Socks over shoes grip better
The researchers compared a group of
sock-and-shoe walkers to a control
group given no footwear assistance.
Image: iStockphoto

The longstanding practice of wearing socks over shoes to prevent falls on icy slopes has been supported by an innovative study from the University of Otago.

The research confirms that the technique - which may offend the style-conscious but has long been adopted by winter walkers to assist with the perils of a downhill descent - does reduce slips.

"Wearing socks over normal footwear was associated with a statistically significant improvement in traction," the researchers say in the New Zealand Medical Journal article which details their findings, published today.

Researchers braved winter mornings in 2008 on two hillside footpaths in Dunedin to recruit would-be walkers for a randomised controlled trial.

Half of the pedestrians were given socks to sport over their footwear, while others formed a control group of participants who attempted a descent without the popular slip-prevention devices.

The study's findings confirmed that those pedestrians 'armed' with socks found the slopes less slippery and enjoyed increased confidence while negotiating their way.

The research was conducted by Drs Lianne Parkin, Patricia Priest and Associate Professor Sheila Williams from the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine.

Impetus grew out of a tea-room discussion about the popular but unproven practice, which is often used by intrepid southerners when they brave steep Dunedin streets on sub-zero mornings, and is even advocated by the Dunedin City Council, but which has never been scientifically proven.

Yet falls due to icy underfoot conditions are a common cause of injury in the lower South Island throughout the winter.

""Anecdotal evidence" is generally insufficient to demonstrate the efficacy of a treatment or intervention," explains Dr Parkin. "Instead, a randomised controlled trial (double-blinded if possible) is required".

Further inspired by the retirement of an eminent departmental colleague, herself an avowed wearer of socks-over-shoes, the researchers set out to test the popular hypothesis with the help of PhD students, post-doctoral and teaching fellows and Associate Professor Peter Herbison.

"It was an opportunity for some of the investigators to put their theoretical knowledge about randomised controlled trials into practice, it was great fun, and we found that socks really do seem to help!' reports Parkin, who adds that the only adverse effects of the research were 'short periods of embarrassment for the image-conscious in the intervention group."

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.