Conquer the Cold: An Intro to Outdoor Winter Activities

A nice calm area to snowshoe or cross-country ski

What’s your plan for this winter? Stay inside and dream about the beach vacation you’re missing out on this year? Forget that and check out the best in outdoor winter activities.

There are plenty of things to do in winter, as long as you’re prepared. With the right knowledge (and gear), you can tackle the cold, say goodbye to frostbite and hello to new memories.

There are a million different activities to do in the winter. From the easy-going snowshoeing to the adrenaline-filled kite boarding. Join the millions of skiers and snowboarders who have figured out how to carve down mountains, or hop on a snowmobile to get away from it all. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you could even give winter camping or ice fishing a try.

Did you know that late summer is the best time to buy last year’s winter activities gear at steep discounts?

A shot from the trees showing all of the snow you need to be protected from with your ski trip packing list

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Outdoor Winter Activities Clothing – Layers, Layers, Layers

Before we get into the guts of outdoor winter activities and the gear for each, let’s talk about winter clothing.

There’s one key to staying comfortable in the winter: layering. By using multiple layers of clothes, you can add and remove articles as needed.

Hot day? Take off the sweater between your base layer and jacket. Turns cold? Throw on the warm hat and neck gaiter. On most days, a three-layer system can work well. A base layer, a mid layer, and outerwear.

Going up the lift on this ski trip

MATERIALS: Cotton is common in many clothing articles, but it isn’t the best for outdoor gear because it soaks up moisture and takes a long time to dry. Polyester, polyester blends, and other synthetic materials are a bit better. They are lightweight, don’t hold a lot of moisture, and dry quickly.

The last major option – and the one most people prefer the most for outdoor gear – is wool; merino wool specifically. Wool, like synthetics, does well with moisture and can be thin and lightweight. Of course, wool can be used in much heavier clothing as well. But one of the best things about wool is its odor-neutralizing ability.

BASE LAYER: If there’s one thing you shouldn’t overlook, it’s a base layer. This is your first layer of clothing that goes on top of underwear (although some skip the undies). The old-school version is a onesie with a flap that opens to use the bathroom; modern versions are a top and pants.

This seemingly thin layer acts somewhat like a wet suit – it keeps a layer of warm air close to the body. Your body heat warms up that trapped pocket of air and allows you to stay nice and cozy.

Warm socks are the base layer for your feet. Since there’s nothing worse than cold toes stuck inside of thick boots, it’s important to get high-quality warm socks.

MID LAYER: This is where you have freedom to choose the layers you like to wear. Additional mid layers are the ones that get thrown on when it’s cold and taken off when it’s hot. And they’re a good reason to either wear a backpack or get a storage locker at the resort so that you can store them when you don’t need them.

On warmer days, your mid layer might be a lightweight t-shirt. On freezing days with lots of wind, you might wear 2-3 mid layers: a long-sleeved shirt, a button-down flannel, and perhaps a fleece layer or even a puffy jacket – all stuffed under your jacket and on top of your base layer.

Kristina and Michael enjoying a day on the slopes

OUTERWEAR: This is probably what you think of when you think about ski gear. These are the layers that face the wind, snow, and anything else you come across: jackets and pants. Your first line of defense and a very important layer.

Generally, you get what you pay for. There’s nothing wrong with buying last season’s outwear at a discounted price, but buying poor-quality cheap outerwear will come back to bite you in the butt. Quality outwear will last longer, perform better against moisture, and will have lots of nice features.

The overall thickness and weight of the items generally tells you a lot about their insulation capabilities. Extremely thin and lightweight jackets/pants are usually meant for warmer weather or to have a lot of layers underneath. Bulkier, thicker, and heavier items are usually more comfortable in colder temperatures.

The view from the chairlift going up the run

ACCESSORIES: Then there’s everything else. Gloves, a hat/helmet, goggles/sunglasses, and boots make up the majority of the winter accessories. But there are plenty of things you can throw in your gear bag to stay warm and comfortable.

Gloves keep your fingers toasty and need to be waterproof, while mittens are a better alternative for those with cold fingers. A hat is a very important part of keeping warm. A helmet replaces the hat for some sports.

Quite a few beginners don’t understand the importance of sunglasses and/or goggles around snow. That’s a major mistake that you’ll never see a veteran make. The snow reflects the sun’s rays and the thinner atmosphere at high altitudes allows more harmful rays through. Goggles are needed for more protection from wind and blowing snow.

Kristina snowboarding in Colorado

Your winter shoes will depend on your needs. As you likely know, skiers and snowboarders have boots designed for their outdoor winter activity. If you’re snowmobiling or snowshoeing, you’ll need some type of flexible, supportive boot that will keep you warm and dry. A good pair of winter boots can last years and maybe even decades. It’s wise to avoid cheaping out on footwear.

As time goes on, you’ll probably add other things to your winter bag. Things like neck gaiters, goggles with different lenses, other hats, gloves for different conditions, and much more. Second-hand items are a great way to save money while experimenting with new sports.

Now time for the bad news: Regardless of how much you spend on your first round of gear, I can nearly guarantee that you’ll want to switch something up. It takes time to perfect your winter gear.

Let’s do a quick rundown of outdoor winter activities clothing:

This is the starting point for most winter sports, somewhere around $350 for top to bottom coverage. These items are versatile and can be used for many activities.

The lower prices on here assume that you search for deep discounts, which are usually found during off-season times. While the higher prices are for fairly high-quality gear. Some brands and their prices can shoot to the moon. Late summer is commonly one of the best times to find great prices on last season’s gear – right before the newest stuff ships in.

The Ultimate Ski Trip Packing LIst

Skiing and Snowboarding (Plus Kite-Boarding)

If you’ve never tried skiing or snowboarding, then you might want to start here. This outdoor winter activity can be enjoyed all over the world and is for all types of skill levels. Plus, a lot of mountain towns are centered around the ski resorts, making them extremely convenient vacation options.

Lessons for all levels of skiers and snowboarders are typically offered at most resorts. It is a great idea to begin your winter skiing adventures by learning from a pro. Gather some confidence and understanding of the ropes before going out on your own. Otherwise you might establish very poor mechanics which are difficult to change. They’re also great for experienced skiers looking to up their game.

Both skiing and snowboarding can be suitable for nearly anyone over the age of about 3. If you prefer to take it easy, you can stay on the beginner slopes (green runs) and take nice, slow runs down the mountain. Or if you want to get your heart racing, head over to the double-black diamond runs for some real fun.

Sunrise coming up over the mountain at a small ski resort in Colorado

There are two major problems with skiing and snowboarding. First, they’re expensive outdoor winter activities. The gear is expensive, the life tickets are expensive, and even the other costs like parking, gasoline, and food can add up quickly.

Second, your enjoyment is often at the mercy of Mother Nature. If the conditions are bad, the snow can transform into a sheet of ice. Or blizzard conditions can roll in quickly and you can get stuck trying to navigate down the mountain in white-out conditions. That’s an ongoing problem with many things to do in the winter.

Ski and snowboard rentals are a common way to get started since they cost quite a bit and do not hold their resale value well. There are many different styles based on your skiing preference. Even if you think you’re going to love it, it’s still best to try out a couple rentals to get an idea of what it’s like. You can also try to visit resorts on demo days – times when ski and board manufacturers come to let people try out their gear.

This is what a demo day might look like

Let’s do a quick rundown of the things needed to go skiing (or snowboarding):

Almost all of the gear for skiing and snowboarding, except for the clothing, can be rented. If you already live in a cold area and already have a lot of the cold weather clothing, then you might only need to pay for a daily rental. Rentals vary in price according to location and time of season, but they’re usually somewhere in the $40 – $100 range per day. Shop around for deals away from the resorts and for multi-day packages to find the best prices.

If you want to start purchasing any of these products, get the helmet and boots first. Both of these items can vary dramatically in fit and design, but more importantly, they take time to break in properly. Using a helmet and boots that fit you properly, and are broken in, will do wonders for your comfort on the slopes.

A quick note on helmets: Get one. Concussions are a very real part of skiing and snowboarding, especially for people just starting out. Years ago they were rare and not stylish. Today, you will rarely see a seasoned skier or rider who doesn’t rock a helmet. They’re comfortable and they keep your brain safe. Get one and use it every time.

Ready to start packing for your big ski trip? Check out our Ultimate Ski Trip Packing List to make sure you don’t forget anything essential.

A view from the lodge area at the base of the mountain

Lift Tickets for Skiing and Snowboarding

Lift tickets are the next major expense for skiing and snowboarding. They can be purchased as single day tickets, multi-day tickets, or season passes.

Single day tickets are usually the most expensive and can be as expensive as $200 per person, per day at popular resorts (such as Vail). Season passes on the other hand can be purchased for around $500 – $1,500 and will pay for themselves in about 5 to 10 visits in most cases.

Ski resorts have been going through a serious trend of consolidation and cooperation recently. Which is good news for skiers and riders who want to ski at a lot of different resorts. The two most popular options for people in the western US especially are the Epic season pass from Vail Resorts and the Ikon season pass from Alterra Mountain Company. Each provides access to over 30 resorts, mainly focused in North America and Europe. They cost around $1,000 each. A price that’s well worth it if used properly.

And there are other options. Ikon has a basic option for the upcoming year, which is cheaper but has some black out dates (days the pass is not valid; usually popular holidays). Some resorts offer their own individual season passes and many sell 4-day passes.

If you’re visiting for a vacation, you should try to figure out if a season pass will save you money on your trip. And do so before the end of fall – that’s when they often stop selling the season passes. You might be able to purchase hotel reservations, lift tickets, and rental gear for a discounted price if purchased together.

If you don’t want to purchase a lift ticket, then you can go backcountry skiing or get a kite. Backcountry skiing is for experienced skiers who can evaluate avalanche danger. Just like on water, kites can be used to propel skiers and riders across large, open surfaces – such as frozen lakes & reservoirs. Pretty neat, huh?

Snowshoeing through the forest
Kristina enjoying a hike through the woods on her snowshoes

Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing

Perhaps you’re looking for things to do in the winter that are a bit more relaxing, like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. If you love hiking but think snowshoeing is only meant for grandma, you should reconsider.

Snowshoeing is a great outdoor winter activity that can transport you into a quiet winter wonderland. The sound is captured by the trees and the snow around you, leaving behind an impressively quiet area to hike through. The devices strapped to your shoes make it so you can easily walk through deep snow and hard-packed slick areas, although they might take a bit of time to adjust to.

Cross-country skiing is another great thing to do in the winter. Its beautiful repetition of left, right, left, right, provides a cadence to get lost in your own thoughts. The downhill sections can be fast and some true skiing ability may be necessary to avoid harsh wipeouts. But you can start off easily, exploring local trails along flat, open spaces.

Packing List for Winter Travel

Let’s do a quick rundown of the gear needed for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing:

Snowshoeing:

Cross-country Skiing:

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing may not require quite as intense of an outfit as skiing or snowboarding does. You won’t be going as fast, and chances are you’ll be on lower ground that’s more likely to be surrounded by trees, and therefore, less windy. But plan for your conditions and use a backpack to bring clothing layers and survival supplies in case things go south.

The initial investment in these sports can be low compared to other winter adventures. Once you have the proper clothing, the rest of the gear can be purchased for around $200-$300. Rentals will likely cost around $30 – $50 each time.

In most cases, you don’t need to purchase a lift ticket. Free hiking trails that are open and accessible during the winter are a great place to start with these sports. National Forest websites, state recreation areas, and even private enterprises such as golf courses are all options. Check out resources such as AllTrails for the best snowshoeing spots close to you.

A nice calm area to snowshoe or cross-country ski

Snowmobiling and Winter Driving

And then there are the power sports. If you’re looking for things to do this winter and would rather have a machine take you around, there are plenty of outdoor winter activities to meet your desires.

Driving mountain passes can be scary and risky, but they can also be beautiful and full of unique views. The roads that you drive over the summer might turn into a different wonderland when covered in snow.

A vehicle with with 4WD (or at least all wheel drive) and with a decent ground clearance are best for taking drives on snowy roads. But more often than not, snow plows do a great job at making roads driveable for nearly all types of vehicles. Just don’t expect your rear-wheel drive Mustang to do so hot going up a slick hill.

As always with winter driving, be careful and stay in control. 4WD might help power up hills, but braking and slowing down still takes skill. Keep your brakes cool by downshifting into lower gears on steep descents.

But that’s not the only machine to explore the outdoors in the winter.

A view of Arapahoe Basin's wall

Snowmobiles, also known as sleds or snow machines, are an excellent outdoor winter activity. They can be fun to cruise slowly around local flat trails or blast up to the deep snow mountains for some hill climbs.

They are a significant investment, with many models running over $10,000 when new, but vastly cheaper when used. They’ll also require a sizable SUV or truck to tow with, plus a trailer. Storage, maintenance, gas, registration and insurance fees creep into the picture too.

Most often, you’ll be exploring areas on your own with a snowmobile. Which means that you must know how to recognize avalanche danger, have the appropriate I safety gear with you, and understand the risks you take by going out into the wilderness on your own. Snowmobiling should not be done alone. If your machine breaks down miles into the wilderness, you will be facing a dire situation if alone.

Let’s do a quick rundown of the things needed to go snowmobiling:

If you’re looking to go once or twice a year, then just drive up and rent a snowmobile. Quite often, snowmobile rental agencies will offer the full deal, down to gloves and even a onesie snowsuit. You might be able to show up in jeans and a warm top. They usually let you drive the sleds out onto their land or maybe you’ll hop into a shuttle to be taken to a nearby trailhead.

Snowmobile rentals vary in cost from around $100 for a few hours to upwards of $400 for a whole day. Snowmobiling is an intense physical activity; it’s best to try it out for a shorter period when first starting.

A view of the terrain park at Arapahoe Basin taken from the ski lift

Purchasing a snowmobile might not be that expensive if you already have a vehicle capable of towing. Look for deals on used machines that are sold with the trailer to get the best deals. Longer snowmobile tracks are better for going fast and getting through deep snow, but they’re harder to handle on packed trails and difficult to make tight turns on.

While you can go snowmobiling for very cheap (basically just the cost of the rental if you find a place that offers all the gear), the minimum investment in your own snowmobile will quickly add up:

  • Avalanche classes ($300 – $1,000)
  • Monthly storage fee ($75- $300)
  • Annual maintenance ($200 – $2,000)
  • Annual registration fees ($50 – $300)

The ongoing storage, maintenance, and registration fees will add up over time. But your snowmobile, especially if purchased well, can hold its value very well. Most times you can plan on selling a used snowmobile for very close to the cost you purchased it at within a couple years, if well maintained.

Here’s a post with more snowmobiling tips for beginners.

Kristina enjoying a hike through the woods on her snowshoes

Winter Camping and Ice Fishing

If snowmobiling doesn’t sound crazy enough, then maybe winter camping is what you’re looking for. But it might surprise you to find out that you don’t have to be uncomfortable to go camping in the winter.

On the contrary, many winter camping setups are delightfully comfortable and inviting. Wood-fire stoves sit in the middle of large canvas tents, filling the room with a toasty warmth just like a small cabin. Not a bad way to wake up, right? Some winter campers don’t have quite as much comfort, but still want to get out there and conquer new trails and peaks.

Or maybe you just want to escape your house and go hang out on the are for a day. Hop inside of a nice, comfy shelter, throw on some music or the big game, and drop a line into the hole drilled through the ice and into the frigid water. Welcome to ice fishing, which may be easily confused with the activity of drinking beer inside of small sheds.

But like most outdoor winter activities, the right gear is essential for either of these.

A shot from the ski resort where a lot of outdoor winter activities take place

For winter camping, a four-season tent is the big piece of gear that any are missing. Most tents are meant for use outside of winter and are 3-season tents. Winter tents will have thicker sidewalls, flooring, and some include vents for stove exhaust pipes. There are a lot of lightweight winter tents, designed more for mountaineers who just need a place to crash during their trip to the summit.

Winter camping often includes some type of heating element. Could be a nice big wooden stove used to heat and cook. These are specifically made for using inside, usually with a large vent pipe that is made to go through the roof of the tent. You can also get smaller pocket warmers that can fit into your hands and run off of a small amount of fuel.

Of course, you’ll also need a very warm sleeping bag, something to get you off of the cold ground (like an insulated cot), plus proper clothing and footwear. Camping in general should be done with extreme caution, and throwing freezing temperatures into the mix make it even more demanding.

But with proper preparation you can have a blast camping in the winter. You likely won’t have to deal with many other people and you can find a new level of solitude in the snow-covered peace. And you camped in the winter! Those are some very real bragging rights, even for the most avid outdoor adventurers.

Ice fishing (admittedly not my activity as I don’t enjoy hunting animals nor fishing) is another very popular way to get outside. This is done on specific lakes which are usually confirmed as safe to be on by local authorities once the ice freezes to an appropriate thickness.

People who are really into ice fishing purchase a small shed, which holds the chairs, supplies, and provides a sheltered access to the ice surface. A hole is drilled into the water below the ice and a fishing line is dropped in. But from what I can tell, it’s like a lot of other fishing adventures: Sometimes it’s more of an excuse to hang out away from the house, somehow ending up with a pile of empty beer cans at the end of the day.

The costs of these winter activities varies dramatically. You can go ice fishing for very little cost by finding a rental area that offers it (or asking a buddy to tag along). Before you get too far into winter camping, make sure you have people to go with and perhaps will help invest in equipment with.

As far as the costs of winter camping go, it’s just too varied to say. You’re likely looking at $500 or more for the tent, $300 or more for the stove, and that’s inn addition to all of the other usual camping gear you’ll need: sleeping bag, sleeping pad or cot, warm clothes, water supplies, stove, cooking fuel, kitchen utensils, pots/pans, mugs, secure food storage, lights, safety gear, and more.

They might not be for everyone, but winter camping and ice fishing are two more outdoor winter activities to consider.

Some of the rescue equipment used in outdoor winter activities

Outdoor Winter Activities Summary

To be frank, this is just the tip of the iceberg for outdoor winter activities. There are a million things to do in the winter. Sports of all types can be modified for winter weather, it’s usually just a matter of the right gear.

The first step to any outdoor winter activity is the proper clothing. Don’t skim on the base layers or outwear. Pack layers to deal with changing conditions. And don’t forget about important accessories like socks, gloves, boots, and hats.

Skiing and/or snowboarding are two very popular winter sports which can lead to a lifetime of addiction. You might quickly become enthralled with the sport, so don’t come complaining to me if you regret the decision to quit your job and live out of your van in the parking lot for a couple years.

Don’t forget to check out our Ultimate Ski Trip Packing List to make sure you don’t forget anything essential.

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing can get you outside without the intensity of skiing or snowboarding and for less cost. They are great sports for those who enjoy hiking and the solitude that comes with it. They’re also great for quick adventures in the city in large parks or golf courses which permit it.

Simply going for drives in the winter can be very enjoyable, either in your car or on a snowmobile. Go explore the world and your backyard under different conditions. Grab a snowmobile to go off-road and deep into the wilderness. Snowmobiling is thrilling and a fun way to explore with a group of your closest friends, but must be done safely.

Finally, winter camping and/or ice fishing are for those true winter enthusiasts who want to spend as much time in the frigid elements as possible. But neither group should be suffering much, as long as they plan ahead. A four-season tent and a proper stove will go a long way toward your winter camping setup, while ice fishing might require a decent investment in a small shed to hang out in.

Regardless of your choice, there’s no excuse anymore to let the cold weather hold you back from enjoying new things to do in the winter. Get on your warm clothes, some solid boots, and get out there. Your beach vacation might have to wait until next year, but you don’t need to go stir-crazy before then.

Do you like being outside when it’s cold? What’s your favorite winter activity? Leave us a comment below to share.

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