You can learn to enjoy winter, maybe even get giddy with anticipation as the last autumn leaves fall and the sun traces an ever-shallower arc along the horizon. You can learn to feel just as vibrant and alive in the dark depths of January as you do on a spring morning, a midsummer’s afternoon or a crisp autumn day.
You can trust me on this, because I’m heading into my fourth winter in a place where the season is longer, colder and more ferocious than just about anywhere else in the United States — northwest Minnesota’s Red River Valley, a region so inhospitable that the U.S. Agriculture Department once designated it the Lower 48′s least amenable place for humans to live.
Here are some hard-won lessons from the land of negative-40-degree days that can be applied wherever you live.
Stop being cold
On March 11, 1894, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen had been trapped in the Arctic pack ice aboard his ship for six months. The temperature was somewhere around 58 degrees below zero, but Nansen wasn’t complaining.
“We did not suffer the least inconvenience from the cold,” he wrote in his diary. “On the contrary, found the temperature agreeable; and I am convinced that 10°, 20°, or even 30° lower would not have been unendurable.”
I bring this up to illustrate that it’s possible to be comfortable at temperatures far outside of what we would normally experience. If you’re cold, it’s because you’re not dressed for it.
The sartorial demands of modern society, particularly the workplace, tend to be sleek, light and fitted in direct opposition to the wardrobe requirements for winter warmth — thick, bulky, baggy. Nansen stayed warm on subzero days because he was appropriately clothed (in the “usual dress of a pair of ordinary trousers and woolen pants, a shirt, and wolfskin cloak, or a common woolen suit with a light sealskin jacket over it,” as he put it).
We don’t all have to dress like polar explorers, but many of us would do well to get smarter about what we wear when temperatures plunge. Maybe that means long underwear beneath your work slacks or, even better, lined pants. Maybe it means a sturdier pair of boots for your commute. Or maybe mom was right, and all you really need is to put on a sweater.
Rule of thumb: Dress for wherever it is you’re going — the office, the store, a friend’s house — then add the necessary layers for the temperature outside. It sounds obvious — it is obvious — but take a walk around any major city in the winter and notice how many miserable-looking people have skipped the second part.
Find something to look forward to
Now that winter no longer physically hurts, get outside. This is key — there’s no better relief for the cramped interior confines of your day-to-day than fresh air and sunlight.
You can do whatever you want, provided the activity meets one simple requirement: It has to be something that you truly love, the type of thing that will make you long for January.
If you’re not used to braving the cold, it may take some trial and error to find your winter passion. Maybe it’s cross-country skiing. Maybe it’s quiet walks on deserted winter trails. Maybe it’s simply tossing snowballs with your kids.
Paradoxically, the colder and snowier it is outside — the “worse” the winters are, in common parlance — the more options you have. Where I live there’s enough snow and ice for any cold weather activity you can imagine — skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, backyard hockey, to name just a few. There’s even a local curling club.
But in milder climates like Washington, where winters veer more toward drizzle and mud than snow and ice, options are more limited. Still, your favorite summer paths and trails will likely reveal a different vantage point in the winter and be less crowded to boot. Get out and enjoy them.
Embrace the darkness
It’s difficult to stay upbeat when the sun doesn’t rise until after you get to work and sets before you get home. One simple way to beat the winter blues is to accept this and do things outside in the evening hours.
A nighttime hike or walk around the neighborhood is a different experience than a daytime one. Cyclists may want to try strapping on lights and reflective gear and hitting the paths and trails. People in colder climates might consider skiing, snowmobiling or fishing after dark.
Winter’s long nights are ideal for stargazing, especially in milder climates. In a relatively light-free area, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope can reveal galaxies, nebulae and other wonders of the universe. You can spend your nights observing planets and the moon even from light-polluted city centers.
Get a dog
Aside from all the obvious benefits, having a dog can be a great motivator to get you out when you otherwise wouldn’t be.
Rather than viewing your pup’s bathroom breaks as a chore, consider them an opportunity to do something fun. Instead of shivering outside your building while he relieves himself, try taking him for a walk around the block or to the park. Part of the challenge of winter is figuring out what gear combinations will keep you most comfortable, and frequent excursions with your dog is great practice.
Dogs can open a number of recreational opportunities. There’s skijoring, which involves having your dog pull you down a trail while you’re on skis. If the lack of snow is an issue consider urban mushing, where you harness your dog to a bike, scooter or other nonmotorized means of transport.
Remember, your dog needs fresh air and activity as much as you do. If you won’t do it for yourself, then get outside for Fido’s sake.
Think of your grandchildren
In a rapidly warming climate, winter is something to be cherished. I would even say there’s a moral obligation to get out and enjoy it while we can, before it melts away.
A half-century from now, when my grandchildren ask me what winters were like when there was still ice at the North Pole, the last thing I want to tell them is “I don’t know — I stayed inside because it was too cold.”