Winter Survival Guide: 5 Ways to Thrive Outdoors This Season
Winter can be a challenging season, even in ordinary times. Cold weather forces many people inside, making staying active more difficult. Inactivity and prolonged periods indoors comes with a whole host of issues, including higher levels of depression and more frequent illness. Concerns about COVID-19 spikes and continued separation from friends and family make this winter especially disconcerting, but even if this winter looks different for you, remaining sedentary and indoors is not an option.
“Enjoying the winter is something you can learn how to do,” says Rachel Freierman, manager of AMC’s A Mountain Classroom program. Like any learned skill, for some, thriving during the winter season takes practice and a plan.
Use this guide as a starting point to stay healthy and happy this winter. We drew heavily from the Danish philosophy of friluftsliv—which roughly translates “life outdoors”—as a key to taking care of both body and mind this winter.
Build an outdoor living space
Building a cozy outdoor living space is something that is possible on a variety of different budgets and is a safe and fun way to host small gatherings and maintain physical distancing. A winter-friendly outdoor living space must have a heat source, some protection from wind, snow, and sleet, and, of course, a place to sit with family and friends. Start with your heat source; a fire pit is safer than open fires, and easier to control. Affordable firepits can be found online or at many home improvement centers. If you chose to build a campfire, make sure that you follow local safety regulations and Leave No Trace principles for minimizing their ecological impacts. From there, add waterproof seating that won’t be damaged by snow and, optionally, some source of lighting—whether string lights or battery powered votive lights. The space can be built onto a pre-existing patio, deck, or right in the back yard. Make sure to dress yourself and children warmly to enjoy your new living space safely.
Snowshoeing is an excellent way to get outside and active in the wintertime. Even if you live in an urban area, snowshoe newbies can visit a public park to try it out. As with all wintertime outdoor activities, warm, layered clothing, and proper hydration are vital. (Read AMC’s tips on snowshoeing for beginners.) Buy or rent a pair of snowshoes and explore a local park, hiking trail, or even your own back yard. Don’t forget to pack sunscreen, even in the wintertime, the sun’s rays can be strong enough to damage your skin, especially when reflecting off the snowpack. For those willing to travel, AMC’s Medawisla Lodge and Cabins and Gorman Chairback Lodge in Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness offer contact-free safety protocols and feature TK miles of trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Cook al fresco
Even when not camping or backpacking, preparing a meal outdoors in the wintertime can be a fun way to connect with family and friends—especially combined with the outdoor living space described above—where physical distance can be easily maintained. Make sure to dress warmly and in layers as you cook and, of course, use caution when working around an open flame or stove. First, pick your dish. Tasty and easy outdoor meals include chili, cheesy potatoes, pasta with marinara sauce—you can find those recipes and more here. Second, choose your fuel; kerosene, propane, and wood are the three most common in outdoor cooking. A portable, propane stovetop is great for beginners as it requires less tending than cooking with fire.
For something different, try your hand making maple sugar candy with only one ingredient and a patch of clean, freshly fallen snow. Simply heat two cups of pure maple syrup over medium-low heat, and when the syrup reaches 235 degrees Fahrenheit, quickly and carefully pour the hot syrup onto your chosen patch of snow. As the syrup cools, it will become more firm, similar to the texture of taffy. Use a clean stick, popsicle stick, or chopstick or collect the syrup. The full recipe can be found here.
Track winter wildlife
A great activity for kids and adults alike, animal tracking is when we search for and identify animal footprints, and is easy to pick up in winter. Pick a location, whether it’s your backyard, a nearby park, or a tougher trek into the backcountry and try to find as many tracks as you can. Bring along a nature journal for sketching and observation, if you like. Keep in mind that timing is important; most animal are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, so plan your tracking around the animals’ schedules. Be sure to keep safety in mind at all times; never follow, harass or approach an animal if you encounter one in the wild. When you find a track, ponder the animal that made them. See if you can identify the animal and think about what the critter might be doing based on its typical behavior. If you see the footprint of a rabbit, for instance, you might surmise that it was on its way to nibble on buds, tree bark, or saplings. Or, maybe you spotted tracks from a hunting fox or those of a squirrel scrounging for acorns, insects, or animal bones. This can be a great educational prompt for children to learn about wildlife or even for interested adults to learn more about the habitat they share with animals.
Sample packing list for tracking:
- Track identification guide, such as the Filson Pocket Guide, or a free, printed PDF of a website.
- Camera or phone
- Hand warmers
- For those embarking on longer tracking hikes in the backcountry, make sure to pack the 10 Essentials and check the weather before your trip.
Reflect in writing
When we observe and reflect on nature, we are more inclined to appreciate its beauty—even in colder weather. Nature journaling can help us do that. Find a notebook, sketchbook, or make your own journal by folding a stack of paper in half, lengthwise, and stapling the paper along the fold. Write the day on the top corner of each page, and fill it with plant and wildlife sketches, observations about the weather, temperature, and snowfall. Consider using a prompt, describing your surroundings based on the five senses, or simply free-write. Set a timer for 10 to 30 minutes and note your state of mind and the environment around you in as much detail as you can. Glue leaves, feathers, dried flowers, and other found items into your journal (only those that have fallen to the ground, please).
Another journaling activity is the snow study, which is based on curricula developed by AMC’s A Mountain Classroom program. Find a patch of snow that is at least twelve inches deep and dig a hole roughly three feet across and all the way down to the ground. This is what is known as the subnivean zone. See if you can observe the small tunnels that mice, voles, and shrews use to get around safely in the winter and point out the different layers of snow that has fallen.
Go for a plog
Plogging is a Swedish fitness craze that started in 2016. It is a portmanteau which combines the Swedish plocka, or “to pick up” with the English “jogging.” As you might be able to tell from the name, ploggers jog or run while picking up litter. Plogging is fun way to combine fitness with social activity and caring for your community. You’ll get a great workout, too, not just from the running, but also the squatting and bending. Take a trip to a local park to jog or even just trot around your block, making sure that any sidewalks or trails you’ll be using are clear of ice and are safe surfaces to run on. Proper outdoor running gear such as gloves, moisture wicking underlayers, and a hat are a must, as well as hand sanitizer, latex gloves, and garbage bags. Purchase a multi-use grabber tool to keep your plogging extra safe. Showing your community some care is not only great for the environment but can help keep your mood up throughout the winter, especially when combined with physical activity.