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The next time you tell yourself it’s too cold to go outside, think about Scott Oeth. A few times each year, he sleeps under the stars, on top of a frozen lake at the Boundary Waters nature preserve near the Minnesota-Canadian barrier. Temperatures on those nights can drop down to 40 degrees below zero, so frigid that Oeth recalls hearing the pop of sap freezing inside trees and the rumbling of lake ice moving beneath him.
Here’s his bedtime routine: He’ll set up his space — two sleeping bags, one tucked inside the other, with a wind shell over the top — tucking his hands between his armpits every few minutes to keep them from freezing. Right before bed, he’ll gobble an energy bar, do some squats and push-ups — “It’s easier to stay warm than to get warm,” he says — before quickly slipping into a fleece jacket, fluffy socks, and a balaclava mask. Then he zips himself up into his sleeping bags and stays toasty all night.
“It’s like a chess match — you need to be thinking two or three moves ahead,” says Oeth. He’s the founder of Bull Moose Patrol, which guides people on year-round excursions in the woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other northern climes. He’s also an Eagle Scout, certified Maine guide and a native Wisconsinite who’s attended his share of Green Bay Packers games at Lambeau Field. He is not one to let the cold keep him from having a good time.
For thin-blooded city dwellers in the northern hemisphere, there’s a lot to be learned from people like Oeth. Medical experts agree that socializing outdoors is far safer than gathering indoors. But the convergence of a ferocious new wave of coronavirus infections and dropping temperatures is setting up the prospect of a joyless and lonely winter. Back at the start of the pandemic, when people were urged to stay at home, we wrote about incorporating hygge — the buzzy Nordic concept of joyful coziness — to create the “perfect night in.” Telling people to once again self-isolate at home with no in-person interaction with those outside our household is a much harder ask in the wake of both coronavirus fatigue and a looming national mental health crisis. “We’re exhausted from all of the rules and social distancing, and dealing with the uncertainty and anxiety,” says Neda Gould, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. “We’re getting ready for another stretch without any gas in our tank.”
This time around, learn a new Norwegian word: friluftsliv — the art of embracing the outdoors, regardless of the weather. With the right equipment and attitude, even the cold-intolerant can survive — and even enjoy — the dark days ahead. We asked a trio of hardy experts to explain how.
Heat loss 101
Before getting into the tips, it’s worth learning how the human body becomes vulnerable to the cold, so that you can better protect it without relying on buying a bunch of expensive winter wear or outdoor heaters. “Gear is important, but there’s so much that can be done by just understanding this science of how to stay warm,” says Oeth, who spent several years as an instructor for the Boy Scouts’ Cold Weather Leader program.
For starters, the body runs at roughly 98 degrees Fahrenheit (though recent research suggests it may be slightly lower). The body is constantly producing heat and dispersing it to regulate our internal temperature, a natural process called radiation. “It’s designed for a tropical environment, so if the outside air temperature is lower than that, you’re constantly losing heat,” Oeth says.
The key to staying warm, then, is easy: Just retain that heat. But it’s a balancing act. Evaporation of water through the skin, or sweating, is another way the body naturally cools down, so getting too warm is risky. The body also loses heat through convection and conduction, meaning exposure to the chilly wind or a cold object like the freezing ground can create a rapidly chilling effect.
Then there’s the constriction of blood vessels in response to the cold, an insulation mechanism that’s designed to redistribute body heat from the surface of the skin to our core. That explains why our fingers and toes are vulnerable to frostbite — and while hand and toe warmers offer a temporary fix, Oeth suggests it’s better to understand how to mitigate this loss by better protecting the rest of the body.
Bundling up better
Another Scandinavian aphorism making the rounds these days holds that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” So dress for cold-weather success. You’ll want clothing to be loose to allow for good blood flow, and layered so you can adjust the amount of insulation as the weather and your comfort level changes. But don’t just pack on sweaters: The innermost layer should help wick moisture — think thermal underwear — while the middle, insulating ones can be fleece, cotton or wool to trap in heat. (Note that cotton, unlike wool, loses its insulating properties when damp.) The outer layer should block the wind, rain and snow. “Every time there’s a gust of wind, it’s just going to steal that bubble of warm air you’re trying to create,” Oeth says. Even a thin nylon shell can make a big difference.
Those basic principles also apply to our hands and feet, which are usually the first to go cold. Wear more than one pair of gloves, adding big mittens over top for extra warmth. And with socks, consider a thin liner to wick moisture and a thicker wool sock over it. Insoles help mitigate heat loss through conduction by creating an extra barrier between the bottom of your feet and the cold ground. But be sure all that layering doesn’t restrict blood flow.
Your mother was right: Wear a hat and a scarf! You don’t really lose most of your body heat through your head and neck — it’s more like 10% — but because the body’s response to the cold exposure is to shunt blood flow from your limbs to keep your brain warm, plus the lack of body fat in these areas, an uncovered head really does strongly contribute to chilling you down. (Good news: Your winter-grade face mask may help.)
And while it may be tempting to prepare for this winter by buying a fashionable new parka, form doesn’t always follow function, according to Johan Skullman, a former Swedish army officer known for his outdoors expertise. He’s also worked as a product adviser to the Swedish outdoor clothing brand Fjallraven, and designed his own line of outerwear. “Some brands have realized that there’s more money in going slightly toward the urban fashion style,” he says. “When you’re starting out, you can do so much with second-hand or slightly used stuff to build your own outdoor wardrobe.”
Mind over misery
There’s a psychological element to staying warm, too. If you, like many city dwellers, are unaccustomed to spending a lot of time outdoors in inclement weather, you may have an innate dread of the big chill. Instead of focusing on the discomfort, Gould has a better alternative: Notice the sensations, then move on. “I normally get caught up in thoughts of how miserable it is and how it’s going to get worse,” she says. “When I [acknowledge] that my hands and feet feel a little bit chilly, and I don’t add on a story to it, I notice that it makes it easier to tolerate.”
Both Oeth and Skullman say that practicing mindfulness is important in enduring cold, because it allows you to pay attention to any distress signal your body is sending you. Are you sweating because you’re overheating? Be careful, since perspiration can swiftly chill you. Shivering and tired? That could be something more dire, like the onset of hypothermia. When the core body temperature starts to decline, people can become drowsy, confused and withdrawn. “People start naturally doing the opposite of what they should do, which is move around and eat, and put on clothing to try to improve their situation,” Oeth says.
Find something fun to do
OK, so let’s get moving! Even if your idea of a winter sport is watching NBA basketball on TV, incorporating some physical movement into your socializing will aid in keeping everyone toasty. And the principles of friluftsliv encourage all manner of outdoor activities to reconnect with nature and escape modern technology.
For extreme outdoor experts like Skullman, having fun outside could be anything from dog sledding to off-the-grid backpacking. But for beginners, he suggests starting small, like a socially distanced walk or bike ride in an urban park, or a hike through the woods. Covid winter is a good time to get into accessible group activities like orienteering, a competitive wayfinding event using maps and a compass. Or hone your outdoor skills like knot-tying and backyard fire-making. For those who want to try something new and find safe new ways to socialize, Skullman suggests joining organized groups that can guide you through the process step by step. It’s good to be adventurous, he says, but more importantly, it’s better to use “good common sense in how to approach the outdoors.”
How to sit in the cold
But the reality is, many of us simply want to (safely) socialize with some friends or neighbors, which means we’re going to be sedentary for much of the time. That’s why the hottest home accessory of the season may be the propane patio heater. But while hanging out under a heater or around a smoky fire pit can help keep you warm, they’re not always be available, and both have some environmental downsides. (Electric infrared heaters can be more climate-friendly.)
To boost your comfort when hanging out outdoors, bring a blanket or cushion to sit on rather than planting yourself right on the cold, hard surface of a bench or on the ground. “A big thing I see at football games is people getting really cold because they’re sitting on those cold metal bleachers, and your rear end is trying to warm it up,” Oeth says. “It’s never going to happen, so you’re just bleeding away heat.” Even resting your feet on a cardboard box instead of directly on the ground can help. For the ultimate in cold-proofing your posterior, invest in some heated outdoor seat cushions, either battery-powered or filled with microwaveable gel packs.
Skullman suggests just wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag. “A sleeping bag can keep you way warmer than jackets and pants, simply because you bring the body to one compartment, and you concentrate your blood circulation into one space,” he says. “During the winter time, we do mindfulness sessions inside sleeping bags while it’s minus 40 degrees. That’s very extreme but it works.”
Eating and drinking
Stuffing your face is a great way to feed the body’s furnace. As Oeth likes to say, “this is not a time to be dieting.” You need something with high calorie content to enable the body to produce metabolic energy. So think fats and sweets: hot cider and cocoa, fistfuls of candy and s’mores, and if you’re from Wisconsin, bratwurst. “When we’re doing winter camping, we feed people regularly, with snacks at every hour,” he says. “Fats have a lot of energy in them, and protein has a thermogenic effect as it’s being digested that helps warm the body.” You also need to be well-hydrated, he adds, because it takes a lot of water to digest.
What about booze? As Scandinavians know, sipping a hot gløgg or two is an effective means of getting your mind off the cold. Alcohol is a vasodilator, opening up the blood vessels near your skin to give you a boost of warmth. But that blood will rapidly cool, and in the process it lowers your core body temperature as it acts against your body’s natural defense of sending blood to your vital organs. Liquor can also can make you dehydrated, sleepy and confused — all bad things in an actual outdoor survival situation. On winter camping trips, “it’s an absolute no,” says Oeth.
But in the backyard, snuggled up in your sleeping bag, with a few socially distant friends around? “You might take a nip,” he says. Just keep it in moderation: It’s going to be a long winter.
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