It’s time to confront the great myth about Christmas.
No, not that one.
The one about it being white. Perhaps the most persistent and potentially misleading lie we tell about Christmas is that it is accompanied by snow. Despite the increasing rarity of an actual White Christmas like the ones Bing Crosby “used to know” in the 1940s, an avalanche of mythological, rhetorical snow continues to blanket car commercials and flutter down in Jacqui Lawson e-cards throughout the holidays. It’s a lie. Possibly a conspiracy.
Ski resorts thrive on the hype, entreating us to test out their pre-Christmas snow with discounted lift tickets that tantalize parents who are desperate to get their children off of screens. The family will load up the SUV, hit a handful of available slopes, and feel good about a day of fresh air. But the entire ski industry perpetuates the Great Snow Myth, and we are all complicit in burying our heads in the sand while an army of groomers works through the night a la Sisyphus to reinforce their bulwark against global warming.
No snow necessary
This is not a eulogy for snow or skiing but an encomium for winter activities that don’t involve it. We will continue to get the occasional dumping of six plus inches of powder but nothing approaching the daily suggestions of it that arrive with every LL Bean catalog. Instead, think cold and wet – a “shoulder season” – that lasts for most of four months. That is winter now.
But that doesn’t mean we should spend all of it indoors, longing for a Caribbean escape or a snowbound cabin in British Columbia. No, we can lace up our boots right here and find adventure at our doorsteps.
Let’s start with those boots. One of the best purchases I’ve made in the past decade is a pair of winter hiking boots. While pricier than their summer equivalent, winter boots are insulated and waterproof, the former being the critical feature for those of us whose foot temperature directly relates to our level of misery. Even in the absence of snow, good winter boots instill confidence in slogging through mud and swollen stream crossings. The penalty in their weight pays dividends in their functionality.
Don’t neglect what happens inside and outside of the boot, either. Usually a thin wool sock will manage the moisture well within an insulated boot, but waterproof gaiters are a nice addition to the wardrobe when hiking especially in wet conditions or high snow (when it does come). Paired with a waterproof boot, they stack up favorably with a pair of Wellingtons for trudging through the muck.
Throw on another layer
Next up, clothing, which can be summed up in one word: layers. This is probably not news to anyone, but the material of those layers can dramatically impact the experience. And while some items may seem expensive, an educated hiker can find deals on long-lasting garments that can last for generations. I scored a toasty merino sweater from UniQlo for thirty-five dollars, and REI has some incredibly functional layers that go on sale at least twice a year.
Wool and down are the most important materials in winter attire, but knowing how to dress for the conditions requires experience. A layer of merino wool closest to the skin is practically a commandment, as it manages moisture better than synthetics, keeping you dry where it counts. I’ve also been impressed with the versatility of bamboo for all-season protection against cold and excessive sun. Working outward, a vest of down, wool, or at least a windproof synthetic will keep the core insulated against frigid winds and fluctuating temperatures.
Running hot and cold
It starts to get a bit personal after that. I like the cold, but I run hotter than most, and many of my winter hiking companions shake their heads at the relative paucity of clothing it takes for me to feel warm in all but the most frigid conditions. While I might hike in just a wool layer and a vest, most hikers will opt for more layering, possibly a mid-weight wool layer or a down sweater underneath a waterproof shell. A good metric for assessing your level of comfort is to go out feeling “comfortably cool,” knowing that the exercise will quickly move the needle to “warm” or even “hot.”
Just to be safe, I stash a few additional layers in my backpack, along with a few essentials for any hike: phone, compass, headlamp, first aid kit, extra food and water, a multitool, and a space blanket. The most essential item these days is the phone, loaded with Gaia GPS, a navigation app that works without a cell signal. One of my first Main Street articles threw shade on GPS reliance, but the technology has saved me numerous times in backcountry hikes in the Rockies with its ability to locate trails that seem to vanish into thin air. Just as importantly, it has helped me find new trails that are barely marked (more on that later).
Drink and dash
As for hydration, I pack two insulated HydroFlasks: one for water and the other for some kind of warm beverage. Hot cocoa or tea is incredibly rewarding during a cold weather hike, and if you are trying to convince your hiking partner of the wisdom of heading out when the mercury drops, a little imported heat goes a long way. Mulled cider is the gold standard when it comes to that. For shorter hikes, I will sometimes just pack a traditional cycling water bottle with an electrolyte mixture that keeps the liquid from freezing at temperatures just around freezing.
Where to go
Winter is a time for stillness and introspection, and quieter trails provide backdrops for contemplation. Mohawk State Forest includes a designated state park in Cornwall, but there are tracts of the forest throughout Litchfield County. One of my favorites is on Swaller Hill Road in Sharon, where a jeep road loops around the Pine Swamp, flirting briefly with the Appalachian Trail. There is no marked trail, which adds to the spirit of adventure, but with the pond as a reference point and the Gaia app as a fail-safe, it is easy enough to navigate.
Some of the best hiking in the area, can be found just around the corner in town preserves and nature sanctuaries. Most town websites include links to land trusts and town preserves, many of which are highly organized, as the towns actively maintain extensive trail networks. The Sharon Land Trust exemplifies that level of organization, and locals have recently started to realize the incredible natural beauty that is showcased on their trails. Within the same town, the Sharon Audubon features several equally rewarding sets of trails.
I’ve made afternoons of hikes in Cornwall, Salisbury, Millerton, and Amenia in open-space areas and land trusts that are lightly trafficked, yet rewarding for the small effort one expends in getting to them. Armed against the elements, hikers can stride comfortably and bug-free toward expansive and unobstructed views of the Hudson Valley, Housatonic River Valley, and the Berkshires, making use of what amounts to almost half a year of underappreciated hiking opportunities. Too cold to hike? That’s the greatest myth of them all. •