Embracing - and enjoying - the cold outdoors

Leisure: Camping, walking, snow art all possible this time of year

Bikers ride their fat tire bikes on the Woodpecker Trail in Coralville on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. Iowa City saw several in
Bikers ride their fat tire bikes on the Woodpecker Trail in Coralville on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. Iowa City saw several inches of wet snow on New Year’s Day. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Late one November afternoon, we did something many would consider nuts.

We pulled our tent and sleeping bags out of the closet. As darkness gathered, we set up our tent in the backyard and stocked it with sleeping bags, blankets and quilts.

We enjoyed a backyard adventure in COVID-19 times.

Many people spend the winter camped in their living room watching television and dreaming of spring. Not us. We’ve never found winter’s frosty chill boring.

There’s so much we like about being outside. Camping is just one of many fun winter adventures we do regularly. Even though we’re adults, we still make snowmen and angels, camp in the backyard, snowshoe and walk local trails, build a quinzee and even occasionally wet a fishing line hoping for a dinner of bluegill fillets.

Thanks to relatively new clothing and other modern gear we have written about, being outdoors during cold months is fun and comfortable.


Winter tenting breaks tedium, but comes with a challenge.

When we were younger, we’d trek to distant state parks or national forests to camp in the snow. Campgrounds are ghost towns in the winter, so we’d get the choice site. Warm clothes and sleeping bags defied the cold.

But the challenge was darkness. We’d build a campfire around sundown and enjoy its cozy warmth for an hour to two. But then it was only 7 p.m. It was too early to crawl into the sleeping bag and we couldn’t sleep for 15 long hours until sunrise.

Backyard winter tenting solves the darkness problem. After setting up our tent we retreated indoors for dinner, reading and watching a few TV shows. By 9 p.m. eyelids get heavy, so we head for the tent.


Because it is just feet from the backdoor, bringing plenty of blankets and quilts to pile under and on sleeping bags is easy and ensures warm sleeping. Before dozing off, we enjoy the subtle sounds of a winter night that can’t penetrate our well-insulated house.

Sometimes barred owls call or coyotes serenade. Come wind, snow or intense cold, there’s pleasure being outside tucked in a snug and warm bed. There’s only one problem modern gear can’t solve — a full bladder. So sometimes we need to crawl out of our warm nest to dash to the bathroom.


Whether we sleep in the tent or not, like many folks we sometimes cook outside.

Grilling is an option. Occasionally we set our propane camp stove up on the deck and whip up a stack of pancakes. They’re delightful when topped with butter and warm maple syrup washed down with a steaming cup of coffee. We mix the batter in our kitchen’s warmth but cooking and eating outside adds zest to a cold day.

If more ambitious, we pack lunch in the car and drive to a city, county or state park for a winter picnic. Warm clothes defy the chill and food is especially tasty on an otherwise bleak day. Sometimes we bring the camp stove and cook, but more often we store hot foods in a thermos before we leave home. It’s simpler.


Snow art isn’t confined to kids. Too many adults grow out of one of childhood’s winter joys.

We try to avoid that fate and join children in welcoming a snowfall as the precursor of fun. We roll sticky wet snow to build a snowman or snow woman. Occasionally we craft a quinzee from piled up snow to delight visiting kids. They help dig out the shoveled and packed snow for a cozy space inside like an igloo.

Other times we stomp patterns in the snow, make snow angels and build snow forts. Passersby might see our snow art and assume we have young children at home. Instead, we try to be old children and let the snow add zest to life.

An activity that requires no equipment is the game “Fox and Geese.” You can invent your own variations. We stomp a large circle in the snow, then stomp connecting lines from top to bottom and side to side like wedges of a pie. The center is the safe space. One person is the fox. The others are the geese. The object is to avoid getting tagged because then you are the fox. The internet has great visuals and instructions on playing the game. Great for laughs, getting the heart to pump hard, warming up on a cold day and then coming inside for hot chocolate.


As we approached the senior years, our family physician gave us good advice.

“Keep moving,” she said. “It’s a key to health.”

We listened. During mild months we walk, hike, bike, paddle and work in our yard and garden. When cold and snow come, we keep moving but modify our activities to stay safe.


Walking — Many area park departments keep paved trails plowed to enable walking, cycling and even pushing a baby carriage or wheelchair. Enjoying winter outdoors is important even for tots and people with walking challenges. They just need to bundle up warmly as their muscles aren’t generating as much warmth. Cemeteries often plow narrow access roads winding through graves. With little car traffic they are excellent winter walking locations.

In summer we wear light hiking shoes but come winter we don warm boots. As seniors, we’re cautious about ice and falling, so sometimes we strap “skid chains” on our boots to grip the slippery stuff and use a trek pole.

Snowshoeing — We grew up using old-style wood and rawhide snowshoes. They worked but are clunky, tough to get on and off and require maintenance. In contrast, new styles made of metal and vinyl are a delight. Light and nimble, they let us walk unplowed trails. If the snow’s deep, we can float on top of the fluffy stuff, allowing us to go off trail and traverse fallen logs. Lime chip and dirt trails are generally not paved and are great avenues for snowshoeing.

Cross-country skiing and skating — Many people love strapping on skis or skates to glide over snow and ice. Some local trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. Even in Iowa, downhill skiing is possible with a day trip.


Disc golf — Some winters lack snow and walking has appeal for only so long. Many towns and cities feature courses and the Cedar Rapids area boasts two. Recently we watched a group of 20-something disc golf enthusiasts at the Mason City East Side Park playing the course complete with their pack of discs.

Bicycling — With the first frost, most people used to stow their bicycles for the winter. Few trails were plowed. That’s changed. Today many trails are plowed allowing winter biking. A relatively new technology — fat tire bicycles — help cyclists navigate snowy trails easily.

Logan Orcutt, co-owner of Goldfinch Cyclery said, “We have a diverse population of bicyclists. Owning a fat tire is not their first bike. People get into winter bicycling to extend the season.”

The Linn Area Mountain Bike Association grooms some single track trails. Popular areas to winter bike are Beverly, Wanatee and Seminole Valley Parks and along the Cedar River.


Birding — By fall, many of Iowa’s delightful nesting birds are far to the south, but chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and other birds delight us as they visit our feeders.

Watching birds, squirrels and even deer from inside as we dine doesn’t provide exercise. So, we don binoculars and enjoy spotting waterfowl and gulls on walks around Cedar Lake and ice-free areas of rivers. Winter is the best season to see bald eagles, especially near rivers and lakes. Their monstrous nests are easy to spot in leafless tall trees.

Fishing — After spotting hunched people sitting on upturned five-gallon buckets on a frozen lake many of our friends have said, “They must be nuts.” Well, maybe not.

Bass are somnolent in cold water but bluegills, crappies and pike cruise hungrily beneath the ice. When they’re aggressively biting, ice fishing is downright exciting. Modern insulated clothes make the icy chill tolerable and specialized fishing gear helps haul in tasty fish from even urban lakes and ponds.

Astronomy — Long dark nights may curtail daytime outdoor activities but create the year’s best season for scanning the night sky. Clear winter nights usually lack the humidity and dust that dull the summer sky.

It may be cold, but winter’s night sky is spectacular and best viewed away from urban lights. We sometimes drive about five miles past the Cedar Rapids/Marion to enjoy nature’s nightly light show from along a dark gravel road. Binoculars help bring uncountable numbers of stars into view.

Many people while away winter in the embrace of the furnace. Being cloistered inside isn’t for us. It’s tedious, leads to cabin fever and encourages overindulging in sweets that add pounds to our frames.

Moving is vitally important in every season. Enjoying winter’s outdoor chill adds zest to our lives and helps us stay mentally and physically ready to enjoy spring’s coming warmth.


Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”

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