Experienced trail walkers and park visitors noticed an amazing change last March.
Normally, few people venture outdoors in that gloomy, slushy month. Not this year.
With the outdoors seemingly virus-safe, people flocked to trails and parks in record numbers. Timing was perfect. The novel coronavirus gained steam just as the weather warmed, making spring, summer and fall walking pleasant.
Even the August derecho didn’t slow the outdoor trend. The Cedar Rapids Parks Department and other agencies recognized the importance of trails for boosting physical and mental health. For example, despite their heavy workload, park crews quickly cleared trails around Cedar Lake and Prairie Park Fishery so people could safely walk, bicycle and push baby strollers.
Now, the thousands of Iowans who nurtured healthy daily walking habits face the biggest obstacle of the year — winter.
There’s good news. Proper gear and precautions make walking safe and fun, and help people enjoy nature’s beauty even on subfreezing days.
Nearly every health authority touts the benefits of exercise. In the past, people shifted to exercising in the gym or walking indoors when frost arrives. Not this year. With proper clothing and precautions, outdoor exercise is safe and comfortable during our season of cold.
Walking offers gentle exercise and running or bicycling in scenic places soothes the soul. Area trails follow rivers, duck into valleys, climb surprisingly steep hills and traverse snowy fields that were wildflower spangled months before.
We like winter walking outside because it keeps us in physical condition, boosts vitamin D absorption, important for bone health, and gives a perspective on nature not possible during balmy weather.
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With the leaves off trees, woodlands are visibly open, making it easier to spot wildlife hidden during other seasons. Because of short days, some otherwise nocturnal animals are more active during winter. We’ve spotted mink, owls and pileated woodpeckers on cold walks.
Even in winter, wild animals have an amazing ability to hide, but they can’t erase their tracks. Scanning the snow shows where deer congregate, cottontails hop during darkness and hawks leave their feather’s fan-like markings on soft snow as they swoop down to snatch an unwary mouse. Otter slides down stream banks are easy to spot during cold months.
Enjoying the outdoors in style, comfort and safety has gotten easier. Not too many years ago, cold weather apparel was bulky, heavy and only stylish if someone liked the army surplus or lumberjack look. That’s changed.
Technology worked magic on outdoor clothing. First came nylon coats with puffy down insulation. Now, all sorts of new fabrics and insulations are available that are stylish, comfortable, relatively inexpensive and easy to clean. They’re colorful, distinctive, well fitting and give a wearer an opportunity to look as sharp in January as in June.
THE BASICS OF KEEPING TOASTY WARM
The most cold vulnerable parts of the body are ears, cheeks, fingers and toes. Probably the memory of frigid feet or fingers keeps many people inside on cold days.
One of the greatest innovations to counter cold feet was the invention of pac boots. They feature nylon or leather tops above rubber shoes. A thick felt inner layer keeps toes warm and is easy to remove for drying. Now new generations of modern boots are made by many companies complete with efficient synthetic insulation, often made of recycled plastic. They are amazingly warm and great for tromping through snow.
Super warm boots aren’t always the best. According to Charley Bryan, an Irish Setter Product Manager, choosing winter footwear based on activity is important. If going on a vigorous walk, lighter weight boots or sturdy walking shoes may be best. But, if they’re ice fishing, they’ll want warm ones, especially those that grip the ice well.
His advice goes beyond footwear. Wearing too many clothes during active exercise makes it easy to overheat and sweat. If you stop for a break, the chill penetrates quickly. Appropriate clothing for a walker, runner, bicyclist or cross-country skier is vastly different from someone fishing out on a frozen lake.
The best solution for varied conditions and levels of exercise is layering. Some people are brand loyal. We are not and select different brands to see what works best for us. Our wardrobe is versatile and lets us be comfortable no matter what the weather is. Keeping fingers warm is an example. Retired couple Karen and Bill Desmarais walk every day, year-round. During early and late winter, they wear relatively thin wool gloves. When the deep freeze hits, they slip a pair of mittens over them. The combination keeps their hands toasty. If they overheat, they can take the mittens off and stuff them in their coat pockets.
Layering also goes for main body clothes. Cotton jeans absorb water and aren’t the best for cold weather, but Rich prefers wearing them. When the temperature drops, he’ll pull a pair of nylon wind pants over them. If he’s ice fishing, he’ll replace the wind pants with insulated coveralls. Our son travels to cold places for work and requires a sleek, professional look and tight packing for airline travel. He dons a warm base layer, a wool shirt and pants and microfiber, waterproof outerwear on top.
Dedicated runners, cross-country skiers and bicyclists, like our daughter and son-in-law who live in Alaska, simply adapt to the weather. They check the wind and temperature before going out. With a compression base layer top and bottom, paired with a warm but lightweight middle layer and wind blocking shell they are good to go.
“The recommendation for active exercise outdoors is to dress for 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperatures,” our daughter said. “So, if the weather is 20 degrees, I dress for 40 degrees, knowing I will warm up along the way.”
Another relatively new technology that helps keep hands, toes and the body warm are chemical heat pads made by many companies. Tear off the plastic cover and a combination of iron powder, charcoal and a few other chemicals encased in a durable paper pouch give off a toasty warmth that lasts all day. Small ones can easily be tucked inside boots or mittens. Larger ones usually have a sticky surface that clings to inner garments. Again, be careful of overheating.
SWITCH YOUR HABITS
Coronavirus has added a new twist to winter walking. As the weather cools, some people like to switch to indoor venues to stretch their legs.
Many, like the PCI Pavilion, are closed to general walking this winter. Lindale Mall still plans to open for indoor walkers. It’s best to call for their latest policy. Most outdoor trails are always open despite the weather.
Ice and snow add to the challenge of winter walking. We love walking in deep snow by simply strapping snowshoes over our boots. Invented by Native Americans thousands of years ago, snowshoes traditionally were made with a wood frame holding a woven leather net inside.
They work fine and let a walker “float” on top of heavy snow, but they are heavy and absorb water. Modern snowshoes have aluminum or magnesium frames and a rubbery surface that enables walking over deep snow. They’re amazingly effective yet are small, lightweight, and don’t absorb water.
Snowshoeing is a fun sport. We use a pair of ski or trekking poles for balance. All things equal, it usually burns more calories snowshoeing a mile compared to walking on a paved surface. So, our snowshoe treks are often shorter than summer walks, but usually take the same amount of time and more energy.
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Ice may be the ultimate winter walking challenge. Where the snow has been plowed, nasty slicks of ice often form. We reduce the odds of slipping or falling by wearing boots or shoes with a “sticky” sole, using trekking poles, and sometimes attaching traction cleats to our footwear.
The rubber used to manufacture winter boots is often stickier and softer than summer counterparts. Combined with an aggressive tread, they improve traction. For added stability, we slip traction cleats over our boots. They work like tire chains and help grip slippery ice. Runners attach small studs to the bottom of shoes for traction. Trekking poles offer balance and provide another point of contact with the ground.
Winter outdoors is not just for the athletic. Octogenarian, Joye Winey, walks every day. She checks the weather to decide how to dress and carries her cellphone. She jokes that she wears a raspberry colored coat “so if I fall in a snow drift, I can be seen.” Lu and Mark Wilcox bundle up their toddler and two other young children from toes to head and play outside on winter days.
Both brand loyal and mix-and-match people can find appropriate warm clothing simply not available in the past. Outdoor enthusiasts recommend researching outdoor company product reviews and plan to spend some money up front to maximize comfort and get the best value in the long run.
Our quality gear and clothing give us great service for many years.
“There is nothing more wonderful than being out in the winter,” all-season runner Sean McAtee said. “I go along the Sac and Fox Trail year-round. There is something about the way Indian Creek changes with the seasons that keeps me tethered to nature. I also believe that being outside regularly helps to strengthen my mental health, especially in the deepest of winter. It fights off the winter blues.”
Outdoor activity is readily available to us and is especially important in this stressful year.
Safety tips — Do warm ups before getting into winter wear. Cool down after exercise. Apply sunscreen as needed. Bring a charged cellphone and water bottle. Tell people where you are going. Watch changing weather conditions.
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.”