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A beginner’s guide to beating the winter blues and heeding the mountain’s call

SALT LAKE CITY — For a lot of people, winter is not the most wonderful time of the year. Maybe there’s just a little less pep in your step, or you feel downright depressed during the long, cold and dark months. The first snow makes me shudder. On rainy days I grumble. Although I’m grateful…

SALT LAKE CITY — For a lot of people, winter is not the most wonderful time of the year. Maybe there’s just a little less pep in your step, or you feel downright depressed during the long, cold and dark months.

The first snow makes me shudder. On rainy days I grumble. Although I’m grateful for the water that my parched surroundings desperately need, my own selfish prayer is that the winter weather won’t last long.

I don’t like to be stuck inside. The mountains beckon at every turn. What should I do in the winter, sit at home and twiddle my thumbs for months on end? The John Muir quotes slapped onto every T-shirt, tote bag, and greeting card taunt me. It’s 20 degrees outside, John, are you really going to take that call?

While you may be tempted to crawl into bed and go the way of the groundhog, there can be a mental cost to staying cooped up. Put another way, there’s a lot of research backing up the benefits of spending time in nature. Last year one study looked at more than 290 million people in 20 countries. The researchers found that time outside reduced risk of many diseases and health problems, including type 2 diabetes, stress, and high blood pressure. It also helped people get a better night’s sleep.

Another study found that spending just two hours a week in nature led to better “health and well-being.”

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects 6% of people in the United States, and another 14% gets the winter blues. Plus, a lot of us just feel a little bit deflated.

Getting outside can help you cope, and as I was pleased to discover, winter does not stop Utahns from doing just that. And no. I’m not just talking about skiers (not everyone can swing the pricey gear). With snowshoes, micro spikes, or just a good pair of boots, it turns out much of the mountain terrain can remain open, even to an amateur hiker like me.

With a little bit of forethought and research, you can reap the mental and physical benefits of getting outside. Here’s how I got started, and how you can too.

Get the gear

Hiking in the winter is far more comfortable and safe if you get the right clothes and footwear.

As someone who used to hike in sandals or even barefoot, getting the proper equipment for snow felt daunting. Stepping into an REI makes me feel like a pauper in a store full of expensive stuff I don’t know how to use. Luckily, in Salt Lake City, I discovered the 30-something dudes selling their sweeeeet gear on KSL.com. They bought the stuff. Used it two or three times. Now they are ready to sell it to you for $20.

Slowly but surely, I assembled what I needed. It also helps to keep an eye on sales. You can always go into one of those extravagant outdoor stores, ask for help and then wait until the discounts roll on in.

I haven’t yet tried snowshoeing, but you can go to your local REI, or sporting good store to rent them.

Dress in layers and try to stick to wool and polyester fabrics rather than cotton: Cotton does not absorb water well and may leave you feeling chilly or even prone to hypothermia. You’ll work up a sweat while walking up hill, but you’ll want a hat, gloves and warm outerwear for the moment you stop for lunch or to take in the scenery.

For winter hiking clothes, I’m a big fan of Goodwill, or other thrift stores. Again, it takes patience and a bit of scouring to find outdoor wear in good condition for a decent price. The inconvenience is worth it given the serenity and lowered blood pressure you’ll get from your outdoor adventure.

Also, wool socks. Your mom was right about keeping your feet dry and warm.

Social media groups and map apps

When starting out as a winter hiker, safety should be the first thing you consider.

As a transplant to the Wasatch Front, I didn’t know the first thing about hiking in the area, let alone in the snow. Through a bit of sleuthing (i.e. typing into a search bar) I found half a dozen groups on Facebook full of people with great advice on places to hike in the summer and winter months. People share their most recent hikes, and you can get a good idea of what the conditions are like on a particular trail.

Sofia Jeremias feels the mountains calling to her, even when they’re covered in snow.
Sofia Jeremias, Deseret News

Gaia GPS and AllTrails, GPS apps aimed at hikers, also allow users to write reviews. I try to stick to trails with reviews in the last day or two so I can generally know what conditions to expect. Plus, it’s good to have one of these apps for navigating the actual trails. I’ve been told you should also carry a physical map and compass as well, in case the frigid temperatures drain the battery on your phone.

When starting out, it’s best to stick to trails that have already been well travelled. In Utah, there’s no shortage of these.

Be safe

You should carry a first aid kit, food supplies and other items you’d need in case you get stuck out in the freezing wilderness. This isn’t just for back-country hikes. Hiking in the snow, even on shorter trails, requires extra vigilance.

Always bring lots of water. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you don’t need to stay hydrated! (Again, listen to your mother’s advice).

There are lots of lists you can find online, and you can consult social media groups to see what other hikers suggest. REI has a 10 essentials list.

You can find classes to take or groups through Facebook or Meetup to go out with for your first winter outdoor adventure. Generally, the resounding advice is take it slow and start small. Don’t head straight out into the most extreme, furthest-from-civilization trails.

The shorter days and cold weather can be hard to cope with. Heading into the mountains for just a few hours can lift your spirits. Just read any T-shirt in the Salt Lake City airport for confirmation.

I recently found myself on a snowy trail. The silence, the bright white light reflecting off the ground, and the patches of green moss clinging to leafless birch trees made me take a deep breath. I let it out slowly, and felt happy and grateful to be exactly where I was.

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