Active Outdoors: Common sense in the cold
February 2007. Yes, it's been THIS COLD before. The thermometer said minus-37 when we headed out for a couple of hours of snowshoeing. Even in that kind of cold, it doesn't take long before you have to start opening zippers and shedding layers to keep cool as you exercise. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
The thermometer said -37 when we headed out for a couple of hours of snowshoeing. Even in that kind of cold, if you donât overdress, you can stay comfortable as you exercise. (Marilyn Donnelly/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Has anyone else been enjoying the pure foolishness in the “news” coverage of the recent weather? I know I have. The term “Polar Vortex,” which has been used by meteorologists for decades, has suddenly taken on a life of its own, sounding like the imminent end of the world. And, last night, I actually heard a national news reporter utter the phrase “dangerous sub-freezing cold” – with a straight face, no less! Another said emphatically “Across much of the country, it’s too dangerous to go outside; exposed skin can get frostbite in just minutes.”
C’mon folks, lighten up. It’s cold – so what? Admittedly, ice storms and power outages are no fun (but not so bad if you have the right gear, skills and attitude for winter camping). Black ice and motor vehicles just plain don’t mix. But those really are the worst of it, and both are usually very temporary. While snowstorms can make driving a little hairy (you could try using snow tires and slowing down) and air travel a nightmare, they generally aren’t the end of the world.
But too cold to go outside and play? Get real! Deep, biting cold is just another facet of a New England winter, part of the challenge, part of the fun. You just have to use a little common sense. For example, if the wind chills are in the minus-50s or below, you might want to rethink summiting Mount Washington (where,
as I write this, the actual temperature is minus-21 and the wind chill is minus-63), but if you stay where you can reasonably limit your exposure, there’s no reason not to enjoy yourself outdoors.
You simply dress for the conditions, have disposable warmers handy to put in your boots and mittens if you need them (you may not if you have the right gear), wear a scarf or facemask and a warm hat, hood or helmet, and go out and play for a few hours. Alpine skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, Nordic skating, are all wonderful options.
When it’s below zero, I don’t recommend doing anything alone. There’s just too much risk if something goes wrong. The other morning, for example, we had 10 inches of fresh snow and it was 11 below zero and I wanted to go skin up a hill somewhere and ski down though untracked snow. But I couldn’t find anyone to go out and play with me (the excuse was work, not wussiness), so I went Alpine skiing at Pat’s Peak (patspeak.com) instead. At a ski resort, you have a base lodge to warm up in and other people around if you get hurt. The snow was perfect and it eventually warmed up to a balmy minus-1. I dressed right and skied comfortably in fresh powder for three hours before I had to duck inside and re-warm. I had a ball – then came home to news reports of people grumbling about the cold.
Over a lot of years outdoors in the winter, I’ve developed some pretty strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t for cold-weather clothing and gear. I’ve written about it many times before, and won’t repeat it here, but if you feel you need some advice, please feel free to drop me a note.
The important thing is to not let cold weather keep you a prisoner. Don’t let the “news” reports scare you (I did like the one that showed little kids in Alaska enjoying outdoor recess at 20 below in the dark). In reality, getting outdoors in any weather is far better than sitting in the house and grumbling. Try it. At the very least, by getting outside for a few hours, you’ll find that your warm home feels like a haven, not a jail cell.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Oddly, one of the biggest mistakes people make before going outside to play in the cold is overdressing. Alpine skiing, where you alternately exercise on the way down and sit on the way up, is one thing, but if you are doing any kind of continuous exercise, like snowshoeing or cross-country or backcountry skiing, or Nordic skating, overdressing is actually counterproductive.
Here’s a tip. If you aren’t slightly chilled when you start, you are probably overdressed. Most of the time, light long underwear under a wind-proof shell with a good hat and warm mittens with light gloves beneath is going to be plenty for any aerobic exercise. If you wear more, be sure it’s easy to take off and stow in your backpack. As soon as you start moving and start warming up, start shedding layers. If you can stay right on the chilly lower edge of comfortable, you’ll be able to put layers back on and stay warm if you stop for a break.
Winter camping, Vermont
If you are interested in winter camping, I’ve been invited to be a guest on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition, which will run live with call-ins at noon this Monday and be re-broadcast that evening at 7. If you are out of range of VPR or miss the broadcast times, you can hear the show online at digital.vpr.net/programs/vermont-edition.
Winter camping: Doe Camp
Registration is now open for the Vermont Outdoors Woman Winter Doe Camp at the Hulbert Center in Fairlee, Vt., from Feb. 28 through March 2. They offer four sessions of classes (Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday morning) and have 26 different classes on subjects like archery, dog sledding, lightweight winter camping, survival, land navigation, ax skills, emergency shelters, campfire cooking, cross-country skiing, tracking, ice fishing, nature, arts and crafts, shooting handguns, muzzleloaders and rifles, Nordic skating, wild fibers, critter calling and more. Visit their website, voga.org/winter_doe_camp.htm, for more information on classes, schedules, instructors and discounts; to learn more about Vermont Outdoors Woman, visit outdoorswoman.org. Sponsored in part by Hulbert Outdoor Center, Vermont Outdoors Woman, Vermont Outdoor Guide Association and Vermont Fish & Wildlife.
My buddy David Shedd and I will be teaching a seminar on Advanced Snowshoe Techniques on Saturday morning, and Lightweight Winter Camping on Saturday afternoon. Participants in the latter will have the option of spending the night in one of our tents or tipis.
Won’t you join us?
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)