Americans hate winter: Only about one in 10 of us call it our favorite season, according to a 2013 CBS News poll. In fact, low January temperatures are one of the strongest predictors of state out-migration.
For many people, winter consists of three months of collective misery punctuated by overeating and griping on social media. I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be like this.
You can learn to enjoy winter. You can find a way 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’ve done it. 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. Department of Agriculture once designated it the Lower 48’s least-amenable place for humans to live.
In 2015, I wrote an article about that for the Washington Post in which I called the town of Red Lake Falls “the absolute worst place to live in America.” Instead of sending me death threats, the people I had insulted invited me and my family for a visit so I could experience it firsthand instead of just riffing off a report I was reading 1,500 miles away. We loved it — so much so that we moved there.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot — about humility, small-town life and, yes, embracing winter. Here are some hard-won lessons from the land of minus-40-degree temperatures.
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, [we] found the temperature agreeable, and I am convinced that 10, 20 or even 30 degrees 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’d normally experience. If you’re cold, it’s because you’re not dressed for the temperature.
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 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 — because it is obvious — but take a walk around any 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 winter in the middle of summer.
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 around 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.
Your favorite summer paths and trails likely will 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.
A nighttime hike or walk around the neighborhood is a different experience from a daytime one. Cyclists can strap on lights and reflective gear and hit the paths and trails. Consider snowmobiling or fishing after dark.
Winter’s long nights are ideal for stargazing. The air is clear and crisp. A pair of binoculars or a small telescope can reveal galaxies, nebulae and other wonders of the universe.
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 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. There’s also 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 heirs.
Around the globe, winter is in retreat. Sixty years from now, winters in your town are projected to be more like what they currently are 500 miles south. A hundred years after that, who knows?
Winter’s future is uncertain. By the end of the century many of us Up North may have to trade in our skis for mud boots and our snowmobiles for ATVs, while our Christmases fade from white to brown.
In a rapidly warming climate, winter is something to be cherished. I’d 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.”