Be Outdoors as Much as Possible This Winter

That way, the long months of COVID-19 restrictions won't feel so oppressive.

Picnic on a frozen lake
Picnic on a frozen lake.

Maskot / Getty Images

One of my favorite things to do is read outdoors. While this is a normal activity to do in warm weather, I like to do it year-round, even when the temperature dips below freezing. As long as there's no precipitation that might ruin the pages of my book, I like nothing better than to curl up on a padded chair, zipped into an insulated jacket, legs swaddled in a blanket, wearing a hat and gloves, with a hot drink balanced on the edge of my seat, and read. The sunshine warms me, the cold air make me alert, and I feel happy to be alive.

I share this anecdote because it illustrates an important point. There are many activities that can take place outdoors, even when the weather is cold – and this is a crucial point to grasp as we head into another winter of pandemic living. I've come to believe that the better equipped we are to move our lives outdoors, the better this whole experience will be. Our quality of life improves, both physically and mentally, when we can spend time outdoors, either alone or in the company of friends. 

And so, I am urging readers to take this last month of fall as an opportunity to set yourselves up for outdoor living as best you can. It's especially important if you have children, who desperately need a place to burn off energy and get away from screens. If I can do it in Ontario, Canada, living on the windy shores of Lake Huron, then most of the U.S. and the rest of Canada can do it, too. 

Outerwear

The first and most important thing is to invest in properly insulated outerwear. Get boots that are warm and waterproof. Wear layers of clothing that aren't too bulky to prevent you from being active, but keep you cozy when you slow down. Buy a thick hat, mittens, a scarf or neck warmer, and snow pants or rain pants, depending where you live.

Don't skimp on outerwear. I'm often amazed at how parents will drop loads of money on their children's brand-name indoor clothes, but buy cheap snow gear that fails to keep them comfortable or dry. These pieces will get worn every day for months on end, and can be handed down to other children. If you can't afford new, there's plenty of great second-hand outerwear available online and at thrift stores; just start looking now. 

Figure out how to dry your wet clothes, whether it's a handy rack over the floor vent or a hanger system. Train your kids to remove their gear and dry it immediately so it's always ready to go.

Outdoor Space

Everyone's living situation is different, but try to create an outdoor gathering spot. Whether it's a deck, a balcony, a patio, or a driveway, having an obvious place to hang out will make you more inclined to do it. I have a patio that I shovel diligently. There are some wooden Adirondack-style chairs (that I bought secondhand and repainted) that stay out all winter long. I carry out cushions and wool blankets when they're going to be used.

A fire pit is a total game-changer (though my colleague Lloyd may disagree with me from an air pollution standpoint, which is certainly worth considering during a respiratory pandemic). But if you're comfortable running that risk, having a central fire not only attracts and holds people, but it creates a comfortable climate where you can sit for hours on end, even when it's freezing cold. In my experience, lighting a fire on a weekend afternoon draws the entire family outdoors. My husband and I can sit around it, chatting or reading, while the kids are more inclined to play in the yard because we're nearby. 

It's also a wonderful way to safely entertain guests while following local COVID rules, as I did on Halloween this year. I made a huge batch of homemade doughnuts and we ate them around the fire under the full blue moon.

outdoor popcorn party
A popcorn party at the beach, made on a camp stove.

K Martinko

Kids' Play Spaces

Give some thought to where your children can play outdoors throughout the winter months. Having a sheltered spot can mean the difference between them wanting to go out and not. Do they have a treehouse, and if not, could that be a project for the next few weeks? An unused shed can be converted into a mini house or fallen evergreen boughs into a makeshift fort. If you live in a snowy region, help them build an igloo at some point this winter; it can keep for weeks if the temperature stays cold, and they'll get many hours of fun play out of it.

Note: Sheltered spaces are useful for adults, too, especially if you don't have a fire pit to gather around. Consider using a well-ventilated garage to visit with friends, or a partially-enclosed gazebo or screened porch.

Activities

Like my outdoor reading habit, there are many things you can do outdoors all winter long. My family enjoys outdoor picnics. We take our camping stove to a nearby provincial park and cook a hot lunch at a picnic table. We use it to make coffee, tea, and hot cider on long hikes. It gives a fun focal point to the outing and warms us up. (You can also carry hot drinks in a thermos whenever you go for walks.)

Consider buying sporting gear that will allow you to spend time outside. Perhaps this is the winter to invest in cross-country skis, a snowboard, snowshoes, skates, or a fat bike with winter tires. Many of these things can be found secondhand, either at thrift stores, consignment stores, or the numerous swaps that occur in the weeks leading up to the season's start. Ask a local sports shop for guidance on getting equipped. 

Katherine snowshoeing on frozen lake
The author carries her snowshoes onto a frozen lake.

K Martinko

Buy hiking boots and start walking. This is a cheap, accessible activity that allows for safe socializing, exercise, and sightseeing. And it can be fun in all kinds of weather, as long as you've got the right outerwear (see above!). You could commit to walking everywhere that's less than a mile or two away, and see how that kickstarts your health and sense of wellbeing.

Set up your bike for winter riding, whether for commuting or for fun. You can swap out tires to get more grip on icy pavement, and Lloyd will tell you exactly how to dress for every kind of weather. I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of a RadWagon Cargo E-Bike to review for Treehugger, and it looks like it'll show up just in time for snowy weather. With its 3" tires, I'm hoping it'll carry me through the winter. More to come on that.

See if there are any outdoor activities that you can sign yourself or your kids up for this year. Cross-country skiing is something my family started doing last year and thankfully it's been deemed safe to run again this year, pandemic notwithstanding. My kids will spend two hours every weekend skiing in the forest, and I'll likely do the same while I wait for them to finish. Ball sports, such as soccer, can be played all winter long, too; just get a colored ball so you don't lose it in the snow. See if your town or city offers skating at an outdoor rink, or try to make one in your backyard.

Do some stargazing. Winter skies are stunningly clear. If you can get out of the city, it's deeply satisfying to lie back in the snow (in a snow suit, of course) and spot constellations. Get your hands on a telescope to take your gazing to the next level. My kids use an app called Sky View to identify stars and constellations, and it brings them a great deal of joy, entertainment, and education.

The outdoors is wonderful and welcoming year-round; it's just us humans who tend to forget that. Make a point of spending more time out of the house, and this next winter need not feel so long or oppressive.