When people ask why we moved to Vermont, I always answer “the woods!” And it’s true, we love our woods. We love looking at them, thinking about them, discussing them, photographing them and, most of all, being in them. However, as you might’ve noticed from my recent photos on Facebook and Instagram, we are currently in the depths of a typical Vermont winter–in other words, we won’t see our grass again until sometime in late spring/summer (TBD) on account of the prodigious snow cover .
But that hasn’t stopped us from frolicking in our woods. For wintertime sports, it’s all about the gear and the mindset. And I use “sports” very loosely because I am not a “sport” person–anyone who has ever had the misfortune of playing on a team with me will attest–I’m terrible at actual sports. But pursuits? Activities? Frolics? I like those.
Don’t Let The Cold Stop You: Get The Gear And Get Going
I used to have a serious aversion to going outside in the winter for any extended period of time. I don’t like being cold and I didn’t see how it could possibly be fun to intentionally subject oneself to sub-zero temperatures. My toes would be froze, my nose would be froze… oh how little I knew then. Ultimately, however, my desire for frugality won out. There’s no cheaper way to exercise, entertain oneself, and enjoy life than to get outside and revel in whatever weather happens to be happening.
When I first moved to the Northeast ten years ago, I thought I might freeze to death… inside my apartment. And look at me now–I chose to move even farther north in order to enjoy an even colder and even longer winter. Mr. FW is moot for this argument because he has always adored the cold (weirdo)–no cajoling needed.
Lo those ten years ago, as I shivered and shook, Mr. FW sat me down to have “the gear talk.” The gear talk is difficult for people like me who previously cared greatly about my appearance at all times–blizzard or no. But my
long-suffering patient husband kindly steered me towards understanding that some things (aka fashion) must be sacrificed in order to fully appreciate outdoor winter pursuits. It seemed superficial to me (newsflash: it was) to avoid winter hiking because I didn’t want to look unfashionable, so I bucked up and got on board the cold weather gear train. It is decidedly not fun to be cold while pursuing outdoor activities and wearing inappropriate gear will quash your fervor in a hot minute.
Here’s the stuff I’ve found indispensable for winter weather pleasure:
Long underwear: start yourself out right with a non-cotton base layer. This’ll insulate you to the core. Any non-cotton (silk, spandex, etc) shirt and pants will do. No need to get fancy-fance.
Socks: wool is best and cotton is your worst enemy. Do not wear cotton socks in the cold (I speak from personal frozen toe experience here).
Hat: Mr. FW and I both have a windproof hat (pictured at right), which works wonders. It comes down low across the forehead and ears and is impervious to even the most frosty of winter gusts. I’ve worn this on many a mountaintop and always been quite cozy.
Facemask: The ultimate capitulation to form over function, I ADORE my facemask. Not an exaggeration. It keeps my nose, cheeks and chin from becoming wind-chapped. Mr. FW calls it my “bank robber chic” look and I’m OK with that. I think I look pretty badass myself.
Coat: Down-filled is the way to go. I found my Land’s End down-filled coat in a trash pile by the side of the road several years ago. I washed it with down wash (to preserve its waterproofed-ness) and, three winters later, it’s still keeping me roasty toasty. It’s a size too big for me, but that turned out to be ideal during my pregnancy last year–it zipped over my pregnant belly and later, over Babywoods in a carrier. I like that this coat comes down to just above my knees–added warmth, but not so long that it restricts movement. Floor-length coats are lovely, but impossible to hike in. While wool coats are warm, they’re not waterproof and you’ll end up a soggy mess (plus you’ll smell like wet sheep… ask me how I know this).
Snowpants: Mr. FW has full suspender snowpants (because he’s just that cool) and I have pant snowpants (not sure what the technical term is there) and both work well. Much like the coat, the goal here is waterproofed-ness. With snowpants on, you won’t be distressed by precipitation or the occasional roll in the snow.
Boots: Perhaps the holy grail of all winter garb, you MUST have warm, insulated, waterproof boots. We have these and they were worth every penny. Don’t try to find snazzy colors or prints on boots–that’s a dead giveaway they won’t be warm enough (again, ask me how I know this… ).
You Bought This Stuff, Mrs. Frugalwoods?!?
Alas ’tis true, we bought all of this gear in the past (and received some of it as Christmas gifts years ago from our families), but the key is that we only had to purchase each item once. That’s the beauty of well-made, appropriate winter gear: you don’t replace it every year or even every ten years. It keeps on trucking. Sure, it’ll wear out at some point, but these things are long-lasting. It’s also true that you don’t need 6 different hats–you just need one good hat (same goes for everything else on the list: one will suffice). For care and maintenance, I wash all of our stuff in the washing machine a few times every season and then hang it to dry.
Plus, not buying gear because you don’t want to spend the money and then not enjoying the outdoors because you’re too cold is not a wise application of frugality. It’s also what I did my first year in the Northeast. I was so resistant to forking over the cash to outfit myself properly that I trudged around in a thin wool coat and plastic rain boots and nearly got frostbite on my left toe (true story). Not one of my smarter money saving strategies. Being uncomfortable outdoors is largely a function of being incorrectly dressed.
Luckily for you, most of this gear makes an appearance in thrift stores, on Craigslist, and at garage sales. Mid-winter and early spring are excellent times to find cold weather clothes on clearance.
Here’s another frugal tip: instead of looking for outdoor “sports” clothing (such as ski gear), look for gear worn by people who work in the cold (or in refrigerated warehouses). This line of clothing is designed for people who know what works, and who are looking for stuff that’s warm, useful, and a good value. It removes fashion from the equation and replaces it with thrift, economy, and function (ski gear, conversely, is largely about fashion, followed by function).
Choose Your Sport Wisely
While there are myriad winter sports to choose from, as a frugality maven, I feel its my duty to point out that not all sports are created financially equal. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a more expensive sport if that’s your THING, but if you’re casually easing into wintertime outdoorsy-ness, consider that you might be able to reap the same benefits (fresh air and exercise!) from a cheaper option.
Our chosen activities are simple and thrifty:
- Hiking: this involves walking around outside.
- Snowshoeing: similar to hiking, snowshoeing is incredibly simple–you strap snowshoes (here’s the kind we have) on your boots and you’re off. Do not laugh but, when we first moved to Vermont, we’d never snowshoed before and so we googled “how to snowshoe” and proceeded to watch several informational videos on YouTube. I will save you the hassle and the suspense: all you do is walk, there’s no technique involved. Just don’t step on your own snowshoes and you’ll be fine.
- Sledding: get in a sled and aim yourself down a hill.
Not a whole lot of gear, skill, or special terrain (such as a mountain) is required to participate in these “sports,” which why we love them.
P.S. When we lived in the city, Mr. FW biked to work year-round. Check out his tips for successful winter biking.
Baby Conveyance Methods
As you might’ve noticed, we have a one-year-old in our ranks. But this hasn’t deterred us from near-daily outdoor sporting. Fresh air is good for everyone–babies included. We started snowshoeing with Babywoods when she was two months old and she’s been out almost every day since then. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about taking a baby out in the cold–they’re just tiny humans after all and, if properly bundled, they’ll enjoy the break from their indoor environs.
Going outside instantly transforms Babywoods’ mood (for the better)–if she’s fussy or upset, as soon as we go out, she relaxes and looks around at the world with interest. In my experience, taking a walk is an instant baby-mood-improver. If you’re wondering how to get started trekking with an infant, you’ve come to the right place!
Until Babywoods was about 10 months old, I carried her snuggled up against my chest in a hand-me-down Ergo carrier. I like the Ergo because it’s designed like a hiking backpack (and thus has ample back support) and it’s not too bulky. Slings or wraps also work for tiny babies. Until a baby can hold their head up on their own, they shouldn’t be put in backpack carriers. The other advantages of a front carrier are: 1) If you’re nursing, you can nurse your baby without removing them from the carrier (very handy when you’re on long hikes through the woods), 2) You can zip your coat around the carrier for added warmth.
Now that Babywoods is an emerging toddler, some folks love hiking backpacks for this age. We, however, were in search of a ground-based solution in order to decrease back pain–even the best carriers are still a weight on your back and shoulders. And so, we discovered the game sled! You might recall I was lusting after ridiculously awesome and expensive (even on Craigslist!!) strollers that convert from wheels to skis. While I’m still hoping one might come my way for free or cheap, I’m not holding my breath. They’re so popular up here that I couldn’t get anyone selling them on Craigslist to even return my emails!
And so, I took advice from the people who know best: the readers of Frugalwoods. Quite a few of you suggested we use a sled to convey Babywoods and we tried a regular old plastic kiddy sled, but the problem is that our snow is so deep–and our terrain so uneven–that this little sled took on snow and tipped over.
But, fellow Vermont mom Tara and Alaskan mom Maureen knew the answer: they use a game sled to tow their kiddos. What’s a game sled, you might ask? It’s designed for hunters to pull their game out of the woods. Hence, the tow rope is long, the plastic is super durable, the sides are high enough that no snow comes in, it’s stable enough that it doesn’t tip, and being made entirely of plastic, it’s lightweight.
And so, we bought this one! I put a bunch of blankets in there, cozy Babywoods on down, and she loves it. The best part is that, at $50, it was a fraction of the price of traditional children’s towing sleds and massively cheaper than my ski stroller fantasy. Hey, I have no problem using a dead deer sled for my child.
We’re still trying to work out the best way to pull the sled when going downhill. On a slick surface, such as our driveway after Mr. FW plows it, you can drive it in front of you like a sleigh–easy! But on a snow-packed surface–such as the trails through our woods–it won’t slide in front of you on a downhill, so you have to pull it behind you, but then it hits you in the legs. Boo. Our plan is to buy poles and affix them to a belt so that the sled will stay equidistant from your body whether you’re going uphill or down.
A work in progress, but a worthy goal! I can also confirm that this sled is enormous and would fit at least four children and a dog. So far, I’ve tested it with two babies and there was plenty of room leftover. The back comes up quite high, so an older child could sit with their back against it. I imagine that’s what we’ll transition Babywoods to when she no longer wants to lay flat (she likes to nap in there, so I think she prefers laying down at this point).
If you’re in a place with sidewalks and city streets, I find a stroller works incredibly well. Baby can see what’s happening, but still be bundled in and cozy. Babywoods loves strollering around when we go into town and, our stroller also works on woodland trails when there’s no snow.
As a native of southern California and a small person who despises froze toes (and anything else), I eventually realized that, aside from wrongful clothing, it was my own mindset that was holding me back from full participation in outdoor winter life. I feared the cold! What would happen to me out there??? Turns out, nothing bad.
There’s a great rush of adrenaline from exerting yourself in the cold and it’s an invigorating part of my day. I always, without fail, feel better after taking a hike (cold weather or not). We are often the only thing standing in our own way of trying something new. Breaking down the barriers we have in our own minds for why we can’t do something is liberating and a powerful reinforcement of our inner strength.
Plus, getting comfortable with year-round outdoor exercise is an excellent way to eliminate the cost of a gym membership. And if you’re participating in my Uber Frugal Month Challenge (which starts January 1st… you can still sign up here!), then you’re looking to trim out every one of those unneeded expenses in your life. So do yourself a favor, suit up and get out there!