The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

A Guide to Winter Hiking: Walking in the Winter Wonderland February 5, 2017

Recently, I went on a winter hike with some friends.  It was below freezing, with ice-covered trails and the sun shining low in the sky. We came to a crossroads and all felt led to go to the left; eventually, we left the trail and worked our way down a steepish hill and to a beautiful cascading river. The river was incredible–the water had a greenish cast to it and it had so many layers of ice built up. We observed it a while, and then, I felt led deeper and closer, and following some mushrooms, went down very close. The closer I got, the more magical the river was–with ice castles, ice cascades, and a depth of color and energy not experienced in the summer months. A return visit in the winter would reveal a completely different river due to the ever-changing ice and snow conditions.  Each winter visit, the, allows for a brand new experience as the winter snows come and go. This, dear readers, is the hidden beauty of winter, the dynamic quality and ever-changing nature of this dark time of year. It offers a beauty well worth seeking out.

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

I think that most people’s reasonable reaction to the cold and snow is to hole up for wintertime, waiting till the sun and warmth returns before going outside for hiking and such. However, winter has always been my favorite of the seasons for its dynamic and magical nature, and with careful preparation, can be enjoyed like any other season. Taking a hike in the woods during the winter months, especially visiting local waterfalls and streams, offers an array of beauty, stillness, and intensity simply not often found during the summer months. Winter offers us plenty to see, plenty to do, and certainly, plenty to learn–and here, on Imbolc in early February, we are in deepest part of the winter months.  In fact, I can’t enough of winter hiking and find myself out as often as possible!

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

This post explores some simple ideas for taking a walk during the winter months and getting the most out of the experience; I’ll explore clothing, footwear, and gear; timing and safety; winter botany and foraging; tracking; fun things to do; and more. So join me on a walk into the winter wonderland!

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

One of the things that people don’t always understand today is how to properly outfit themselves for a winter hike. Proper clothing and footwear ensure that you have a great time rather than a cold or dangerous one. You can do this with minimal special equipment and investment.

 

Clothing: Clothing is important–you will be out for an hour or more, and it is not the same as a quick walk from the house to the mailbox or out to shovel snow. I advocate for natural fibers (particularly wool) and layers of clothing on the body. Two pairs of thick wool socks, good boots (hiking or snow boots, depending on the depth of the snow), gloves (for extreme cold, I will put a thin pair of gloves inside my warm woolen mittens), a wool hat, wool scarf, and good outer jacket are necessary. For pants, insulated pants, snowpants, or several layers, including preferably a wool layer, are good. The idea is that you can strip off layers of clothing as you heat up–and walking helps keep you warm.

 

Footwear. Footwear is critically important, even for short hikes. You can go far with a  good insulated boot with good traction or a hiking boot with gaters (gaters are a kind of leg warmer that insulates the lower leg and keeps snow out of the boot).  I actually hike most often in the same boots I do in the summer, just with an extra pair of socks.

 

Winter Traction.  Winter conditions, especially in this time of warming winter weather, often create ice. I used to have to wait till there was good snow or things had melted, which really limited my ability to get out and about, even with good hiking boots. Then, I recently discovered the incredible world of winter traction devices, and it has really opened up my access to the hilly and more icy trails in Pennsylvania! The right treads make even the more treacherous of trails really passable and enjoyable, and open up a lot of opportunities for winter hiking, so I’d strongly suggest investing in some or making some if you can. With the treads, I can walk (or run) on even the most extremely icy of conditions with stability. A lot of folks add some ski poles or a walking stick for added stability.

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

Snowshoes. I haven’t had the opportunity to snowshoe (due, primarily, due to decreasing snowfalls and very small amounts of snow in the winter months), but this is certainly another possibility for you. Since I don’t have a lot of direct experience, I’ll direct you to sources who do.

 

Water and snacks. Winter hiking still can work up a good sweat and appetite; just as in the summer months, it is a good idea to bring a water bottle and snacks if you’ll be out for a bit.

 

Miscellaneous supplies. A small first-aid kit, a compass and map, fire-starting equipment, a foraging knife–these are things that are good ideas for any hike, and winter hikes are no exception. I often also bring a backpack for gear as well as to shed any layers I might want to be rid of if I get overheated.

 

A Friend. Winter hiking can offer challenges that summer hiking does not–even with the best traction shoes, falling into a river, for example, can mean serious harm to your person. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate always having a hiking buddy with you.

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

Timing and Weather

The timing in winter matters. Each moment of winter, each day you go out, offers a different experience. I would suggest getting out as often as you can. If you are driving somewhere to do a hike, you want to make sure you are able to make it there and back safely.

 

Staying Close or Going Far: It is for this reason that I like to plan hikes in state forests and the like on sunny days or days it won’t be precipitating and plan hikes completely on foot on snowy days or days with winter storms. Interestingly, with the right gear, I have found it much easier and safer to walk on the snow than to drive on it!

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

Snowstorms: As the snows begin to fall and lay on the landscape, you enter a different land. The quiet dropping of the snow, and the stillness of it all, bring a quiet to the landscape rarely present any other time of the year. I love taking it in while it is happening and enjoying walking out in the storm.

 

End of the Storm: Go out as soon as the storm is over–the dynamics of winter mean that nothing will stay the same for long. I remember one day in Michigan when everything was just covered with a powdery snow–every branch of the tree was accentuated and it was magical. About an hour later, the winds picked up and everything changed–I was so glad I took my camera out that day!

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

Icestorms: If you have the really good treads, the ice storms too can be really delightful to go out in. The treads make it so you are stable even on inches of ice, and for that reason, you can go out and observe what is going on! Because nobody else goes out in an ice storm, and even walking around your yard or neighborhood, again, offers tremendous experiences.

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

Winter offers a range of opportunities to deepen nature awareness and spend time getting to know the living earth in all of her seasons.

 

Tracking: Animal movements, tracks and trails are really easy to observe in the winter months. I remember the first winter I had spent at my homestead. I had been trying to figure out the path the deer were taking, and then when our first snow hit, I clearly saw their trail in ways it was difficult to see before hand. I discovered the raccoons who had been visiting my compost pile, and some critter living in my barn (who I later discovered was a possum). While I had glimpses of these animals in the summer, the winter offered much more opportunity to see all of their movements. I followed the deer trail deep into the woods and came to a natural sacred grove there, which was an amazing experience. This is all to say that you can track animals extremely easy and build your tracking knowledge over time. A good book to learn tracking is Paul Rezendes Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

Seeking Waterfalls, Creeks, and Rivers: One of my very favorite things to look for and to hike to in the winter months are moving sources of water. These are incredible–each day, the river changes with the temperature, sometimes being very clear and deep, other times (when it gets bitterly cold) freezing up. They are always well worth your time to travel to (by foot or by vehicle). I like to meditate there, and if possible, explore them from multiple angles. You can learn a lot about the sacred lessons of water from the flows and movements of the interplay of snow, ice, and water.

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

Winter Tree and Plant Identification. Winter offers us an amazing opportunity to learn how to  identify trees by their bark and the shape of their buds and branches (or studying trees that you already know and observing their bark and branches). Another useful thing to do is to look at the dead or dormant plants growing–what do you recognize in a different form? Whose dried seed pod is that? For this, some good references for my bioregion include Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease and Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech and Tom Wessels.

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

Mosses and Lichens. Moss and lichens are really interesting to observe in the winter months–in a forest, the moss and lichens take advantage of the openings and light to do a lot of growing. I have been on hikes that have abundant, bright green moss in late December when the moss is just bursting with color and life.

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Mushrooms. On the edges of winter or in particularly warm times, mushrooms (including oyster mushrooms, some of my favorite) are also good to look for. Oysters can grow when its quite cold and offer a tasty meal. Lots of other mushrooms will pop up as well–so be on the lookout in those warmer winter moments.

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Foraging. Some limited foraging and wildcrafting can be done in the winter months and in fact can be done better then than other times. Pine, spruce, and hemlock needles make a wonderful nourishing and vitamin C-filled tea. This is also a really good time to look for tree resins (see my post on tree incenses from last year). Nannyberry (Virburnum Lentago) can persist in the winter months, and you might find yourself a wonderful trailside snack! I gather certain materials for making handmade paper (like cattail heads) or other goodies during this time of year. (I’m working on some natural panflutes now and just harvested the materials two weeks ago). If you are doing any natural building using thatching, for example, phragmities (reeds) can be harvested in abundance easily this time of year. In other words, the forest still offers abundance to those who know how to look.

 

Things to Do

Beyond communing with nature and learning more about her, there are many fun winter activities to do in the woods.

 

Follow a Deer Trail. Trails made by humans offer pre-determined destinations. This is why it can sometimes be fun to get lost in the woods (but only if you can safely make your way back again–use trail markers, a compass, etc). One way of getting “lost” I rather like is following a deer trail and seeing where it leads. This is nature’s version of your hiking trail, leading you off in new directions.

 

Make some spirals in the snow. I wrote about this in a post on winter last year–you can create spirals in the snow and walk labyrinths for meditation and deep healing. This is a very relaxing activity, and one I like to do as part of my celebrations of Imbolc each year.

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

Enjoy a meal or cup of tea. A simple thermos with a steaming cup of tea can make for a simple winter ceremony or quick way to warm up.  Recently, a friend and I were in search of waterfalls, and I had made a Chaga tea with maple, and brought it with us in a thermos.  There was nothing quite like sipping that chaga tea while sitting by the waterfall, observing it in all its amazing beauty!  Every once in a while, a rainbow would form of the frozen mist–and had we not been enjoying the tea, we may not have stayed in the same place long enough to see it!

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

A second really fun thing to do in the winter on longer hikes is bring a little camp stove (the backpacking kind) and/or forage for kindling and start yourself a small fire for a pine needle tea (see below) or heat up some grub; this is a great way to enjoy winter and warm up a bit. Of course, as part of this you might want to either bring something to sit on (a little foam mat works well, like a gardening mat) or you can use leaves and/or some boughs from a fallen pine to allow you to sit comfortably in the snow.

 

Winter Frolicking. Enough good can’t be said of winter frolicking in the snow. This takes on different forms: sliding down the hill in a sled, making snow angels, dancing around, throwing snowballs, and more.

 

Seed Scattering. Many seeds require a period of dormancy and freezing before they can germinate. I like to scatter seeds using a “frost seeding” technique in the winter months. This technique is based on when the ground has been very wet, and then freezes, and the frozen earth rises up with the water; when you step in it, you’ll get pockets and a lot of crunching. If you scatter seeds when the ground is like this, when it thaws out, the earth will return and the seeds will be buried.  So its a great time to do a little wildtending.

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

I hope that this post has inspired you to go out, get on some trails, and enjoy winter in all of her splendor.  Imbolc is a wonderful time to do this and learn about the depths of winter and her many mysteries–and I’d be delighted to hear any stories you have about winter hikes!

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Living the Wheel of the Year: Spiritual and Sustainable Practices for the Winter Solstice December 21, 2014

As the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, we find ourselves once more in the time of darkness and cold; the time of the brown and the gray; the time of the Winter Solstice.  The Winter Solstice, happening around the 21st of December, represents the longest night and shortest day for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.  It marks the real start of winter, which continues until the Spring Equinox.  And while this is a time of challenge and struggle for many, I like to think of this time, like all times, represents an opportunity to turn inward, to examine our inner worlds and our inner home lives, and to again seek methods of sustainable practice and action.  So here are some spiritual and sustainable practices that you can practice around the Winter Solstice:

Frozen Lake Walking

Frozen Lake Walking

 

Winter walking.  I think that one of the challenges we face as a culture in terms of sustainable action is a disconnection with the natural world–especially the natural world in all her forms and in all of her seasons. One of the best ways of reconnecting is to see the beauty and mystery in each day, regardless of the weather.  Because of this, I have worked hard to spend a little time outside each day and an extended period of time at least once a week outdoors, regardless of the weather.  I make it a point to go on “winter walks” in different types of weather.  If you plan on engaging in this practice, invest in some good cold-weather gear.  Good wool socks, sweaters, and long-johns, good hats and gloves, and multiple layers of warm clothing will make walks outside enjoyable for you and any others who choose to join you.  The key, especially when exposing others who are maybe not used to the winter cold, is to encourage them to dress warm.

I find the time around the Winter Solstice strikingly beautiful–the grasses have died back but are still gorgeous in shades of brown, the landscape shows things hidden with summer foliage.  Usually here, its usually too early for snow before the solstice, so the browns and deep reds and grays dominate the landscape.  The conifers hold the promise of spring in their greenery.   If there is snow, the patterns of animals, usually invisible in the summer, are now revealed.  Once the deeper cold of January sets in and our lakes freeze over, I also very much enjoy lake walking (see photo above).  You get to commune with the water in a different way.

Regardless of how you choose to winter walk, experiencing this beauty, and sharing it with others, can help us build a deeper awareness and connection to the world (and I think that gives us the underlying impetus for sacred and sustainable action).

 

Candlemaking - another great skill!

Candlemaking – another great skill!

Make some winter crafts, medicine, and ritual objects. The Winter Solstice and the dark times provide us excellent time to practice various bardic arts, especially those of a physical nature.  The Winter Solstice is my favorite for finishing up my tinctures created earlier in the season and making medicinal salves for use for the upcoming year. I also like to make big batches of laundry soap and candles.  I’m making time also to make my own bars of regular soap after having some fantastic lessons this past year. This is also the time when I make smudges and incense.  The idea here is that the more you can make and provide yourself, the more energetically connected you are, the more fulfilled you are (because you are providing some of your own needs), and the less drain you are creating on the system as a whole.  This is especially true if you mindfully source anything you don’t have to make your various home goods and crafts.

 

Alternative gift giving. I wrote about thinking for meaningful alternatives to typical consumerist holiday practices before; it is presented in more detail here.  But I again want to encourage readers to think carefully about what needs to be bought, and what can be repurposed; to see the holidays not as a time of excess and spending, as so many now do, but one where we can use creative thinking for meaningful change. For my friends and extended family, I’ve taken to giving people things from my garden–a small bag of sundried tomatoes or a wonderful rhubarb-orange summer solstice jam really is a gift from the heart.  One of the things my family has been conscious of doing for some time now is engaging in a “secret santa” gift exchange.  Each person gets one other person’s name and a list of things they would like; only $50 can be spend total on the gifts, but any handmade/repurposed gifts are welcome in addition.  We also use either re-usable wrapping paper or junk mail/papers to wrap all gifts. This alternative gift giving does a few things–it allows everyone to buy and gain less stuff, and the stuff that is purchased is purchased to fill a need.  The gifts are meaningful because they are heartfelt and useful because they are some of what was requested.

 

Exploring alternative lighting and have “candlelight evenings.” It is possible for nearly everyone to explore alternatives to electric lighting during this dark time.  I like to have what I call “electricity free” days where I live more naturally and in rhythm with the earth (and use a lot less resources).  I do keep the power on for running my refrigerator, flushing the toilet, and making sure my pipes don’t freeze.  But other that, I switch to oil lamps and candles and explore activities that can be done without computers, phones, televisions, and electric lighting. I like to have candlelit evenings when spending time with my family members around the holidays if at all possible–doing this as a group makes a candlelit evening all the more special. We can play games, tell stories, entertain each other. We might even do some woodstove cooking rather than turn on the range.  This is a nice addition to the “meaningful gifts” idea above for family time while engaging in more meaningful and mindful living.

Oil lamps can be found fairly cheaply at antiques sales and the like, they are easy to use, and they make wonderful lighting (you can even read by them); you do want to be careful what kind of oil you purchase for them (mine were kerosine when I bought them, but now I switched out the wicks and have most of mine burning vegetable oil.  Kerosine is very smelly and is a fossil fuel). A single oil lamp is worth about three good candles in terms of light and they are extremely efficient. You can also make your own oil lamps (see instructions on the web here).  Beeswax candles are much longer-lasting and sustainable than paraffin ones, although any candle will put out light.

 

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Garden planning and seed starting. One of the other wonderful activities you can do this time of year is to take stock in your seeds, to order or trade for new seeds that are needed, and to plan the garden for the next season. Even if this is your first year, now is a great time to think about what you might do when you can break ground in the spring, or put in a few pots of herbs, or plan your dream growing space. If you want to start all of your own seeds, this also requires some planning and foresight…in my bioregion, I usually start the first of my seeds as early as January.  I have a few good posts to help you get started: Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups; Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth; Seed Saving, Heirloom Seeds, and Sustainability.

 

Finished worm castings from vermicompost--awesome!

Finished worm castings from vermicompost–awesome!

Indoor composting (vermicomposting).  Another thing you can do to build more sustainable practices is start an indoor composting bin and start creating some great soil and getting to know earthworms and their activity in the process.  I have instructions on how to start such a bin and some spiritual insights from the vermicomposting process.

 

Home energy audits and actions to seal up the home. Because the cold is blowing in, you might take this time to do an energy audit of your house/apartment and find ways to make your home more airtight and more efficient.  The EPA suggests that anywhere from 5-30% of energy can be saved with a home energy audit and taking action.  This is a perfect thing to do in the dark months, and the colder it gets out, the easier it is to figure out where the cold spots are.  There are lots of instructions online about how to seal up your home better–here’s one that I used to do my own energy audit.  But you don’t need anything fancy to do such an audit.

I am working on my own home energy audit this winter–I have several rooms that I don’t heat in winter because they currently aren’t in use, and I’ve been working to seal them up, insulate uninsulated lightswitches, and prevent heat loss from under/near doors and windows.  I’m also working to add throw carpets to my cold floors that sit on the slab foundation in my house to help with my cold feet.  I can already see a difference in the warmth of my home from these small changes.

 

Introspection and meditation. A final suggestion for winter solstice activities–take the opportunity to spend some time in introspection and meditation.  Daily meditation on various themes can lead to amazing insights–I do discursive meditation daily as part of my AODA practice, and often find myself meditating on phrases or concepts from herbalism, nature-based writers like Wendell Berry, or permauclture designers.  Spending time with yourself during the winter months can lead to a blossoming of light and life within.