Ah, the winter months. For people who long for the days of sunshine and warmth, this can be a difficult time of year. Many of us find ourselves in a post-holiday funk, and it’s easy to come up with a whole list of reasons to stay inside when temperatures drop and early darkness sets in.
But even when it’s cold, there’s more to life than parking your rear on the couch and binge-watching “Stranger Things.” You can still enjoy heart-pumping, calorie-burning activities outside right now — surprisingly even more fun with Jack Frost as a partner.
To that end, here are some of the best ways you can beat the urge to hibernate this winter and even have a screaming good time in the process.
Winter comes and it’s time to hang up the bike, right?
“No way!” said George West, director of retail operations for Trek stores in St. Louis. “MTBing is a year-round option and typically the best in the winter. There are less people on the trails because of that cooler weather, and it’s a phenomenal way to start out a cold day and get yourself warm through some good exercise.”
But why would mountain biking be best in the winter?
“Pick your poison,” said West. “You can thrash in dried-out, frozen trails and not have to worry about a ton of mud. Or sometimes, when the sun comes out, you can get the exact opposite. The best, however, in my opinion, is riding in the snow. Get yourself a fat bike and you’ve got a whole new world to explore. That’s my personal favorite.”
And does anyone really miss heat, humidity or mosquitoes? Just about every mountain biker knows what happens when a person stops riding in the summer, particularly in the evening — instant sweat and mosquito swarm.
But beyond the absence of bugs, there are other winter riding benefits.
“The views between the trees when all the leaves are gone and the ability to sometimes even create your own trail are unique to winter. And you don’t have to worry about shrubs and bushes growing out of control like they do in the summer, slapping your arms, legs and face,” said West.
Finally, much more than road biking, it’s easy to stay warm out in the woods on a mountain bike. Why? A person rarely rides as fast on a mountain bike as they do on a road bike, so wind chill is less of a factor. Plus, the woods can help knock down some of the cold winds that might cut through you if you were otherwise exposed. And especially when climbing, mashing that heavy mountain bike up and down hills generates a great deal of body heat that helps keep the cold at bay.
West agrees: “There’s nothing better than putting in a little hard work to get your body going and warming it up, even on a frosty day.”
Winter MTB Wearables
Hands: Wind/waterproof gloves or bar mitts
Feet: Insulated shoe covers or winter-specific cycling boots
Upper Body: Wicking base layer; insulating layer (or two); wind/waterproof outer shell
Lower Body: Wicking base layer; fleece-lined bike tights or pants
Head: Skullcap, headband or balaclava; helmet; riding glasses or goggles
Believe it or not, rock climbing is another excellent cold-weather activity. And one kind is particularly well suited: bouldering, which is done on relatively short but difficult climbs without the use of ropes or harnesses.
And, yes, it’s as nervy as it sounds. There’s hardly any equipment — just chalk for your hands and some shoes with sticky rubber. And, oh yeah, don’t forget the bouldering pads. Those lay on the ground below the climber to hopefully provide at least some cushion when the inevitable falls occur.
“It’s almost like a martial art,” said Greg Echelmeier, who owns Old Mountains Gear Exchange in Webster Groves, Mo. “It’s a combination of grace and single power moves that a climber applies as he attacks a challenging boulder problem.”
Because it’s just the climber, their hands and the rock, bouldering is much better in cold weather. That may seem counterintuitive, but look at it this way: warm weather generates perspiration, and sweaty hands are the enemy. Friction, and specifically how it applies to the way a climber can grip the rock, is the single most important part of a successful climb.
“The rocks have so much better friction and surface texture when it’s cold. It provides your hands with a lot more gripping ability,” said Echelmeier. “January and February are the coldest months of year, but that makes them the very best time to send the hardest boulder problems.”
The allure of cold weather for bouldering is so great that Echelmeier talks of he and his fellow climbers being bundled up with big parkas, waiting with gloves and hand warmers in below-freezing temps for just the right moment to take action.
“Hopefully there’s also a camp stove or fire nearby,” said Echelmeier. “And don’t leave the whiskey at home.”
His favorite place to climb? Missouri’s Elephant Rocks State Park, just about a two-hour drive from the St. Louis area.
Winter Bouldering Wearables
Hands: Wool mittens or gloves for warmth during breaks
Feet: Climbing shoes; down booties for warmth during breaks
Upper Body: Layers, preferably cotton or wool; down parka for warmth during breaks
Lower Body: Comfortable, durable pants; flexible and abrasion-resistant
Head: Wool cap; helmet above 3 to 5 meters
Many passionate runners will tell you it’s almost never too cold to lace up the sneakers.
“A lot of people actually prefer colder weather for running,” said Jen Mommens, executive director of the St. Louis Track Club. “Once the temperature goes above the 50s, a runner’s performance drops, meaning you get slower and running feels harder. The negative impact of temperature on pace is much less once temps drop below that sweet spot.”
The simplicity of the sport is one of its appeals, especially when it’s cold.
“It’s a great do-anywhere activity, which makes it a terrific option for winter months. It’s not necessary to have a ton of equipment or perfect conditions to go and enjoy the outdoors on foot,” said Mommens. “Plus, there’s also the possibility of running in the snow. Running down a quiet road or trail covered in white after or during a snowfall, when most people are inside, can be a very peaceful experience.”
Jen Schaller, a certified running coach who operates RunWell Coaching in Edwardsville, Ill., agrees that winter offers a nice change of pace, literally and figuratively.
“Trail running can help you keep a base level of fitness during the winter months. You’ll typically slow your pace on trail runs, allowing you to enjoy the scenery and crisp winter air. You can also incorporate a mixture of running, hiking and walking,” she said. “You’ll find yourself in the moment more, since you’ll be watching your footing and the landscape. Every time you go out for a trail run, it’s like a new adventure.”
For people who like organized events, races held year-round can not only fan the competitive fire but also bring a joyful reminder of the community of runners. Even though running is often a solitary sport, it’s a reminder that we are not alone.
“The St Louis Track Club’s Frostbite Series is a great example of this,” said Mommens. ”We have five races between December and February, where the conditions could be anything from warm and sunny to cold and wet. Regardless of what the weather looks like, hundreds of people still come to race. Signing up for a race like that or having a group to run with provides motivation and accountability to get outside and be active, even if the conditions aren’t great.”
Likewise, RunWell offers its Tortured Soles Trail Running Series, which extends from November through early January.
Winter Running Wearables
Hands: Wind/waterproof gloves or mittens
Feet: Wicking wool socks; running shoes with a grippy lug
Upper Body: Wicking base layer; insulating layer (or two); wind/waterproof outer layer
Lower Body: Wicking base layer; tights or running pants
Head: Thermal hat or balaclava; buff or bandana; sunglasses
Exploring Missouri’s caves is a unique way to be out and active, even in single-digit temperatures. That’s because no matter how cold it is outside, you’ll always be warmer in a cave. (It’s science, yo.)
“The temperature of a cave will be the mean annual temperature for that latitude,” said Jim Sherrell, who has been exploring Missouri caves for 40 years. In plain talk, that means the year-round temperature in Missouri’s caves is a comfortable 58 degrees. And that’s the case whether it’s 100 above or 10 below outside.
To get started, Sherrell suggests several resources.
“Check out caves.org. It has a lot of great information for people wanting to learn more. Also, to meet people who are interested in caving and find out more above caves in your area, check out your local grotto, which is our name for ‘chapters,’” he said. “They’ll be glad to talk to you, answer your questions and tell you more about caves in your area.”
The Meramec Valley Grotto, located in St. Louis, holds monthly meetings at 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at the Alpine Shop in Kirkwood.
Missouri and Illinois offer a variety of cave types, and regardless of your level of experience, chances are you’ll find one that’s comfortable for you to explore. Maybe it’s a sinkhole cave, common with the Karst topography in this area. Or maybe it’s a cave along an Ozark river that used to shelter Native Americans, where you can pull up your canoe on a gravel beach, duck underground and walk for 500 feet or more.
“There are more than 7,000 caves in Missouri,” said Sherrell. “And with 70-percent on privately owned land, opportunities abound.” All you have to do is get permission.
In addition, the Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy (mocavesandkarst.org) manages a number of caves across the state. Visit the website to learn more about exploring these subterranean wonders.
Whatever you do, don’t waste the next three to four months just sitting inside. Getting out and active will help you shed calories, boost the immune system and, best of all, help melt away those pesky winter blues.
Winter Caving Wearables*
Hands: Waterproof work gloves
Feet: Wicking wool socks; light hiking boots
Upper Body: Wicking base layer; insulating layer; waterproof outer shell
Lower Body: Long underwear, tights or pants; coveralls
Head: Hard hat with chin strap
* Bring a winter coat, snow boots, etc., for the hike to the cave, along with a plastic garbage bag. Store your outdoor clothing in the bag while you’re caving, then swap and put your muddy cave clothes inside on the hike out.
Author: David Fiedler is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine.