I love winter in New England and I always have. Let me be more specific. I have lived in Missouri and the Bay Area of California and I do not enjoy those winters as much. Winter should be cold, full of snow, and provide opportunities to get outside and embrace the season! And even if you are not as enthusiastic about the winter season as I am, there are plenty of outdoor activities you can take part in to experience winter in Massachusetts and all over New England. If you are looking for ways to get outside this winter and experience nature in a different way, consider these activities to do by yourself, with your family, or with a group of friends.
Cross Country Skiing
For me there are few activities like gliding through a winter forest landscape on a pair of cross-country skis. You get to experience the woods and fields in a different way. Faster than a walk, but not so fast that you miss details such as tracks or bird calls. You can become wrapped in the blanket of winter sounds and sights as you explore.
If you have never been cross country skiing I suggest renting a pair from a local ski resort or an outdoor store that does rentals or offer classes. Start slow, and don’t try and ski 10 miles your first time out. Take it slow. And if you want to challenge yourself, there are races too. One thing to remember with cross country skiing, and many winter activities, is that you will work up a sweat as you go so dress accordingly. Wear layers and when you start off, being a little cool is a good plan. Bring a warmer layer for when you stop to rest, you will cool off quickly. Also make sure you have a way to carry water and food. Dress for success.
If you are looking for an activity that has a lot of similarities to cross country skiing and has some very distinct differences, go snowshoeing! It is not as graceful as cross country skiing, and you get to experience nature a little slower. The best part of snowshoeing for me is the adventure of not knowing how deep the snow is under your feet! In many places you can find groomed areas for snowshoeing which can be great and allow you to move at decent pace. And there are other places where you can go explore “off trail” and this is where the adventure of discovering snow depth can be found.
Getting out and seeing what animals have been there before you can be a rewarding experience. Tracking in winter can be done on foot, skis or snow shoes. It can be done as a standalone activity or a great additional activity to do while you are doing something else. In winter learning to read tracks on the landscape when there is snow, even a dusting, can be a rewarding experience. You can go tracking almost anywhere, including your backyard, and learning the basics of tracking and identifying prints can be done fairly easily.
Check out our upcoming program, Tracks and Traces!
There is nothing like tasting real, pure maple syrup. And the smell of the sugaring process is almost magical! In New England there is a multitude of opportunities to see the sugaring process first hand. It is a great opportunity to experience a food to table process and get a great treat as well. Maple sugaring is a great group experience as well. Head out as a family or as a group of friends and find a local sugaring operation and learn more about this great New England tradition.
Check out our upcoming programs and events on maple sugaring!
The night sky in winter is a wonderful treat. Not that the summer sky isn’t grand, but the sky tends to be clearer in the winter. The challenge comes from staying warm while essentially standing still in the cold night air.
There are a few reasons why the winter sky is thought of as a special treat for backyard astronomers. The first is that cold air doesn’t hold as much moisture as warm air can. A second reason is that nights are also longer in the winter, giving us a greater window in which to enjoy the beauty of the night sky. And a third reason is in December, January and February, the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere looks out to the edge of our galaxy where there are fewer stars clustered together.
Check out our next Free Star Gazing Night!
For all of these activities there are some things to keep in mind in terms of being outside safely in winter weather. Remember this number; 98.6. That is the temperature in Fahrenheit that you want to keep your body as close to as possibly. Being safe outside in the winter boils down to keeping your body warm and dry and avoiding hypothermia. One of my favorite sayings about being outdoors goes something like this: “There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices”. I have these words of wisdom in my head whenever I am planning on being outside for any real length of time, but especially in winter.
1) What is the level of my exertion going to be?
2) How long am I going to be outside?
3) How much fuel am I going to need? How much food and water should I take?
4) What are the temperatures and weather forecast?
5) What are the chances of things going wrong?
Answering these 5 questions will help you decide what you need to bring on your adventure. In general this will help you decide what clothes to wear and bring, how much food and water to take, and what other equipment you might want. Regardless of what activity you are doing, making good choices around these topics, can greatly increase the enjoyment of your activity.
Clothing is really a portable shelter. What we wear can make a huge difference in how we regulate our body temperature. In winter if you are going to be outside and you want to be warm and dry try to avoid wearing cotton. At least as a base layer. Cotton tends to hold in moisture and keeps it next to your body causing your body to spend energy trying to heat that moisture. Synthetic fabric or wool can keep your warm even when it is wet. If you are going to be moving slow, or maybe sitting for longer periods of time, say while you are tracking or looking for the northern lights, you are going to want clothing that has a lot of insulation. Something like a good base layer of synthetic fabric or a wool or wool blend layer. And then layers of insulation. A fleece or down layer, and then a shell or water proof layer. One quick point about down as an insulator – down is amazing at keeping you warm, unless it gets wet. Many companies now make down jackets and vests with a water resistant shell. If you are not moving much or very quickly, dress for warmth. Good gloves or mittens, a warm hat, good boots, and layers for your body.
If you are going to be moving a lot and generating body heat, then start your activity off feeling a little cool. As your body warms up and starts perspiring, you want to let that heat escape. Have extra layers available for when you stop to rest or refuel. You don’t want to let your body cool down too quickly. When I have been dog-sledding the high temperatures were around 5 degrees, but I was only wearing a thin base layer and light weight fleece on my top with a thin fleece hat. I had water proof pants with a thin under layer and warm boots and gloves. When we would stop to rest or eat, I would put on enough clothes to look like I was on Mt. Washington in January. Invest some time and maybe some money to make sure you are warm and comfortable.
Making sure that your body has enough fuel and water to stay warm in winter weather is very important, and can be lots of fun. You need to make sure that you are replacing the calories that you are burning while be outside. We lose a lot of body heat and moisture through simple things like breathing and sweating. And in the winter we can also lose a good deal of body heat through convection, radiation, and conduction cooling. When the air temperature is below 68 degrees Fahrenheit the body can lose a good deal of heat through radiation and conduction-the movement of heat from a warmer to colder environment. You need to keep those internal fires burning!
One of my favorite things about outdoor winter activities is that it gives me a reason to eat more. Even on a short run or cross country ski jaunt, it can be a good idea to make sure you give yourself some extra calories to burn. On average we burn between 1500-3000 calories a day. Winter camping or backpacking can burn upwards of 4000-5000 calories a day. Even if you are just out for a couple of hours of skiing or taking winter photos, make sure you pack enough food to keep you going. And make sure you have enough water! Even though you might not be sweating, your body is losing water through cooling and respiration. And if you are going to be out in really cold weather, make sure your water is kept warm enough to not freeze.
In addition to whatever equipment you need for your activity, you might consider bringing along a few extra things just in case. A basic first aid kit, a phone, a small thermal emergency blanket, a way to start a fire, a map of where you are going, and a good whistle. Not a lot of extra weight, but the essentials in case something does not go according to your plan. Or if you meet someone else whose plans have gone awry.
As for all the activities you can do during the winter, get out and enjoy them! Take classes, rent equipment, try something new. Go explore your local Mass Audubon sanctuaries and see what they look like in winter, and explore the classes we offer. Winter is natures’ way of slowing down and recharging it’s systems to get ready for the explosion of spring growth. Take this opportunity to do some recharging of your own. Go outside and explore!