The wonders of winter wanders
Words: Ben Dolphin l Image © Alamy
Crisp frosts, tingling cheeks, dragon breath... and something warming afterwards! Banish the seasonal blues and discover the many benefits of venturing out during the coldest, darkest, wettest months as we celebrate the joys of winter walking.
Sometimes I wonder if my wiring is back to front. While the country happily beaches and barbecues its way through summer, I feel sluggish and apathetic. My hillwalking legs are heavy. The heat, humidity and hay fever, the skulking around in the shadows to avoid sunburn - more than at any other time of year, I feel the urge to sleep. 'Wake me up in winter!' I say.
But as the temperature drops and the light softens, I feel myself being coaxed back to life. Stepping outside, my nose runs immediately and my eyes water from the gusty wind. There's a permanent air of dampness that keeps everything smelling wonderfully fresh and earthy. All my senses are heightened, my energy returns and my hillwalking legs are weightless. I feel so alive!
I should say, however, that, while I like the cold, I don't like being cold. Those are two very different things. Being wrapped up against the elements is extremely satisfying, and nothing comes close to the reassuring hug of my favourite woolly hat. Its first deployment, after the warmer months, is a cherished winter milestone.
Folk understandably despair at the shorter daylight hours, but I welcome the enveloping darkness. I sleep better, and in the space of just one hillwalk I can see both the sunrise and the sunset. In midsummer, my hillwalks would need to last 17 hours to manage that!
Image © Alamy
Dark evenings give me Venus and the moon, the Plough overhead, the occasional shooting star and sometimes even the Northern Lights - heavenly company long before bedtime. And as I pause to gaze starwards, tawny owls hoot from the wings.
By day, winter geese or thrushes are my companions. At dusk, deer graze in the fields, while starlings and jackdaws congregate in massive numbers before settling down to roost. There's certainly plenty of winter wildlife to see, but there's also a welcome quiet. A sense of the natural world being in hiatus, shutting down and snoozing to recuperate.
But really, when I say I love winter, it's the snow I enjoy the most. Snow wears many guises, from the ornate artistry of curving snowdrifts to mist-like spindrift blowing across a field of stubble. But its transformative beauty lies in the way it softens the abrasive human world. Sounds are muffled. Edges are blurred. Evidence of people all but disappears. That crunch of untouched snow underfoot is one of my favourite things in the universe.
The absolute nirvana of winter walking for me is to be up on a snowy summit half an hour after sunset. As the fading light is scattered by aerosols or ice particles in the sky, bands of yellow, pink or purple hues can form in the horizon opposite the sunset. This is 'alpenglow'. It's outrageously beautiful, and no other spectacle in my walking year comes close.
In the absence of snow, I'll happily take a frosty spell. Mud and bogs freeze over, opening up walks that must be avoided in all but the driest summers. In woodlands, you'll find glades where frost not only forms but lingers and accumulates over days. Feathers of hoar frost form on every surface. Fragile and ephemeral, yet remarkably robust in chilly temperatures, they're at their most beautiful on a torchlit trek. Crystals the size of guitar plectrums catch and reflect the torch beam, and thousands of tiny stars twinkle at your sides while you walk.
Winter isn't always so wintry, of course. In Britain, it's just as likely to be green, wet and relatively mild. But, even then, it has much to offer. The biting insects disappear, as does the dense, trouser-soaking vegetation. Nettles, bracken and hogweed all die back. Paths, field edges, rivers and canalsides can be negotiated without a machete.
True, it can be muddy underfoot, but that's nothing a good pair of wellies can't tackle. And while a landscape devoid of foliage might seem austere at first glance, peer through the leafless branches and see previously obscured views in the distance, or beautiful lichens and mosses on the bark. Some woodlands look just as beautiful in winter as they do in summer - birchwoods, for example, whose reddish twigs and branches paint whole landscapes a subtly purple hue.
On foggy days, old woodlands take on the eerie beauty of a Tim Burton film set. On wet days, don't hide inside, but instead venture out for a breath of truly fresh air - heavy rain reduces particulate pollution, and the sweet, musky scent released when raindrops pound the earth and trees is proven to have calming and mood-boosting effects.
If you're getting wet anyway, why not walk to a weir or a waterfall? On windy days, head to the coast, where crashing waves and roiling surf get the pulse racing. Interestingly, wherever water droplets collide with one another, invisible but abundant molecules, charged with electricity, are produced. These 'negative ions' are inhaled or absorbed through our skin, and studies have linked them to increased oxygen absorption and antimicrobial activity in our bodies, as well as relief from depression, improved cognitive performance, boosted immune systems and heightened alertness.
Admittedly, it's hard not to be alert when you're getting a 50mph sea-spray facial, but it doesn't have to be a raging gale for you to benefit from negative ions. Walking the coast, sitting near the foot of a waterfall and even just being outdoors in the rain can all have the desired effect.
Indoors, the air can get stale, but when we leave the sofa and head outside we take deeper breaths of fresh air, which gets oxygen circulating and into our cells. That's good for our concentration and even our digestion. A daily dose of natural light, however weak it might be, is good for our body clock and for sleep. It stimulates the release of serotonin (one of our 'happy hormones'), which in turn benefits memory and our sense of wellbeing. That probably explains why I find luminous environments, where light is reflected back at me, especially uplifting in winter. Think riversides, seasides, snowfields, sandy beaches.
Repeated exposure to cool weather has even been shown to stimulate the activation of 'brown' fat in our bodies. This fat specialises in burning energy to actively generate heat and maintain core body temperature, which is believed to help burn more calories.
You could fill this whole magazine with persuasive scientific evidence attesting to the benefits of winter walking, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to actually get out of the house. I am a very outdoorsy person, but I know how difficult it can be to motivate myself on a dreich winter's day.
But forcing my way outside, in spite of the weather, is a way of defiantly taking control. I get a fantastic sense of achievement when I beat that apathy, as though I've won a battle. That's what's great about walking groups. The social element - the promise of good company and friends - may well be your main incentive for getting outdoors. But while the walk itself might be only incidental, you'll still reap the physical and mental benefits.
Ultimately, though, I don't need science to tell me what I already know because in winter I feel it so keenly. When I've been cooped up indoors all day or just feeling low, I feel so much better for getting outdoors, even just for half an hour. And that's the point, I suppose. We don't have to undertake full-day expeditions over snowy summits to get these benefits. We just need a little, often. Winter, with all its moods and challenges, can be our friend and ally. We just need to get out there to meet it.
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