Yesterday evening as I was preparing dinner for my family, I found myself thinking about what an incredible summer it had been. It was our first full, Minnesota summer with our son, who will be turning 1 in just six days (tear, sniff-sniff)! We had taken advantage of at least one day each weekend to hike our tails off and enjoy the warm sun, green trees and crystal clear lakes. During the weekdays, while I was alone with our boy, I’d make it a point to go for small hikes or, at the very least, a walk around the neighborhood with him, just as long as we got outdoors.
So anyway, all of these lovely thoughts of summertime fun had me smiling and giddy while chopping up vegetables for our meal. Then I looked out the window. The warmth I had just been feeling in my heart was quickly vanquished as I noticed the tree in our front yard. Folks, the leaves were no longer green. Like, NO PART of the tree had green leaves. It was a tree in full-on autumn mode!
Autumn, as in FALL, as in pumpkins and spiced cider and Halloween! Newsflash, Mother Nature, it’s still AUGUST! Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE autumn. It is, with absolutely zero doubt, my favorite season. I love the smells, the sights and the feeling that fall brings. Yet, this doesn’t change the fact that when fall arrives it means that winter is following closely behind. Like a lion stalking its prey, winter in the Northern Midwest creeps up without warning and in full attack mode. If you’re not prepared, in can bite you, hard, and not just physically, but mentally.
If you have been in tune to any of my previous posts, you already know that I’m an avid believer that hiking is the ultimate therapy for any mental anguish or physical rehabilitation. Being outdoors proves to me, over and over, that I can do anything. So when I moved to Minnesota from California a few years back and had my first taste of what cold weather really was (yeah, we really don’t know what the heck cold weather is in California), I didn’t have a clue as to how, in the name of all that is good and holy, I’d be able to get outdoors in those frigid temperatures. I mean there were days when I’d walk outside and the inside of my nostrils would instantly freeze. It hurt to breathe in. My face felt like someone had just submerged it into a bucket of snow. I remember thinking, “What am I going to do!? What could possibly be fun about hiking in this type of weather?! How am I going to stay inside for the next four months!?”
Well, in true form, staying inside all winter didn’t happen that year. In fact, staying inside for more than two days at a time didn’t happen that year. I researched my butt off. I talked to the local hikers. I basically interviewed every worker at REI and Cabella’s about hiking in the winter in Minnesota.
And I hit the trails.
Now mind you, this story happened before I had my son. I don’t know if this story would have turned out the same had my boy been an infant during that first winter in Minnesota. But as fate worked out, I was a seasoned winter hiker when my son came into the world, so with a little extra research about hiking with babies in cold weather, we were able to hit those beautiful winter trails with him in tow, and I’d like to share how other parents with babies can do it too:
1) If you do happen to live in a place where temperatures reach negatives, you have to be smart. There are days when state officials warn you not to spend more than five-minutes outdoors due to the bitter air. Listen to them! If you want to be a rebel and ignore those warnings, that’s up to you, but do NOT, under ANY circumstance, bring children outdoors if a cold-weather warning has been issued. It could be fatal.
2) Set a “too-cold” meter. My husband and I swear by ours, which is now set at 20 degrees. Remember, young babies are not good at regulating their body temperatures, so even if they are bundled up, you could still be pressing your luck. When our son was an infant, anything below 32 degrees and we’d stay in. After he reached the six-month marker, we decided that as long as the weather stayed above 20 degrees, it was fair game to get outdoors.
3) Clothing is the key to having an enjoyable time outdoors in the winter. The widely accepted rule of thumb for dressing young babies is to add one more layer than what you are wearing. Personally, we find that this works beautifully. Also, invest in a warm hat, gloves, socks and baby snow boots for the little ones, and obviously don’t forget a warm jacket with a hood.
4) Depending on what type of trail you are hiking on, a stroller will definitely work, but I prefer to wear my baby in a carrier or a baby-hiking-backpack, and let me tell you why. The first time we took our son for a hike, he was two months old. It was 36 degrees out, and we picked a short, even trail not too far from home. We decided, for whatever reason, that he’d be most comfortable in his travel system and we could just push him with his car seat cover sheltering him. This plan worked out okay, but looking back, I would have definitely worn him. First of all, even though we have an insanely awesome hiking stroller, crunching over the snow was really bumpy and his head was bouncing all over the place. Secondly, even though he had one fleece cover and one cotton cover, his little face was still very cold. I know now that body heat for very young babies is the key to keeping them comfortable during extended periods outdoors in cold weather (at least this was the case with our son.) During the rest of those really young months I would always wear him in my Ergo carrier when we’d hike, so he was snuggled up against me and our body heat would keep each other nice and toasty. He loved it! Now that he is older, we invested in a great baby-hiking-backpack where he is sheltered, but can still see the entire splendor that is the Great North during winter!
5) Stay on top of the weather forecast and don’t ignore it. Just as any hiker would do during any time of the year, you need to pay attention to the skies. I was raised in the mountains and have witnessed just how fast the weather can turn. It can be a picture perfect, crystal clear, hot summer day, and within an hour you can be engulfed in the middle of a severe thunderstorm showering down lightning bolts. In the winter it is even more important to be vigilant. While being stranded in a summer lightning storm can be extremely dangerous, getting caught in a blizzard in the winter in Minnesota can be extremely deadly.
6) Be gear-prepared on the trail. As always, make sure you have a basic first aid kit with appropriate items for you and for your little ones. Other items that we won’t go on long hikes in the winter without are: headlamps, fire starters, waterproof matches, enough food for 24 hours for each person hiking (including baby), and water. Just a side note about water, I have been on winter hikes in 25 degree weather where my camelback water will freeze. I’ve since invested in a jacket that has pockets on the inside where I will carry a few water bottles. This will keep them from freezing. Water is essential in any dire situation for survival while winter hiking. This may sound like a lot of unnecessary baggage, but we’d rather be safe than sorry, and having all of this along on our hikes puts our minds at ease.
My goal in writing this post is to encourage those folks who may be apprehensive about taking their little ones outdoors in cold temperatures to give it a shot! If you are smart about it, it can be some of the best hiking you will ever do. Winter time truly is a magical time. The earth is blanketed in white crystals and all is still. My husband and I find it to be the most peaceful time to be outdoors and always appreciate each crisp breath we take, as we hope our son will someday.
Mary Beth Burgstahler was born and raised in the Southern California Mountains and attended college at Cal State University Monterey Bay where she majored in Human Communications. Having lived her entire life in Wilderness areas, she gained an affinity for the outdoors and outdoor activities, one of the main reasons Mary Beth agreed to moved to her husband’s home-state of Minnesota in June of 2013. Outdoor adventure abounds in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Shortly after their move, Mary Beth and her husband, Jacob, welcomed their first son, Jackson, in August of 2014. They now reside in White Bear Lake, MN.