5 Tips for Being Safe and Warm with Winter Activities
We have been writing about skiing and snowshoeing on our blog recently, but the truth is that it can be hard to get motivated to go outside when the weather is cold. This is especially true for activities other than skiing where you have a warm lodge and your car not far away. Indeed, if you do plan an outdoor activity in the winter, you are going to want to engage in a little extra preparation because safety in the cold requires a different mindset. With that in mind, here are 5 basic things to consider.
1. Stay hydrated. This is almost automatic when being out in the summer, but your body needs to stay hydrated when it is cold as well. In fact, you are losing a surprising amount of water in the colder air because it holds less humidity on its own. When you breath that cold, dry air into your warm, moist lungs, it steals away a lot of moisture. Think of the image of 'seeing your breath' when it's cold, you are basically breathing out a big plume of steam with every breath. When you consider how many breaths you take per minute, you can imagine how quickly you are losing fluids. Ever had a headache after skiing or some other winter activity for a few hours? Well, you were most likely dehydrated.
2. Dress in layers (and avoid cotton). You've probably heard this before, but it bears repeating. When you are exercising you are probably going to sweat a bit, even if it is cold. If you are dressed in layers you can remove a few to account for this and still stay comfortable without soaking your clothes. But if you have just a single large jacket, how are you going to adjust? Better to have layers so you can tailor the amount of clothes to the level of your activity, and that way when you stop to rest and start cooling down rapidly in the cold air, you can simply add the layers back on as needed to stay comfortable. You want to avoid sweating as much as possible, and you really want to avoid cotton because when the inevitable sweat comes and gets your cotton clothing wet, the cotton will lose 80% of more of its insulation value. The old adage is "cotton kills" when it comes to winter survival. On the other hand, garments made of wool or modern synthetic materials will keep most of their insulation value even when wet.
3. Food for fuel. You will be burning calories if you are active and outside in the winter. Whether its cross country skiing, alpine skiing, snowshoeing, or even sledding, these endeavors burn calories. Heck, your body has to burn more calories just to stay warm in cold weather, and I've heard of some crazy folks who lost weight just by standing outside in their swimsuits during the winter (not recommended). But seriously, if you are outside and a ways from your car or someplace warm, and you are starting to 'hit the wall' energy wise, and the temperature is dropping, and you're starting to feel cold - well, you could be headed for hypothermia. Bring along some energy dense snacks like nuts, granola, energy bars, or even a candy bar (the sugar rush won't last as long but anything helps) to help keep that furnace burning.
4. Wear a hat. You lose a lot of heat from your head, so put a lid on it and you will feel warmer all over. Another old adage says "if your fingers are cold, put a hat on." Think about it. Also, wear a windproof shell. Even a small amount of wind will cut through most clothes when it is cold so having a wind blocking outer layer is important. Waterproof is best, but you can do OK with anything that keeps out the breeze because at really low temperatures things won't be wet anyway - they will be frozen. However, beware of sitting on snow, because the pressure from sitting on it can cause it to melt and get you wet anyway. It's true, it's science.
5. Think safety. When the weather is cold there is less margin for error, so be honest about your limits. First time snowshoeing? Don't choose a trail that is 5 miles long with huge elevation gains. Be aware of snow conditions and steep slopes, because you don't want to be anywhere near an avalanche. Most of all be extremely cautious around ice as it is notoriously difficult to judge. There can be air bubbles trapped in the ice, there can be moving water underneath it, there can be 'rotten' ice that has gone through multiple freeze/thaw cycles, all of which cause the ice to become weaker. And you can have weak ice in close proximity to strong ice with little warning that things are changing, so be ever vigilant when near ice and just don't risk it.
6. Plan Ahead. This is a bonus one that derives from suggestions we received after we first wrote this as a blog post. In the winter you will want to start early and think about how long your route will take, because the days will be shorter. So think about how long you want to be out there. Also, the weather can change fast in the winter and get downright serious in a hurry. This could mean white-out conditions where you might lose your way, big drops in temperature that might find you with inadequate layers, or even changing road conditions that might make your drive back home the most adventurous part of your day! With the internet it is now so easy to find forecasts for any area near or far, so there is no excuse not to check ahead and go prepared.
Now that I've said all the scary things, don't let it keep you from getting out! Just do it in a smart, prepared way. Start easy and test things out as you go, because the winter season is full of hidden delights for those who are prepared enough to venture out in it.