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Life below freezing: so much to enjoy!

Photo: Karsten Winegeart , Unsplash

When I tell people in my home country of Brazil that I live in Finland, the first question is always about the cold. When I let them know that I love the Winter, their reaction ranges between awe and disbelief. But it’s true. Despite having spent the first decades of my life living in a beach oasis of eternal Summers, almost below the Equator, I’m a big fan of white Winters.

Finland is actually not my first foray into below-freezing temperatures. To be honest, after my stint in Minnesota and 6 years in New Hampshire, Helsinki seems mild. Add to that a couple of years in Colorado and in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, I’ve had a fair share of different and wonderful Winter experiences that make me wait anxiously for the first snowflakes each year.

So, for someone that is not familiar with below-freezing temperatures, how does one get to make the best of it? I won’t lie, it’s no fun having to wake up half an hour earlier to dig your car out of the snow. Or all the clothing and layers needed, especially if you’re trying to get them on a screaming toddler in time for preschool… The truth is that, either you find something fun to do in the Winter, or you might be miserable for a good chunk of the year. So just accept the popular saying in the Nordics, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”, dress appropriately and venture out into the cold!

If you need inspiration for below-freezing fun things to try, here’s a list of 11 activities worth a shot:

1. Sledding

Photo: Jeremy McKnight, Unsplash

It requires no previous knowledge, it’s cheap, there are a lot of locations for it, and it can be done by pretty much anyone, so it’s a sure recommendation!

Don’t worry, it’s not just for kids! You can get an adrenaline rush from sledding if you find a steep hill with hard-packed or icy snow, believe me! The icier, the faster, so avoid days when the snow is very deep and powdery, if you’re into thrills.

There are sleds for all tastes and budgets, from the simple ones that look like large plastic trays to those with steering and brakes or the classic wooden ones. They are also easy to find, even in grocery stores. If you don’t want to buy one, you can also get creative and come up with your own “sled”. I’ve shared hills with canoes and even an armchair on skis!

Photo: personal archive.

The trickiest thing is to find the best sledding hills. Unlike other activities, it’s not always easy to find information online, so I recommend asking the locals. You can also keep an eye out for where kids and families with sleds are walking to.

Photo: personal archive.

2. Alpine or downhill skiing and snowboarding

Photo: personal archive.

If you are willing to spend more and want to experience the best of Winter sports, you have to try downhill skiing or snowboarding.

Photo: Karsten Winegeart, Unsplash.

Which one to choose is up to you. Skiing seems easier to grasp for beginners, but progress may be harder afterwards. Snowboarding may be harder in the beginning, but it’s easier once you grasp the fundamentals. Either will allow you to experience snowy mountain trails and charming skiing resorts, so you can’t go wrong.

Photo: Yann Allegre, Unsplash.

Look for a ski resort close to you (those are easy to find online) and, if you are a beginner, ask about lessons and equipment rental. Some resorts might even offer clothing rental, but that’s not a given, so check if that’s available if you need it. If you are lucky to be in a skiing haven like Colorado, you will have plenty of choices of ski resorts, but I was always able to find one close to everywhere I lived.

For skiing and snowboarding, you need water resistant clothing (especially the pants) and the appropriate accessories, which include goggles, gloves or mittens, hats, neck warmers and socks. The type of accessory you will need will depend on the conditions you will face (temperature, wind, altitude etc.). For instance, did you know that you may need sunscreen and goggles with UV protection for skiing in sunny places like Colorado? The snow reflects a lot of light and you need to be careful, snow blindness is painful.

My tip, especially if you are a beginner arriving late to the game (like I was, learning to ski in my 30s) is to give yourself at least three days on the slopes before you give up for good. If, unlike me, you’re good at mastering your body doing sporty stuff, you might not even need all that. The beginning can be painful, literally. You seem to be only falling down, the movement seems alien, it’s hard to grasp how to steer or stop. Attend some lessons each day and spend the rest of the day practicing on your own. If, by the end of three days, you are still not having fun, then maybe skiing/snowboarding is not your cup of tea.

Photo: personal archive.

Finally, caution is the name of the game. Skiing and snowboarding can lead to severe injuries and I witnessed my share of serious accidents involving beginners, some of whom even had an instructor along. Only go down that challenging slope when you are sure of your ability to do it and keep your distance from other people.

Photo: personal archive.

3. Ice Skating

Photo: personal archive.

If you’ve ever been on roller skates or roller blades, ice skating will be very familiar. It’s an activity I recommend even if you never had wheels under your feet before.

Most Winter destinations will have many ice skating rinks you can go to. Some provide iconic experiences such as the one in the Rockefeller Center in NY. Make sure to find out public skating hours (some rinks have classes or sports training hours when the ice is reserved).

If you are a beginner and afraid, look for a rink that has a trainer or support to help you learn without too many tumbles. Also, make sure your skates are neither too small nor too big and fasten them tight to your feet and ankles.

Skating trainer. Photo: personal archive.

If you are more experienced, you can pick a frozen lake or pond. Although the surface is far less uniform, in general, it’s the experience I prefer: the location is usually nicer and it can be less crowded. It’s important to make sure the ice is thick enough, check the internet for official information. If it’s a regular ice skating spot, there may be signs stating the ice condition. Be advised that, in locations where there is no maintenance, you may have to clear the snow from the ice yourself before skating.

4. Cross-country skiing

Photo: Simon Matzinger, Pexels.

If you want to try skiing without the adrenaline and speed of downhill skiing, cross-country skiing may be an option for you. The equipment is different and more appropriate for flat terrain. Another plus: you don’t need to pay for lift tickets, since you can practice cross-country skiing in virtually any park.

Cross-country skiing is easier to learn than the alpine variety and, if you intend to keep to groomed and mainly flat trails, you can even get away with trying it without any lessons. Still, it’s better to at least get some tips from a more experienced skier, if you’re not taking lessons.

If you need further convincing, you should know that some cross-country ski tracks are located in pretty beautiful spots, in parks and wooded areas. You will get great exercise and be in touch with nature.

If you don’t own the equipment, find a rental shop before you choose where to go. Some cross-country skiing areas don’t have equipment rentals on site.

Photo: No Name, Pexels.

5. Snowshoeing

Photo: Maël Balland, Pexels.

If you have never seen a snowshoe, think of a racket-looking platform for under your shoes that allows you to walk on snow without sinking your feet in. It’s great for hikes through areas with a lot of snow and no grooming.

If you enjoy hiking through nature, snowshoeing allows you to do just that, during the Winter time. You just strap the snowshoes over hiking or snow boots. It’s not hard and you can also get away without any lessons. Be advised, though, that there are things you should learn, such as techniques for going over obstacles, like fallen trees or creeks, for going up or down hills etc. There are also things to look out for, like tree wells, and, since it’s an activity that will take you to the wilderness amidst challenging weather conditions, it requires caution, adequate equipment and safety measures.

If you are a beginner, stick to marked trails in places with cell phone coverage, preferably. Avoid icy conditions, make sure your clothing will keep you dry and warm, and carry water and food. Don’t go by yourself and let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back.

If you like hiking, there’s a good chance you will also enjoy snowshoeing. It’s a great exercise and will allow you to experience nature in a way you haven’t before.

Photo: Susan Flynn, Unsplash.

6. Fat biking

If you’re into cycling, especially BMX or dirt bikes, there’s a great Winter activity you can try, fat biking.

Fat bikes are basically off-road bikes with wide tires that are good for riding even on soft snow, although you will probably have more fun on a groomed trail or packed snow.