Winter: it’s about Attitude and Clothing

It’s winter on the Wet Coast. Rain, sometimes just dull flat grey. Four months or so of sitting inside, waiting for the clouds to break, maybe seeing a big yellow bright thing in the sky for a moment or two, hurting your eyes until it disappears again. Tolerable? – Barely. Pleasant? – Naw.  Absorbing, stimulating fun? – Are you kidding? What’s on TV? Yuck there too.

Winter: week after week of feeling S.A.D,* without enough hours of daylight to get out even if the weather were better. (*S.A.D. is Seasonal Affective Disorder: the winter blues that can snag people who don’t see enough sunlight during the brief daylight hours.)

There are two things that will make all the difference in how you enjoy what’s happening outdoors: attitude and preparation.

Attitude comes first. It’s like emergency survival: the single most important element in surviving an emergency is knowing that you must and believing that you can make it. (Why do kids up to six years old survive getting lost better than any other age group? Because they know that Mommy or Daddy will find them.) Most times, knowing that there is an amazing and fascinating world out there and wanting to be part of it is the most important part of having fun.

Awhile ago, I was out collecting plant medicine with my Native teacher when we got caught in an early summer rain. Wiping the rain off my face, hoping I wouldn’t get cold, and wishing for a hat, I suddenly became aware that he wasn’t paying any attention to the rain. It matted his hair and ran off his face, while he acted as though nothing was different or wrong. I stopped wiping too, and allowed the rain to be on me. In a few moments I too was feeling the drops fall on my skin, feeling water running down my face and hands, and enjoying it. Feeling like part of nature.

Fortunately, the rain didn’t stay long that day. If it had, we would likely have had to pay more attention to how we were dressed. That’s the second aspect of preparation: make sure you’re dressed well. Here’s the idea: There’s no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

There are some guidelines. In cold weather, don’t wear cotton on any part of your body that may get wet. Cotton (a.k.a. “death cloth” in survival circles because when wet it conducts heat away from the body so well and dries so slowly that it’s almost as bad as being immersed in water) is comfortable and warm as long as it’s dry, but dangerous when it’s wet. If you do wear cotton and get wet, get it off you. You lose less heat from dry bare skin than through a layer of wet cotton.

Synthetics, wool, and silk are all preferable to cotton. Fleece is great for warmth, wet or dry.

Several years ago I hiked part of the Juan de Fuca trail with a friend in what turned out to be the worst storm of the season. The hike was just one overnight.  The January day we were supposed to go was beautiful, but my friend asked to delay until the next morning. We set out with a light rain starting to fall. Light enough that I didn’t even bother to put a cover over my backpack.

Fast forward several hours. It’s completely dark, raining and blowing hard. We’re still hiking, I’m soaked to the skin, and my backpack weights a ton.  We finally stop to camp in a hollow (does this ring alarm bells?  We camp in a hollow in a pouring rain), and I discover that my synthetic sleeping bag is soaked through.

I’ll leave out most of the part where my fearless leader disappears for nearly an hour in a roaring storm, looking for water from a stream that we crossed three minutes before stopping. I’ll just give passing mention to the marvellous hot meal that he prepared under the dripping – no, flowing – tent fly. What stands out was the borrowed fleece blanket that saved me from a miserable night. I slept amazingly well with that blanket folded inside my bag, except when my hand would slip outside the blanket onto my cold wet bag or into the puddle on the tent floor.

Later I realize that I have been soaked to the skin for about thirty hours in the bush in January, without any adverse effects. I was warm, thanks to synthetics on my skin, fleece layers next, and breathable coat and pants. My footwear was the same runners I wear everywhere; socks, heavy wool.

That’s what I mean by preparation. Whether you’re out for a week or for an afternoon, being physically prepared is largely in your clothing.

There are many ways to be safe; for me, knowing that I can be uncomfortable and still okay is more important than isolating myself completely from the elements. Tom Brown as a young boy asked his old Apache teacher, nearly 90 years old, why he didn’t seem to mind the cold and the rain. Stalking Wolf responded, “Because they are real.”  I know that I can be wet and comfortable; I can also be exposed to cold for a time and be comfortable (have you seen your own bare footprint in snow?). What I must not do is get wet and cold.

So I prepare, then I go out with confidence. Occasionally I sit still in one place for an hour, until the woods return to baseline and the juncos, weasels, and deer are moving naturally again. I may take my shoes off at a stream or puddle just to feel the cold water on my feet.

It’s possible to enjoy the same trails, parks and other places in winter as in summer.  Once you make up your mind and put on the right clothes, winter is much more than just rain or snow. It’s a whole new world.

December 6 2022

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