of movement.

6. Perfect your winter wheeling technique

If you don’t have winter orientated assistive tech, you may want to adjust your wheeling technique if you are out on snow or ice. If you use a manual wheelchair, consider going backwards instead of forwards. As Dominic Lund Conlon from Review My Wheelchair outlines, going backwards will give added traction and decrease the likelihood of getting bogged down in the snow.

So that’s it from us. Stay warm and safe out there! If you have any other handy tips for handling winter in a wheelchair, then please comment below!