As we head deeper into the winter months, it’s harder to find opportunities to get outside for exercise, particularly for those who aren’t predisposed to the pace of skiing and snowboarding. A walk in nature might be the easiest solution.
Cold-weather hiking is often solitary. It’s rare to find small bands of casual walkers in the woods, as you sometimes do in summer. The bitter wind has the effect of making people less chatty and more introspective, and the woods themselves are imbued with a serene but slightly melancholy feeling. Many of the birds have flown south. The leaves have fallen and the landscapes are bare. Even the mushrooms have disappeared for the most part, although a few species, such as oysters, velvet feet, reishi and chaga, linger on, and in some cases flourish.
Despite the chilly isolation, cold-weather hikers can be warmer than their summer counterparts. A friendly hello along the trail in July is sometimes met with a muttered, barely audible response. Winter hikers seem to be part of a secret society, and will often offer a hearty welcome. Maybe it’s the lack of mosquitoes.
Perhaps you’ve never been out cold-weather hiking and are now convinced to lace up your boots and hit the trails. Not to dampen your eagerness, but it’s worth nothing that even small paths can become dangerous in winter. There is a real threat of hypothermia. A minor ankle sprain that would be merely a nuisance at other times of the year can pose serious risks in the afternoon as the sun sets, or if you become lost. The key is to bring appropriate gear and take necessary precautions.
As for gear, traction cleats are essential. The most famous brand is Yaktrax. There are alternatives, but I wouldn’t suggest buying anything designed to save you money. Cheap cleats are borderline useless: they don’t fit as well, and the metal rusts easily. I’ve learned from experience to take the cleats with me even when they are not obviously necessary. If you find yourself on an icy path, particularly on an incline, you’ll regret not having them. Sometimes you’ll find that the most dangerous terrain is in the parking lot. A good pair of traction cleats might save you from a broken tailbone.
If needed, I bring snowshoes. You’ll want a pair that can be put on and taken off while wearing gloves. I bought mine years ago, and they show no signs of needing to be replaced. Along with the shoes come the hiking poles. Walking sticks do just as well, but, at least in my case, they invite a Gandalf joke or two.
You might consider buying a snowshoe kit and making them the old-fashioned way. I did this a few years ago, for a second pair. Wooden snowshoes are lighter than their industrial counterparts. Some adherents claim they work better. They also look cool. That being said, don’t be under the illusion that they are easy to build. Mine took a few weeks. Those patterns that look so simple while hanging on the wall of the trading post are sadistically complex to weave. A polyurethane coating needed to be applied four times in a ventilated space. As proponents of traditional wooden snowshoes often repeat, if you want them to last, you wear out the varnish, not the wood. By the time mine were ready, winter was nearly over and I didn’t get to use them.As far as clothing, layers are vital. Being too warm and starting to sweat can be just as dangerous as being too cold. I prefer utility work gloves — the type you buy in a hardware store — unless the weather is painfully chilly. Winter gloves are available that allow you to operate the touch screen on your phone without the risk of frostbite.
Wear some orange clothing if you’re hiking in or near an area where hunting is allowed. Hunting accidents are rare, but it’s best to be cautious, particularly if you look like me and are occasionally mistaken for a bear.
The last item on my list is an insulated tumbler. A hot drink enjoyed next to an icy pond is one of life’s greatest pleasures. The contemplative stillness and the contrast of inner warmth and outer iciness feels sublime. The bliss is so profound you likely won’t need a splash of Baileys with your coffee, and, as a responsible person who recognizes that alcohol is forbidden on most trails, I wouldn’t advise it. Besides, Kahlua tastes better.
So, you have your gear. You have planned for emergencies. The coffee is brewed. Now what?
You may discover that your favorite trail is closed during the winter months. I love the Great Brook trail system in Carlisle, but parts of it are closed to everyone except cross-country skiers from Dec. 1 to March 20. The people on the groomed paths pay Yankee dollars for their passes. As someone who once stumbled accidentally onto one of these designated trails, I can report that the skiers are not shy about making sure you don’t feel welcome.
I have four favorite places. Top of the list is Harold Parker State Forest in the Andovers. It’s well marked. The parking is safe, even in a blizzard. And, most importantly, it is very beautiful.
I also enjoy nearby Boxford State Forest. It’s easier to get lost there, but worth a visit as an example of how forests in the same geographic area can have different ecosystems. I find mushroom species in Boxford that I’ve never seen in Harold Parker. In snowy conditions, parking can be a problem.
In the New Hampshire part of the Valley, I recommend Horse Hill Nature Preserve. It’s located in Merrimack and frequented by hunters during deer season.If you’re getting cabin fever and want to leave the Valley for the day, consider a trip to Lynn Woods Reservation — one of the most underappreciated resources in the Commonwealth. While the city of Lynn is best known for its gritty side, the Lynn Woods contain over 30 miles of trails, mapped out in an easy-to-follow grid system. The sheer size of the reservation means you can pass through diverse scenic opportunities: birchwoods, swamps, ponds, historic structures and towers, and gothic-looking rock formations.
One of the advantages of hiking in the snow is that it transforms small paths into bigger challenges. I once snowshoed a short 1.3-mile nature trail near my home during a storm. The knee-high drifts slowed my pace, but I also knew I was a shout away from a residential neighborhood if I wanted to cut my trip short.
Beyond exercise, cold-weather hiking can feel like a meditative practice. With the spare surroundings comes a clarity of mind. The views are more expansive, uninterrupted by greenery, and with the change in sense of scale comes a welcome humility. The problems of the day seem less significant. We all know how easy it is to hunker down and hibernate in the colder months. Before we realize it, it’s too late, and we find ourselves having gone too long disconnected from the natural world. Cold-weather hiking is the perfect antidote. Don’t forget the coffee.