Think snow, ice, and cold temperatures need to relegate you and your children to months of web surfing and movie-watching? When considering the term “couch potatoes,” does an image of you and yours in winter instantly pop up?
For some families, cold and snow do not automatically mean house arrest, but are great incentives to be fit and stay healthy while learning about how both you and nature survive under challenging conditions. Warm, protective clothing, adequate fuel and preparation, and the right equipment can turn winter doldrums into winter wow, and bring you closer together as you share a frosty mountain, woodland trail, or lakeside hike in the snow. While nature typically goes to sleep during this time of year, the lack of crowds, snow-capped mountains, frosty brooks and waterfalls, a preponderance of snow geese or other seasonal wildlife (depending on where you live), snow-swept fields, and other pristine panoramas await the intrepid winter walker, and getting up and out can refresh and renew body, mind, and spirit. Winter hiking simply requires a little more forethought and preparation than an easy spring saunter.
First, as with hiking at other times of the year, gearing your choice of trails and destinations to the family’s overall physical ability, stamina, endurance and any limitations is key to making the trek enjoyable for all concerned. Choose a trail with options for kids, such as a view of a lighthouse, a stream or lake (frozen or otherwise) for rock tossing, a promontory that can be safely explored, waterfall, or friendly winter wildlife. A successful, engaging hike will be one that you’ll want to repeat (without resistance!) throughout the season.
Next, staying hydrated is paramount. Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean your body doesn’t lose fluids, especially under exertion. Dehydration may occur more slowly in some conditions in winter, but it can occur, and it’s especially important to ensure little ones drink enough water.
Because it’s cold and the ground may be frozen and/or wet, protecting your feet is essential. Wearing a couple of pairs of socks at a time (and carrying another dry pair or two in your backpack) may mean the difference between a pleasant hike and one you’re just trying to get through. Wet and/or cold feet lead to a cold body. You can always remove one pair if it becomes too warm or unnecessary. Waterproof, insulated hiking boots will keep feet comfortable and seal out the elements, especially if taking the family on a long hike, and snowshoes, if warranted for deeper snow, can often be rented at sporting goods stores or recreation facilities sites at larger parks.
Layered clothing is also important in winter. If you start out early and the sun then begins to warm the earth, you have the option of removing a jacket or superfluous sweaters as the day heats up. Depending on the region of the country where you live, wearing thermal underwear may also be a good idea. And a wool hat, scarf to cover the neck (and face), and insulated, waterproof gloves or mittens are a winter hiker’s best friends.
Where fuel is concerned, trail mix is great for snacks and making your own is both a fun family activity and one that allows you to include only the ingredients you really want–without a lot of added refined sugar store-bought brands sometimes include. Whole nuts, raisins, dried apples, apricots, figs and cherries, carob chips, sunflower seeds, and unsweetened shredded wheat are a few suggestions to keep energy up naturally without excess sugar. If bringing lunch, a thermos of warm, hearty vegetable or lentil soup makes a welcome complement to sandwiches.
Finally, safety should always be first and foremost, with essential equipment including a map, compass, and cell phone. Experts also recommend a hand-held GPS, especially as snow and changing weather conditions can obscure trail markers and signs. Even for what may be a projected leisurely afternoon hike, be sure to let a trusted friend or relative know where you are going, when you leave, and when you expect to return, and tell them you will check in with them when you do.
With the rewards of a carefully-planned brisk winter hike far outweighing most seasonal challenges, why not dedicate your winter to family fun and fitness in the great outdoors!