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A snowshoer climbing over knee-deep snow on Mazama Ridge. Photo by Young Delton.

Step it Up: Stay Fit in Winter

How to keep your strength and endurance during the dark days of winter | by Lindsay Leffelman

When fall gives way to winter, cold, dreary days become the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. Darkness arrives earlier, the fog and rain settle in and for the next few months, and many of us will go into hibernation mode. Curling up with a book, watching the latest hit show and enjoying a holiday meal are all appealing at this time of year.

While we certainly need periods of rest and relaxation to thrive, becoming relatively inactive for months on end is rarely a good idea for your health and well-being, especially if you’ve spent the past several months hoofing it to amazing hiking destinations and building up your strength and endurance. The good news is there are many ways to take the next step in your hiking journey by staying in peak hiking shape throughout the winter months. That way, when warm weather returns and your favorite trails are accessible again, you’ll be strong enough to enjoy them.

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Thick snow can lead to some out-of-this-world landscapes. Photo by Kristin LeClair.

To maintain your hiking strength and stamina, the most important thing you can do is simply stay active. That activity can come in many forms and will vary depending on your interests and comfort level. Whether you want to hit the trails, hit the slopes or hit the gym, there are plenty of effective methods for staying active, healthy and energetic during the dark days of winter. No matter which options you choose, you’ll thank yourself come spring.

Hit the trails

By far, the most obvious way to stay in great hiking shape is to keep hiking. Many of our favorite high-country trails are buried under snow right now, and trudging through the white stuff may not be within your comfort zone. However, there are many options for snow-free wintertime hiking in the Northwest. Most trails and local parks in the Puget Sound lowlands remain snowless in all but the most extreme storms. You will also find many snow-free trails worth exploring along the coast, in the Columbia River Gorge or in Southeast Washington. You can search for great trails in these regions using the hiking guide on WTA’s website. Of course, you’ll need to be prepared for rain, and you’ll want to check trip reports or call the ranger station ahead of time to make sure the trail really is without snow or other obstacles.

If you are comfortable trekking through the snow, then might want to take the plunge and try snowshoeing. From the Olympic Mountains to the Cascade passes to the Methow Valley, there are numerous snowshoeing locations all across our state. Though the act of snowshoeing is straightforward and doesn’t require much in the way of special skills, you will need to arm yourself with some basic snow-travel knowledge and gear before heading out. First, bear in mind that not all of your favorite summer hikes are suitable for snowshoeing due to avalanche risks. Searching for “snowshoe” in the WTA hiking guide will steer you toward some lower-risk snowshoeing trails. Second, prepare yourself with high-quality boots and clothing that will keep you warm and dry, along with the Ten Essentials. It is also strongly suggested that you carry a small shovel and avalanche beacon (as well as the ability to use them) when venturing out into the snow. Finally, consider starting out with a guided snowshoe hike to learn some basics and try out the sport before committing to the purchase of snowshoes. Mount Rainier National Park, the Mount St. Helens Institute and multiple national forest districts offer guided snowshoe hikes throughout the winter months. Whether you decide to pursue this option or venture out on your own, review the comprehensive information on our winter recreation guide to help you plan for your first snowshoe outing.

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A snowshoe trek along the Skyline Trail on Mount Rainier. Photo by Nicole June.

Along with snowshoeing, Nordic or cross-country skiing is another viable option when you want to hit the trails come winter. Because these sports require a different skill set than snowshoeing and hiking, most beginners benefit from introductory lessons. Most major ski areas in Washington have a Nordic center with lessons available for all skill levels.

Hit the slopes

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing may be the winter sports that most closely approximate hiking, but downhill skiing and snowboarding have their advantages too. Both skiing and snowboarding increase cardiovascular endurance, strengthen lower body muscles and improve balance, core strength and flexibility. All of those elements benefit hikers, too, so whether you’re a seasoned pro or just looking for a new way to get outside this winter, remember that you will reap the benefits of participating in downhill snow sports when prime hiking season rolls around again.

Hit the gym (or your living room)

Most hiking enthusiasts will tell you that they would much prefer their physical activity to take place outdoors, but sometimes that isn’t possible, particularly during the busy winter holiday season or when the weather is lousy. When that’s the case, take your workout indoors. Remember that the single most important thing you can do to maintain your hiking power is to stay active, no matter what form that takes. When exercising in a gym (or even in the comfort of your own home), focus on incorporating the three basic components of fitness into your routine: cardiovascular endurance; muscular strength and endurance; and flexibility. Try taking a group exercise class at the gym, visiting a yoga studio or following along with some workout videos.

Remember that the single most important thing you can do to maintain your hiking power is to stay active, no matter what form that takes.

When winter approaches, your time on the trails will naturally diminish, but that doesn’t mean your strength and conditioning have to diminish as well. Taking small yet consistent steps to remain active all winter long will ensure that you are physically prepared for the spring hiking season ahead.

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Artist Point, in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is a popular area for snowy recreation. Photo by Eugene Kogan.
This article originally appeared in the Nov+Dec 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.