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Why You Should Tell Your Family To Take A Hike This Winter

Feb 19, 2018

For many Canadians, it’s been a pretty rough winter, weather-wise. Depending on your postal code, you’ve probably had lots of inconvenient snow, cruel periods of sub-sub-zero temperatures, nasty bouts of freezing rain and a never-ending round of nasal congestion you totally got from your kid because he didn’t wash his hands that one time. It’s perfectly reasonable there are days when you and your family are ready to just hole up inside and wait for April. (Or May.)

... you may even wind up with one of hiking’s indirect benefits: exhausted kids going to bed early.

But here’s the thing: getting outside might be exactly what you need right now.

Going for a family hike in February can be a great experience for little ones and adults alike. On those crisp days where the sun shines off the snow, walking in a winter wonderland is the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Here are a few reasons why your family should hit the trails before the spring thaw.


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Winter Hiking Is A Cheap Way To Have Fun

Outdoor winter sports can be expensive. Skis and snowboards add up, even if 'gently used' or rented. And a day on the slopes often involves lift tickets and a bunch of other costs.

As expeditions into the great outdoors go, a simple winter hike is fairly cheap. You and your kids already have umpteen toques, mittens, boots, scarves, balaclavas and snow pants (they’re all probably in a still-damp pile right now). If you’re doing a short hike in a city park or on a quick trail nearby, that’s likely all you need.

For your first winter hike, it’s important to not get too ambitious since you’ll probably get more tired than you expect.

There are lots of checklists online of must-haves, but remember — a family hike doesn’t have to be a backcountry exploration. It could just be a nice, hour-long walk outside, away from streets and sidewalks.

For even the lowest-key walks, layering up is important. You and your kids will want a base layer (long underwear, top and bottom) to wick away sweat, fleece to keep you warm and then something waterproof (jacket, boots and snow pants) to keep you dry. Wool or synthetic socks are also a must. You want to avoid anything cotton because if it gets damp from snow or sweat, it’s going to be stay cold and wet, making your kid (and therefore you) miserable.

I also always bring an old yoga mat on hikes, tucking it into a backpack of extra socks, snacks, and drinks. If someone gets tired, sitting on cold ground or bench isn’t a good idea. A little plastic cushioning goes a long way.


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Winter Hiking Can Be Great For Your Physical And Mental Health

It’s easy to get lazy and lethargic in winter, but hiking helps snap you and your family out of it.

Pulses quicken and calories burn when you’re walking outside. Even a slow family pace (i.e., lots of stopping, meandering, and mitten-adjusting) is still better than the four-minute walk from the parking lot to the supercentre.

... a family hike doesn’t have to be a backcountry exploration. It could just be a nice, hour-long walk outside, away from streets and sidewalks.

For your first winter hike, it’s important to not get too ambitious since you’ll probably get more tired than you expect. Pick somewhere short, safe and nearby (Google’s great for helping find family-friendly local hikes), and give yourselves lots of time. If you’re bringing wee ones in chariots or backpack carriers, make sure the ground isn’t icy, steep or unstable. During winters where things get cold and semi-warm and cold again, the freeze-thaw effect can erode the ground. If you show up and things are icier or snowier than you’d like, you could grab crampons and snowshoes (they come in kid sizes), but it might also be a sign to go home for hot chocolate and try another day.

Bring snacks and water — even when it’s cold, you’re all working up a sweat (and crankiness is an early symptom of dehydration). Have a thermos that won’t freeze over too quickly and granola bars that still taste OK when they’re rock hard. Also, keep checking to make sure your kids have stayed bundled up — frostnip is not much fun.

Beyond the physical fitness paybacks of getting moving, winter hiking can bring mental-health benefits, too. Being out in nature has a calming influence, it has a way of taking you out of your routine and cleansing your brain of stress (temporarily, anyway). Walking along a snow-covered meadow isn’t quite the Japanese art of forest bathing, but there’s a lot of overlap.


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Winter Hikes Can Be A Great Way To Spot Animals (Or Their Poop)

Some people assume winter is a wasteland for wildlife, but you just need to know what to look for. Yes, some birds have flown south, snakes and frogs and bugs have disappeared and many mammals have settled in for a long nap. However, there are quite a few animals staying active when it gets cold, so bring your binoculars (or a camera with a decent zoom).

It’s easy to get lazy and lethargic in winter, but hiking helps snap you and your family out of it.

Winter’s a great time to spot deer because you can see farther into the forest when there aren’t leaves blocking your view. Darker-coloured birds and mammals also stand out more thanks to the white backdrop. Even if you don’t come across any creatures, you can still find signs of their presence, like rabbit poop or coyote tracks in the snow. (Fact: your kid will be delighted to see animal poop.)

Fortunately, there are apps to identify footprints and scat or birds. Phones can be really helpful tools all around, especially for communication and navigation. Use them to show your kids how to read a compass or map their travels. Just remember to get gloves that are touchscreen-friendly — you don’t want your hands to get cold.

Of course, you can save the tech tools for later and just enjoy being outside, all together, having fun and making memories. Throw in some trailside snowman-building and you may even wind up with one of hiking’s indirect benefits: exhausted kids going to bed early.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are the proud parents of a six-year-old girl who is already pretty adept with a tablet, and a two-year-old boy who probably will be sooner than appropriate. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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