From Warm Breeze to Frosted Trees; 10 Surprising Benefits of Winter Hiking!
It’s that time of year.
It’s the time of year your body temperature seldom gets above 96.5 degrees Fahrenheit (on a good day).
It’s the time of year you think your phone’s home screen weather widget disappeared, but in fact, that white single-digit number just blended in with that mound of white sand in that tropical beach background photo that you took last summer.
Ugh! And now you’re fantasizing about beaches and summer and are regretting even clicking to open this post!
I’m Sorry. But I promise. YOU won’t be!
It’s also about that time of year that household fuzzy blanket seems to get around more than you do (The house is a big place for a piece of cloth!).
And it’s about that time you annually resort to sticking to essentially a liquid diet because for some odd reason, everything liquid also seems to be hot.
Soup, tea, coffee, wine…
What?! Your throat deserves to be warm too!
The last thing on your mind right now might be doing something as outlandish as stepping even a single FOOT outside. Getting the mail every day is bad enough!
And the mailbox is like…ON your actual house.
I totally get it. After all, I named my entire business and website after an article of clothing that keeps your head warm!
Well. I’m here today to talk about doing something more than simply keeping your head warm. Today, we’re going to talk about how to also keep it happy!
Yes, staying inside cooped up in the house all winter may SEEM like a good idea until you know otherwise. I’m writing this post today to share a new weekly tradition of mine that I have absolutely fallen in love with:
Why, destroying my home office carpeted floor with craft supplies and then subsequently needing to cleaning up cat puke, of course!
Totally kidding but definitely not kidding.
But for real. I’ve fallen in love with winter hiking!
That’s right! Me, the coldest human being on this face of this planet with a perpetual body temperature of around 35 degrees (Celsius this time).
Well, I’ve discovered that there is far more than being cold that goes along with these little weekly outdoor pursuits. I’ve actually discovered that going for a long hike in nature has a special uniqueness and authenticity.
There is just something about that view of a fresh coat of bright snow and the sounds (or, perhaps, lack there of) of the muffled voices of other bundled up humans off in the distance.
There is also something completely zen and oh so peaceful about the trees which have gone from their usual canopied umbrellas of green to now that of which resemble tall wooden sticks popping out of the ground.
Since the new year, I’ve held through to my new year’s resolution which was to spend one morning a week solo hiking. Most weeks, that magic day just so happens to be Thursday. Every Thursday morning I arrange my schedule so that my appointments, sessions, meetings and usual laundry list of to-do items are pushed aside because something far more important awaits:
Why, my personal sanity, of course!
Again. You can see why I need this!
So every fifth day of the week my usual workout routine is replaced by a few hours in solitude in nature on a few different “mapped out” trails (if you can really call them that). So far, every week, the cluster of trails have been vastly different from the week before.
And also vastly different from what I initially planned out that morning.
Sense of direction is definitely overrated!
Keeping things interesting since 1987!
And each week, I transform myself into a line backer with warm clothing and I prepare my poor unsuspecting car floor pads for yet another day of mud (I live in northeast Ohio, which is often completely under water at this time of year)!
And then…my phone goes on airplane mode for a few hours.
Except, of course, when I’m completely lost and I need it for navigation.
Alright, alright. A few minutes!
And boom! Just like that, Thursdays are now my absolute favorite day of the week and it has become the day that charges me just enough to get through the remaining six days!
You remember what starts to happen by around day six, don’t you?!
But enough mundane detail about my direction sense, electronics and clothing choices. Today, I’m here to give you 10 definitive reasons why specifically winter hiking has completely changed my life. After all, I couldn’t just keep these secrets to myself!
I wanted to write about this topic because in a day our society seems to heavily value “the business epidemic,” as I like to call it, where “not having time for things” is “cool” and “checking things off the list” comes before even fully reading the list, it’s important that we always take at least a little time to pause and to pay attention to what’s important in life like mental health, physical movement, reflecting and getting away from those emails for a few hours.
So what ARE these so called reasons I’ve fallen in love with winter hiking despite the fact that being cold is just about my least favorite experience in the world?! Some of them may surprise you!
But probably not this first one.
#1. Studies show that outdoor space improves both mental AND physical health.
Let’s face it. We’re living through a time when mental and physical health are…let’s just say…likely taking more vacations than we are right now. It’s no secret that the global pandemic has caused a few problems here and there!
And now it’s winter again?!
OK, not all hope is lost. I promise! Don’t worry. I’m not here to list off all the ways Coronavirus has caused a decline in overall health. Today, we’re going to talk about how to undo the damage or even avoid it entirely!
Yes, even if you live in northeast Ohio like me where you basically have to be a werewolf in order to survive the first half of the year!
Studies by the National Institute of Health have actually shown, time and time again, that being in an outdoor space combined with a little UV light, AKA the sun, significantly contribute to an overall reduction in stress levels, depression resulting from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and even allergies, while it helps to improve mental health, sleep quality, Vitamin D levels and oh, right. IMMUNITY!
And yes, those little rays behind the clouds also count! Good news, fellow lake coast inhabitants!
So let’s summarize here. Exercise, improved mood, better sleep, fewer trips to the tissue box and the medicine cabinet for that nasal spray you’re only supposed to use like once a day (What’s IN that stuff, anyway?!), more energy, improved mental clarity…
OK, I just realized I have nine more points to make so I’m just going to stop there. You get the point. Making hiking a year-round lifestyle=better health. Period!
Unless, of course, you have a little incident with gravity due to a little ice and your poor choice in foot attire. Then, well. Solar lamps and treadmills are a thing for a reason, I guess!
#2. Hiking in the winter is one of the most peaceful experiences you can have!
Most people don’t enjoy being stressed out all that much. It’s not all that exciting. Or maybe it’s a little too exciting depending on how you look at it. Getting out in nature is, of course, a common meditative and zen practice, well…by nature!
But when most people think of going for a walk or a hike, they typically imagine views of green trees and rich vibrant colors or the sounds of leaf crunching, trickling creek water, birds chirping or maybe even some voices of fellow path-mates somewhere nearby.
That’s because most people typically experience a hike in the summer, fall or spring.
But winter hiking has a unique feel. It’s quieter. And by quiet I don’t mean silent. I mean you can hear more of the sounds you want to hear and fewer of the ones you don’t. You can still hear birds, wildlife and trickling water but leaf crunches are now replaced by snow crunches and voices nearby become NO voices nearby.
Let’s talk about the scene. Instead of views of green trees and rich colors, you suddenly become face to face with a beautiful fresh coat of snow (Hopefully not literally though!). The sun actually seems to shine brighter as it reflects from the white snow through those leafless sticks popping out of the ground. I swear. It’s just about the only time we actually SEE The sun here in northeast Ohio!
And speaking of leafless trees, guess what?! Instead of just HEARING wildlife, you suddenly have the chance to actually SEE wildlife! There’s nowhere to hide now, my furry friends!
I actually still remember the first time I spotted a fox on a trail. In Cleveland! I didn’t even know Cleveland HAD foxes! Sshh. Don’t tell anyone. I feel like that’s something I should have probably known by now or something like that.
What’s that? You’re still not convinced that going for that winter trudge is better than getting blasted by arctic air when getting the mail?
Don’t worry. I’m not done. I have more convincing reasons like…
#3. Wait! Let’s get a picture!
Hold on. Just real quick!
Anyone who knows me probably has been irritated with me once or twice (per minute) for inconveniently needing to stop the flow of regular living to snap a few photos! I’m notoriously getting into trouble for either “taking too many candids”or disrupting the peace by asking people to purposefully gather around for a quick intended shot and thus, prolonging a particular event in the interest of capturing a few memories (Seems like I can’t win either way!).
Don’t worry. Picture taking has its social benefits too like automatically winning every argument you ever have because you have visual proof!
Or having a built in Christmas present ready to go when your husband asks to frame YOUR PICTURE that he complained about to give it to HIS parents as a gift! Yes, this seems to be an annual event here in our household. Where are those groans and gripes now?!
Well, the good news is, if you go for a winter hike alone, which I highly recommend to get the full effects of the serenity, you can stop to take as many pictures as you want without the complaints.
Well…by other humans, that is. Your numb fingers may like to have a word or two with you right about now.
Woah, what kind of tangent did I just go on?! The point I intended to make was that going for a winter hike yields probably the most beautiful photographic images you can imagine, even potentially more so than in the spring or summer. Fellow photography lovers and OCD picture feans, the forest is your oyster (or spouse’s Christmas gift)!
Imagine actually capturing that bushy red fox out in the distance to share with your friends. Picture scenes of half frozen creeks and waterfalls, snow-covered ledges, mossy rocks or icicles that make you really glad you’re wearing a lot of layers of soft padded clothing!
Every trail you discover will have not only a unique feel (except to, perhaps, your fingers), but stopping to purposefully appreciate and capture the natural wonders that are uniquely visible in the winter months will make you love this seasonal outing that much more. This is your chance to live in the moment time and time again for years to come. So go ahead and take as many pictures as you want. It’ll be spring and summer again before you know it!
Then, it’ll be your turn, hands.
And speaking of picture taking…
#4. It evokes creativity and ideas!
What? You’re not convinced you should document every waking moment of your life yet? Ugh, OK. Suit yourself!
But would you agree that creativity and new ideas are usually a good thing? I think that’s one thought that might not get me into trouble, at least.
Here’s another study for all you readers that need definitive proof. As determined by research done at Stanford University, the sheer act of walking has been proven to increase creativity and promote new ideas and ways of thinking by up to a whopping 60% in comparison to the sitting counterpart research participants! Now how’s THAT for proof? 60%!
Yes, walking and getting outdoors is not only great exercise to keep us healthy but it actually contributes to overall cognitive health and brain functioning. Who knows, maybe that next walk you take through the woods will turn you into the next Picasso or Albert Einstein and you’ll become rich and famous all because you decided to read my blog post, right?!
It’s an interesting idea, at least!
Sorry, I’ve been hiking again.
#5. It Stimulates the same areas of the brain that you get when you’re traveling the world (or doing anything you love for that matter)!
Perhaps this is the most interesting point yet. Having quite a bit of background and also a degree in Psychology, I am perpetually fascinated by the brain, so you may see me reference this little minor organ a few times throughout this post.
If you think about it, ultimately, everything we do, on some level, is either directly or indirectly linked to motivation to seek some type of desired emotion.
Here are some examples:
If you jump out of a plane, assuming you’re not seeking a long agonizing death for publicity purposes, you probably are looking for some kind of extreme endorphin-related euphoria. There really isn’t much middle ground on that one!
If you hang out with friends, you are likely motivated by the feelings of fun or familiarity.
If you go to a concert, your motivation might be excitement or nostalgia depending on the song.
Unless you lived through a concert in the ’60s, in which case, it might have been to live through a concert in the ’60s.
Ultimately speaking, there are varying emotions and motivations behind everything.
Yes, even behind that 4th cup of coffee! Or maybe that’s the motivator itself.
Likewise, what is it that we really seek from our travels and exploration of the world?
Well, that really varies depending on who you are and I have the daily Instagram story polls to prove it (seriously, it’s fascinating to see just how much we all differ)!
Some people crave a sense of newness and adventure while others just want to relax and unwind. Some of us want a stimulating environment filled with learning, the sense of freedom or new growth while others of us are desperately looking for the off switch of our neurological activity.
Wait…how is this related to hiking again??
Well, think about it! That little outdoor pursuit can ultimately give us some or ALL of the above! What’s more relaxing and leisurely yet stimulating, purposeful and spontaneous?
If you still don’t believe me, here is another one of those lovely little studies I have for your convenience. Hiking has been proven to be directly linked to neurogenesis, which is a fancy term for rebirth of brain cells.
And guess where most of these baby booming brain cells exist?!
In the hippocampus!
And no this is not a college for hippos.
It’s the center of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
And what do we do when we travel? Why, we learn and make new memories, of course!
Want another study reference on my favorite organ? Our primal instincts, which date back to when we were hunters and gatherers, prime us to naturally want to move around from place to place. By nature, we are a nomadic species in the interest of survival. Think food, water, supplies, shelter, safety, community, and well…the list goes on!
Sorry, homebodies! Even YOU have some deep-seeded nomadic roots even if the extent of your modern-day movement goes from about the bed to the couch!
So what happens when we follow our instincts? Why, the reward center in our brains lights up and what do we get?! Enjoyment and satisfaction, of course! Travel and vacations typically give us both of those things.
Moving from place to place outdoors, you guessed it, ALSO gives us those things.
So the good news is that while we are patiently (or not so patiently for some of us) awaiting that next vacation, there IS something to fill the void that will simulate what we are missing so badly.
Give your brain what it wants in the mean time.
It’s kind of a no-brainer!
#6. And speaking of improving memory…
HAH! Just when you thought I was done talking about the brain, you probably remembered who I AM!
According to the studies conducted by the University of British Colombia, regular exercise like walking significantly contributes to the growth of new cells in that hippo college again. As I mentioned before, since the Hippocampus is responsible for converting short term memories into long term memories, by definition, engaging in those continuous year-round physical activity sessions is directly linked to taking home the prize at trivia night, winning arguments and never forgetting a friend’s birthday!
OK maybe not ALL of those things ALL of the time.
But at least maybe you’ll remember where the starting point is and where your car is parked the next time you decide to hit the trails! Now THAT would be something!
#7. Am I putting you to sleep yet??
Well…I might be if you decide to go out on a hike after reading this post!
I know we talked briefly about overall improvement in mental and physical health before but we didn’t go too much into depth about the impact on this little notion known as sleep.
Yes, Getting outside and moving around can ACTUALLY improve our sleep-wake cycles, especially in the winter when natural light (And I don’t mean the beer!) has been replaced with the artificial light of that living room lamp, that 10th consecutive Netflix movie light illuminating from the TV or that phone screen you’re STILL staring at trying to find that darn weather widget!
If you’re like 99.99999999999% of the population, you’ve had some trouble sleeping at some point in your life or another. If you’re sitting there shrugging your shoulders pretending you’re not one of them, well…can I have your autograph?!
Better yet, let me take your picture!
Our sleep-wake cycles and natural circadian rhythms are regulated by a number of factors, but perhaps the most recognizable one is our production of melatonin, which is a fancy word for the hormone that is responsible for how many cups of coffee we need in the morning.
At least in theory!
But unfortunately, especially in the winter and especially when you live in a northern location where the only natural light you seem to be able to find is in a keg at a college house party, melatonin sometimes has a little trouble. Since I’m not a very negative person, I have brought with this unfortunate fact a little good news for you. There ARE ways to help melatonin have a fighting chance and to give it that little boost besides popping a pill every night before bed.
In case you’ve missed the entire point of this post, I have a little favorite outdoor weekly tradition that can help combat even the werewolf clouds! Any guesses on what it is?!
“So HOW exactly does winter hiking help me sleep?,’ you might be asking.
Well, two reasons!
One, exercise improves our ability to have more restful sleep in general.
And two, any type of natural sunlight whatsoever can contribute to the regulation of your favorite zzz-land hormone!
Want to know how? We already talked about how physical activity is linked to general reduction in stress and as you may have guessed, insomnia is directly linked to the body’s heightened response to…you guessed it…STRESS!
But we’ve already talked about that. What we haven’t talked about is the fact that going for a brisk walk or hike is directly linked to a rise in body temperature.
Do you know what else does this?
OK, maybe a few things, but we’re staying PG here!
The answer is daytime!
Yes, our basal body temperatures can rise up to two degrees during the daylight waking hours. At night? They drop thus triggering general sleepiness and the subsequent initiation of bedtime. So purposefully raising this basal body temperature during natural waking hours automatically promotes reduction of body temperature at natural sleep time hours.
And what do we generally do best when we’re tired?!
So in a nut shell, getting outdoors for that little physical activity session calms us down, stabilizes our hormones, promotes our natural circadian rhythm and helps cure our insomnia. Do I really need to give you a point number 8?
No. But I will because it’s me!
#8. If you WANT a great conversation while you’re at it, you can have that too (but only if you want it)!
I WOULD manage to sneak in something about socializing in here!
Now. I know I JUST said that winter hiking tends to be more peaceful and quiet but just hear me out on this one!
While it’s true that there are generally fewer people wandering around outdoors in the woods in the winter, running into one or two other humans, depending on where you’re located, is likely unavoidable at least at SOME point or another.
But there’s something different about these passerbys. THESE passerbys are YOUR passerbys.
They’re the ones out there first thing in the morning trudging through the snow and breathing in the cold crisp air just like you.
They’re the ones focusing on building good mental and physical health who aren’t willing to let a few werewolf clouds tell them otherwise.
They’re YOUR people doing exactly what YOU are doing!
Just the other day on my hike, I encountered an older gentleman who began talking about the “perfect weather” that day in comparison the the previous week. It was about 15 degrees that day. But you know what?! He was right. It WAS perfect! The sun was shining, the pine trees were coated in snow and the previously gravity-challenging skating rink terrain was now replaced with a soft white dusting of fresh powder.
It was a BEAUTIFUL scene.
It was a scene that most people don’t experience because…well…because it’s winter, I guess!
It was then that I had this epiphany that I WASN’T crazy for my new little outdoor habit like everyone had been telling me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and at that point, I knew exactly what that phrase meant!
And you know what? It doesn’t have to be a conversational exchange that brings up this level of connection with others. It could be a simple smile exchanged with that fellow hiker passing by and that would be all that you need to know you’re not alone and that you’re in good company, even if that company is sparsely dispersed across the abyss of unmarked trails and hills.
And if you hate other humans, that’s cool. But they sure do come in handy when you think you’ve literally gone off the grid and you’ll be stuck in the forest forever! Where there are other humans there is likely to be a trail marker or civilization SOMEWHERE nearby!
#9. You’ll get in shape REALLY fast with about half the struggle!
OK, let’s be real. Very few people actually LIKE the gym. I mean, we like what we can GET from that intense workout but let’s face it. Picking up really heavy metal objects over and over again or feeling your feet pounding on an artificial moving platform for minutes that might as well be hours really isn’t all that fun for the most part. That’s because these things aren’t natural! Exercising for the sake of exercising is great for strictly burning calories or building a specific set of muscles, but when it becomes a chore that you dread everyday, that “healthy habit” might to start actually doing more harm than good.
Yes, it’s true! Ever heard of a little hormone called cortisol?!
Yay! More biological terms! Gosh. You guys are going to be fit for med school when I’m done with you today!
Cortisol, in case you weren’t familiar, is the body’s stress hormone, which is unfortunately produced when we’re stressed in ANY way.
And yes, I’m sorry to say that that hour long dreadful workout you’re struggling to get through is one of them!
You see, we usually hear about exercise as something that reduces stress in the long run. While that is very true, there is a balancing act here. When our body is producing excess cortisol every single day, we are actually inhibiting our ability to lose weight naturally.
You guessed it. You work twice as hard and but get results in about half the time if you get there at all!
Now, I’m not saying this is ALWAYS the case. I go to the gym just as much as the next person, but I usually try to balance it out with off days spent doing other forms of exercise or swimming laps (something I’ve personally always enjoyed). What I mean is that if you’re looking to build stamina and muscle while not hating life AND working all muscle groups at once all while engaging in a little nature therapy, well…I think you know what to do by now!
Hiking is like no other form of exercise in that it is an all-inclusive kind of exercise. You get your cardio and strength training in all muscle groups. And the best part? It’s more natural and it helps to actually REDUCE cortisol levels rather than raise them.
At least…when you’re not struggling with gravity, that fresh sheet of black ice and that said choice of foot attire. Then, as I mentioned, disregard this. Someone has to keep mainstream fitness centers in business!
#10. It’s all about balance!
No really. It’s all about balance.
If you ARE one of those aforementioned klutzes (And guess who else is one??) covered in leg and butt bruises you don’t even know where from, winter hiking might actually BE your perfect solution! By nature, winter hiking often requires more core strength, balance, precision and general vestibular and kinesthetic awareness (you should probably just take to MCAT now while this is all still fresh).
AKA you need to be more aware of where your body is and how it’s moving at all times to avoid turning an ankle in the snow or ending up giving a literal meaning to floor seating (without the added benefit of your nostalgia of your favorite band’s music)!
OK, I promise I’m not trying to undo my other nine points of convincing on this one!
“Just kidding, guys! Don’t go on that winter hike after all! It’s too dangerous!” Wouldn’t that be mean?
Nope! I’m not mean.
But not AS clumsy as I was on January 1st!
You know why?
Because practice makes perfect and the more you do something, the better you get at it.
Like taking that little ice tumble!
Yes, I’ve gotten progressively more graceful even at falling!
Kidding. I barely ever do that anymore!
I barely ever do that anymore because I’ve built a tremendous amount of strength, balance and general awareness of my extremities since January 1st. It turns out those tree roots hidden below the leaves and those rocks that “just look wet” are no match for my new year’s resolution!
Our bodies were equipped to handle all types of terrains below our feet but when the extent of that terrain becomes either a cold flat hardwood floor or a warm flat fuzzy carpet…well…let’s just say those summertime tree roots will be waiting to take home the trophy.
And you don’t need to be a hiker to benefit from improved balance. Having improved balance, especially with age, results in fewer detrimental falls, improved general mobility and generally better health.
Better health? Well…
Now THAT’S something I WILL fall for!
So there you have it, my friends. Ten whole reasons to get outside and active this winter. Our bodies are meant to move and we’re intended to think, create, capture the moments and connect with others. And remember. We’re entirely better world citizens when our bodies and minds are happy, healthy, balanced and well-rested.
While you still haven’t located that weather widget on your phone, the trailhead or your parked car, you’ve hopefully at least found a few new friends, your center of gravity, your correct path, and most importantly…yourself.
Now. If you could only find that sequin and craft particle-infused cat puke somewhere in your house sometime today.
You have a framed picture to finish decorating sometime before Christmas, remember?
Of course you do! You’ve been hiking.
But all seriousness. Who is ACTUALLY getting the mail today?