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To embrace outdoor exercise, change your gear – and attitude

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 4, 2020

Even in the winter, cyclists are on the street in Tromsoe, the main city of Norway’s Arctic, as seen is this undated photo. With the pandemic limiting indoor activity this winter, Norway provides an example of how to live in the outdoors all year long.  (Doug Mellgren/Associated Press)
Even in the winter, cyclists are on the street in Tromsoe, the main city of Norway’s Arctic, as seen is this undated photo. With the pandemic limiting indoor activity this winter, Norway provides an example of how to live in the outdoors all year long. (Doug Mellgren/Associated Press)
By Amanda Loudin Special to </p><p>the Washington Post

If you have embraced being outdoors as a way to deal with pandemic stress and are dreading the arrival of winter, you might consider cultivating two things: a new attitude and a better cold-weather wardrobe.

The experience of Stacey Benzing, 47, an expat starting her third year in Norway, illustrates the importance of both. The Maryland native who “wouldn’t step a foot outside in winter if I didn’t have to” now walks, hikes and cross-country skis in the cold wearing gear recommended by her Norwegian friends.

When Benzing moved to Oslo, she was surprised to see “moms pushing prams through snow and ice or people riding bikes year-round,” she said. She had come face to face with the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv, which translates to open-air living and exemplifies the tradition of making time outdoors part of daily life – whatever the season.

Nate Axvig, a Colorado resident whose time in Norway inspired him to co-found Scandinavian-inspired sportswear company Aktiv (aktivstyle.com), looks at friluftsliv as “weaving the natural world into your everyday life.” For him, this has translated into riding his bike to work alongside a creek. “If you are in a rural area, this might be foraging for mushrooms or simply having an autumn picnic outside,” he said. “Your clothing should allow you to comfortably enjoy the outdoors no matter what.”

After witnessing friluftsliv, Benzing was inspired to change her approach to cold weather to make the most of her time overseas. “I knew I didn’t want to miss out, so I learned from the Norwegians,” she said.

Altering one’s mindset about winter, as Benzing did, is key to getting through it, clinical psychologist Roseann Capanna-Hodge said.

“The first part of managing stress and building resiliency in these trying times is changing how you view things,” she said. “You are in control. Instead of saying you dread winter, shift the dialogue to, ‘I’m looking forward to winter.’ ”

To help create that shift, you can look forward to activities you enjoy during winter and determine how you might adapt outdoor activities to the colder weather or consider starting new activities.

“Think about an outdoor winter activity you’d like to try,” Capanna-Hodge said. “Maybe in the past, you’ve thought about snowshoeing but never tried it.”

Of course, you’ll need to be comfortable doing those activities.

“The Norwegians will tell you there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” Benzing said.

She invested in some key pieces, such as a long, heavy-duty parka, waterproof boots and layers of quick-dry merino wool.

Winter clothing has come a long way in the past couple of decades. Technical fabrics, wool and wool blends make getting out less bulky and more resistant to the elements. With so many new options, we asked Axvig and Will Rochfort, a Colorado-based contributing gear editor for Backpacker Magazine, for advice on smart outfitting.

When determining where to spend your dollars, Rochfort said it’s important to prioritize your extremities.

“If they are cold, you will be miserable,” he said. This is particularly true in the Northeast, where wetter, more humid air amplifies the sensation of cold and makes staying dry a top priority.

“The first thing you want to look for are insulated, waterproof boots,” Rochfort said. “Your feet are the first thing to get cold in snow or slush.”

You don’t have to break the bank for boots like these, either.

“Unless you’re going on supertechnical, long adventures, you don’t have to spend $300 for boots that will keep you warm in negative 40 degrees,” Rochfort said. “You can find a decent pair for about half of that.”

Socks also are important.

“If you buy nice boots but wear regular cotton socks, you won’t stay as warm,” Rochfort said. “I’d recommend a good pair of wool socks in the $25 range to pull moisture away from your feet.”

He points to Smartwool’s mountaineering socks as a good choice.

Another worthwhile piece of gear is traction for your shoes, such as the popular Yaktrax cleats, which are about $25 a pair.

“That’s much cheaper than paying for a broken bone,” Rochfort said.

Also invest in a decent pair of gloves or mittens, as well as a warm beanie for your head. Mittens tend to be warmer than gloves, but if you need the dexterity of your fingers while outdoors, pick gloves.

Hand and foot warmers are good additions, but they aren’t necessities.

“They are a nice luxury to keep in your pockets, especially if you need to retain your motor skills in your hands,” Rochfort said. “They can also be a hero if you’re with someone who might not have the right gear.”

To keep your core warm and dry, plan to layer.

“You need a base layer, an insulating layer and an outer shell,” Rochfort said. “Depending on where you live, the shell should be waterproof.”

Axvig recommends that your base layer be wool and wool blends, which take the prize for warmth, the ability to keep you dry and the fact that they don’t hold on to odors.

Some people prefer something synthetic or a blend, which can be less itchy and come with a lower price tag.

A coat will probably be your big-ticket item, but you can cut down on that expense by choosing synthetics instead of down, for instance.

“It won’t be as breathable or compressible, but if you’re not spending extended time outside, that’s OK,” Rochfort said.

Axvig offers a warning about outerwear.

“One thing Americans sometimes get wrong is choosing an outer layer with significant insulation,” he said. “While that is wise if you’re in a place like North Dakota, for most of the country, that will be too hot. I suggest a well-made shell that blocks the wind and rain.”

If you’re going to sacrifice warmth for one area of your body, Rochfort suggests choosing your legs.

“When you’re walking or running, they’re still generating heat,” he said, “and none of your internal organs are there.”

One final piece of gear not to overlook is lighting and reflective strips. With shorter days, you want to see – and be seen.

An affordable headlamp and clothing with reflection built in will keep you safe in predawn or evening outdoor activities.

Benzing says her improved gear and new attitude have so thoroughly altered her approach to winter that she expects it to last beyond her return to the U.S. next year. “Staying outside has become our pattern now,” she says. “I definitely want to continue this lifestyle when I come back.”

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