■ Protect the Extremities. Hats that cover the ears (or earmuffs) are vital because the head has little insulation against the cold. Scarves keep the neck and chest warm and can be used to protect the face against wind. Mittens keep hands warmer than gloves, especially if they are fur-lined or heated with rechargeable batteries.
For cold feet, there are lined waterproof boots rated by temperature, as well as battery-heated socks and insoles. Ugg boots are very toasty but not waterproof, and some find them too warm to wear indoors. Slip-resistant soles or cleats can help keep you upright on icy pavement.
■ Safeguard Your Health. Stay well hydrated and well nourished, and wash your hands often. Prevent serious infections by getting an annual flu shot and, for those over 65, at least one and preferably both of the pneumonia vaccines now available.
■ Shovel Wisely. Snow shoveling is responsible for thousands of injuries and up to 100 deaths each year, and not just among those of us past our prime. Anyone who is not regularly physically active and in good physical condition should hire someone else to do the job. And don’t assume that using a snow blower is safer. It’s a heavy device and pushing it can overtax the heart, especially in the cold.
The National Safety Council offers these tips for safer shoveling: Check with your doctor if you have a history of heart disease; don’t shovel after eating or while smoking; stretch first and start slowly; wherever possible, push rather than lift the snow; if you must lift, don’t overload the shovel and use your legs, not your back to raise it; avoid working to the point of exhaustion; and stop immediately if you feel dizzy or develop tightness in your chest.
■ Prepare Your Home. Reduce drafts and lower heating costs by insulating the roof, walls, window sashes and doorframes. Keep your thermostat set at a comfortable temperature during the day — between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit (72 degrees on average), depending on the age and health of the occupants. Keep in mind that babies and older adults are often easily chilled.
However, you can save a lot of money if you lower the thermostat and wear warmer clothing indoors. Physical activity also generates body heat, so sit less and move more if possible. Lower the thermostat at night to about 60 degrees, and use pajamas and quilts to keep warm while asleep. I switch to flannel sheets as soon as the outside temperature at night drops below 50.
■ Prevent Fires. Fire is a major winter hazard, most often avoidable. Nonetheless, no dwelling should be without a working smoke and carbon monoxide detector (often available in combination). Never use the stove or oven for heat. Instead, invest in a well-designed portable space heater and use it safely, protected from young children and pets. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 40 percent of home heating fires and 84 percent of resulting deaths involve stationary or portable space heaters. Choose only those that shut off immediately if tipped over and use them only on nonflammable, hard, level surfaces. Turn off all space heaters before going to bed. Electric heaters are the only kind safe to use unvented indoors. If you use a fireplace, always protect it with a well-fitted screen to prevent sparks and embers from escaping.
If possible, avoid using extension cords, a frequent cause of house fires. But if you must, make sure cords are modern, are not frayed and are rated for the intended device. Never use one to power a heater or for more than one device. A much safer option: Have additional wall outlets installed.
■ Drive Safely. Make sure your vehicle is prepared for winter conditions, with a good battery, tires with good treads that are properly inflated, antifreeze in the radiator, working windshield wipers and plenty of no-freeze window washer fluid.
Automotive items I consider essential, especially when driving in isolated areas or far from home: A fully charged cellphone, preferably with stored emergency numbers; a working flashlight; snow brush, ice scraper and small shovel; flares; one or more blankets; drinking water and snacks or sandwiches.
Practice driving on snow and ice in a safe area. Teach yourself to steer into a skid, a lesson I learned in my early 20s that saved my life when my car skidded on an icy overpass on an interstate in Wisconsin. Make sure you are well rested before getting on the road, and plan to stop in a rest area if you feel sleepy. On long trips, stop, get out of the car, and walk around at least once every three hours.
Don’t leave the car idling with windows closed or while you doze. Needless to say, never drink alcohol before driving, but you might consider having a cup of caffeinated coffee or tea. I take coffee with me in a metal cup that plugs into the car’s power outlet.
Always drive at speeds and distances from other vehicles appropriate for road conditions. It takes longer to stop on ice, snow and water-covered ice. Having to brake hard on a slippery road is an invitation to disaster.