The daylight hours are shrinking, the weather growing colder… There’s no doubt about it, for those of us in the northern hemisphere: winter is approaching.
Before I go any further, I have to be honest about something: I live in California. Not the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, not the chilly high desert… Coastal, central, California. The only way I’ll see snow this winter is by driving four hours to the nearest mountains to go skiing.
But still, the darkness arrives earlier each day and my fingers get numb during my evening runs. Eventually rain will muddify my favorite running and biking trails. The mountain trails where I love backpacking in the summers are already accumulating snow. I know those of you in harsher climates may smirk, but even here in sunny California I find that winter puts a damper on my active outdoor lifestyle.
So, what’s an outdoor adventurer to do? Whether winter means the occasional cold drizzle or snow-shoveling your way out your front door every morning, it can be hard to maintain the same level of outdoor enthusiasm.
As part of my own effort to enjoy the outdoors as often as possible and maintain adventure-ready fitness year-round, I brainstormed the following list. Here are 12 ways to keep activity and stoke levels high, stay mentally and physically ready for future adventures, and make the most of every season, even the cold and stormy one.
Gear Up and Embrace Bad Weather
It’s easy to hide inside when the wind is howling or the temperatures are dropping, but it can be exciting to play outside in dramatic weather. Break out the rain gear (or snow gear) and go embrace mother nature in all her power. It’s a good reminder that nature doesn’t exist just to be our perfect playground; we enjoy nature on nature’s terms.
Do make sure you’re prepared with the right winter hiking gear to stay warm and safe, and avoid serious scenarios that could be dangerous (avalanche zones, wind that topples trees, rain that causes landslides…).
If you love to hike and your favorite trails have vanished under snow, try putting some snow shoes on your feet and “hiking” anyway. You can probably rent a pair from a local gear outfitter if you don’t have your own. Snowshoeing is a great workout, and I found it surprisingly pleasant the first time I tried it. As a downhill skier I’m used to moving quickly through snowy landscapes, but at snowshoe pace I had time to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
Do note that navigation can be harder when the trail is under snow, so make sure you have a solid navigation system and a backup (GPS plus map and compass for example) and research your route if it’s unfamiliar.
Try Snow Camping
For many of us, camping is a solidly “3 season” activity. But if you have the gear and knowledge for it, snow camping can be a fun alternative and a chance to expand your outdoor skills in a new direction. Learn to carve the perfect campsite in the snow, cook in cold weather, and stay warm and cozy in a winter wonderland.
Go Skiing or Snowboarding
If you already ski or snowboard, you probably look forward winter even if it does put a damper on your hiking and camping. Make the most of snow season by setting goals for getting better on the slopes. Make this the winter you try something new: take a guided backcountry ski trip, or an avalanche safety course, or a tele lesson. If you’re usually a skier, try snowboarding, or vice versa.
If strapping slippery things to your feet and launching yourself downhill sounds foreign and scary, make this the year you take a lesson and try it out.
Get Super Strong in the Gym
I know, you prefer your exercise outdoors under open skies, but hear me out. When I made friends with weight lifting, my enjoyment and skill across ALL areas of outdoor recreation took a permanent turn for the better. My achy knees, awkward running gait, nagging foot pain… After a couple years of consistent weight training, it all disappeared and I found myself enjoying adventures that I never would have dreamed possible.
Make the most of the winter months by getting started with weight lifting. By the time good weather rolls around again, your body will be ready to take you on another whole level of outdoor adventures.
Focus on full body compound movements like deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, rows, bench press and overhead press. If possible, hire a personal trainer to supervise for a session or two to make sure your form is good enough to avoid injury. If that’s not possible, pay careful attention to form pointers in quality online videos and get a friend to video you in the gym so you can check your own form.
Run for Fitness
I love trail running. I hate treadmills and tracks. But a couple years ago my office was near a lighted track and I spent the winter running in circles because I couldn’t fit trail runs into the short daylight hours. To keep it interesting, I ran intervals and casual speed workouts. And when I started trail running again as winter drew to a close… I totally kicked butt. All those boring laps around the track super-charged my fitness, my trail running, and ultimately my outdoor playtime fun-factor.
So throw in some earphones, turn on your favorite tunes and embrace running in circles (or running nowhere on a treadmill). If you’re not already into running, try a training plan for beginners. If you’re already a runner, ratchet up your speed and interval work. It’ll pay off once spring rolls around, and you never know, you might even learn to like it.
Try Indoor Rock Climbing
Outdoor rock climbing requires quite a bit of experience and gear to do safely, but indoor rock climbing is much simpler and perfect for chilly winters. You’ll gain flexibility in your hips and strength in your core and upper body, which is great cross-training for pretty much any outdoor activity.
Plus, climbing can really sharpen your mental game, and it’s also just plain fun to learn how to move well on vertical surfaces. You never know, the time spent indoors climbing at the gym might lead you back outside someday to climb on real rock.
Read Adventure Books
Who doesn’t love to live vicariously through awesome people? If you need to stay inside on a stormy winter day, why not curl up on the couch and read about someone else kicking butt outdoors? Here’s a small list of my recent and past favorites:
- The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert: A young woman and her husband undertake a rugged 4000+ mile expedition through Alaska
- Endurance by Alfred Lansing: Jawdropping account of Shackleton’s failed expedition to Antarctica and the incredible survival story that followed.
- Hikertrash: Life on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Erin Miller: Fun journal entries tell the story of a couple’s PCT hike in straightforward, realistic detail.
- Desert Snow by Helen Lloyd: Gutsy account of a lady who rode her bicycle solo through Africa. It’s the story that first got me hooked on the idea of bicycle travel, and made me second guess the social expectation that safety issues prevent women from taking on expeditions like this.
- Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis: The eventual holder of the fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail details her first AT thru-hike as a young college graduate.
- Last Breath by Peter Stark: A bit morbid, but smart reading for outdoor adventurers. Learn about things that can go very, very wrong in the outdoors and what factors can make the difference between life and death.
Watch Adventure Films
If films are more your speed than books, you have plenty to choose from, including many that are available free online. Here are just a few favorites to get you started.
- Meru: gorgeous and gripping mountaineering film
- Finding Traction: elite trail runner Nikki Kimball takes on the speed record on Vermont’s difficult Long Trail
- The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young: award-winning documentary about one of the quirkiest and most difficult endurance events in the world.
- Ride the Divide: classic documentary about a bicycle race along the continental divide. Responsible for getting quite a few people interested in the fringe sport of ultra-distance bikepack racing.
- Free Solo: If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold free-soloing El Cap, it’s time.
- The Dawn Wall: Another excellent climbing documentary, perhaps even more interesting than Free Solo if you’re actually into climbing.
Practice Nature Photography
If you love beautiful vistas but find your snapshots often underwhelm, make this the season you practice outdoor photography as a skill, not just an afterthought. Even if you can’t hit the most scenic trails or take epic backpacking trips during the winter, you can learn to take better photos in your backyard or a local park.
If you use a point-and-shoot camera with an “auto mode,” start by with learning how to manually control aperture, shutter speed, and focus (if your camera has a manual mode). Then practice basic composition rules, like arranging the frame in thirds, having a clear subject, and creating a sense of depth using both foreground and background.
Learn New Outdoor Skills
Winter is the perfect season to take all that time you normally spend hiking and instead brush up on your bushcraft skills. Practice orienteering in your local park, take a Wilderness First Aid class, or learn how to start a fire with sticks. Then, when your favorite trails open up again in the summer, you’ll be ready to take them on as a more skilled outdoorsperson.
Travel Somewhere Sunny
This one is kind of cheating, but if you really need a dose of sunny outdoor adventure, there’s always travel. Our winter months are summer in the southern hemisphere, so plan a trip to somewhere like New Zealand or Patagonia to get your fix of summer mountains.
Tropical countries near the equator can be wonderfully warm during our winter; watch out for monsoon season timing through.
Or head somewhere closer to home, like the deserts of California or the American southwest, for chilly but generally sunny and snow-free trails.
Happy Winter Adventuring
If the short chilly days of winter get you down, I hope this list convinced you that there’s still plenty to get excited about.
You can stay stoked on outdoor adventure by living vicariously through others. You can use the extra time indoors to get stronger and fitter and ready for a new level of adventure. And you can move out of your comfort zone and become a more well-rounded outdoorsperson.
You never know, you just might end up loving winter as much as the rest of the year.
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