Getting Around Safely in Winter

Published: Tues., Dec. 15, 2015; by Patrick Habecker

Patrick Habeckerportrait

New graduate students spend their first year adjusting to their programs and learning the ropes. 

Getting ready for the cold weather, however, isn't necessarily something you've thought about. Winters in Nebraska can be fairly cold, with temperatures in January and February often staying below freezing and dipping as low as -16°F (-23°C) at night.

These tips and tricks will help you travel safe and stay warm during the cold winter months.

Dressing for the Weather

Winter Coat

Winter coats are your first line of defense from the cold. If you’re going to be outside for just a few minutes at a time to walk between buildings and to and from your parking spot, don’t feel compelled to buy a high-end winter survival coat with all the bells and whistles.

When you’re looking for coats (also called outerwear), look for something suitable for Nebraska winters—typically, a coat rated for -15 to -20° F will keep you warm on even the coldest days. Some people prefer coats that go to their knees, which are great if you’re driving or riding the bus. Personally, I like a coat that's a bit longer and falls 5-6 inches below my waist. This gives me plenty of warmth and I can still ride my bicycle without the coat getting in the way.

Gloves vs. Mittens

The must-have accessory for winter is gloves or mittens. Mittens are often warmer, but, because all your fingers are bundled together, they restrict your ability to use your hands. While gloves make it easier to operate the gears and brakes of my bike, there are definitely days where I wish I were wearing mittens!

two hats
Hats come in all kinds of styles. There's sure to be one that's right for you—just pick one that covers your ears! Sources: Coolich Beanies and Robert Sheie

Winter Accessories and Layering

Hats are most useful when they cover your ears (your coat hood may also do the trick!). Scarves are not necessary, but they’re great for keeping out the winter winds and helping you stay toasty warm. In addition, sturdy boots will go a long way toward making your winters more comfortable.

Temperatures can vary a lot across a day, and some buildings are better heated than others. I highly recommend dressing in layers. Layer light sweaters, jackets, and button-down shirts that can easily be removed or pulled on to keep you comfortable.

The right materials will also keep you warm. Some synthetics, as well as wool and silk are great for keeping you warm. Avoid cotton, unless you absolutely know it won’t get wet and you’re wearing plenty of layers. Outdoors people have a saying: cotton kills, because wearing wet cotton in the cold leads to hypothermia. For that reason, pass on the lightweight cotton socks and opt instead for wool or SmartWool socks. Trust me on this one—your toes will thank me.


Now that you’re dressed for the weather, it’s time to talk about getting around when it’s cold, snowing, or icy. The overall theme of this section is to slow down and don't rush!


One of the biggest dangers to walkers is ice. Because black ice hard to see, it's easy to fall down. Reduce your chances of slipping by keeping your center of gravity over your feet. Walk evenly and slowly like a penguin.
If you do slip, it's very important that you don’t try to catch yourself with locked arms. Attempting to break a fall only increases your risk of injuring your wrist or arm, potentially leading to a break. Try instead to tuck and roll.   


Side view mirror
Clear your whole window--not just a little patch so you can see the mirror!
Photo by MTSOfan | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Dealing with Ice and Snow

An ice scraper is essential for clearing your windows and mirrors before you start driving. Some ice scrapers also include a brush on the opposite end. Use this to clear the snow from your entire car. Don't be that person driving down the road with snow billowing off your roof and obstructing others’ views!

A great tool to keep in your trunk is a snow shovel. If you live in an apartment complex, they'll likely plow the parking lot, but they may not clear the snow from behind your car.

If you normally park on the street, make sure you aren’t on a snow emergency route. If you do park on the street, be aware of whether it'll be cleared, and which side of the street is safe to park on.

Hitting the Road

Once you start driving in snowy or icy conditions, it’s exceedingly important that you adjust to the conditions of the road. (Of course, if the roads are bad, it’s best to avoid driving whenever possible.) Expect everything to take three times longer than it would on a dry, clear road. That includes stoppint times for everything from the length of your commute to stopping distances.

Be especially careful when you approach an intersection. Slow down early to increase the distance between you and the car in front. Starting and turning require special care, too. When turning, avoid spinning out or drifting into oncoming traffic by easing into turns

For additional tips for driving in the snow, check out the list of winter driving tips from the American Automotive Association (AAA). They even have a list of emergency supplies to have in the car if you're going to be taking a road trip.


Special Equipment and Bike Maintenance

bicycle on the snow
You can still bike in the snow, just practice riding in an empty parking lot first to get a sense of how your bike will move on snow-covered streets.
Photo by Pörrö | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The biggest challenge to biking in the winter is keeping warm. Layering is key, and it’s important not to dress too warmly—you should be a little cold starting off, because you’ll get warm from pedaling. If you dress too warmly to start with, you’ll arrive in a sweat and get cold while sitting in class.

The other trick to keeping warm during your bike ride is covering exposed skin. Ski goggles paired with a scarf and good gloves will keep you warm with relatively little effort. You should also wear a helmet in the winter (really, you should always wear a helmet!). In addition to protecting your head, the helmet cuts the wind nicely. If your helmet adjusts easily, you may be able to wear a beanie or even a balaclava underneath.

It’s possible to winterize your bike to some extent by purchasing studded tires or putting on larger tires designed for biking in the snow. If you haven’t already, invest in lights for your bike. During the shorter days of winter, a red light on your back and a white light in front make you more visible to cars.  To keep your bike in good working condition, you'll need to do a little more maintenance than usual to keep your chain and shifters free of muck. Also, consider investing in fenders or, at the very least, put a mudguard on your back tire. This’ll save you time cleaning your coat and backpack when you get to campus!

On the Road

One of the tricky things about riding in snow is learning how the bike will handle. You’ll find it’s easy to get stuck in tire tracks.  When you try to get out of a rut, your bike will move around beneath you. This can be a bit alarming if you aren't expecting it! Practice in a parking lot or another space free of cars and other obstacles. When it's time for your first commute in the snow, remember: if you don’t feel safe, get off your bike and walk or take the bus.

bus in the snow
When the weather's bad, let the Lincoln busses do the driving for you.
Photo by JimsFlicker | CC BY 2.0

Riding the Bus

It’s times like these that it helps to know the bus routes in Lincoln. It's much more comfortable to ride the bus, especially when there's fresh snow on the ground. For those of you determined to try biking at least part of your commute, you can put your bike on the front of the bus when you no longer feel safe riding. 

Final Thoughts

Winter in Nebraska can be pleasant if you’re properly prepared. Make sure you have the right clothes and gear to cope with the weather. Most importantly, take your time when moving through wintery conditions. It's better to be slow and steady than to be stuck on the side of the road or in a pile of snow!