Physical Fitness Endures Despite Winter, Pandemic
The cold, dark days of winter are upon us, but don’t let chills drive you indoors. While the pandemic has helped many of us rediscover outdoor passions, lower temperatures shouldn’t necessarily equal less time outside.
Hiking, running, and even yoga and weight training are all activities that can be done outdoors in above zero temperatures. As long as you take some precautions and put some preparation in, adults and kids alike can be comfortable in the out of doors.
“It is all about the layering,” said Helaine Bernstein, a sales associate at Charm City Run Frederick. Many runners don’t look kindly on the treadmill, preferring instead to brave the outdoors to get in their mileage. From below zero to the 40s, the right clothing will keep you comfortable.
“A lot of our clothes aren’t just for running,” Bernstein said. “We carry winter clothing for yoga and for walks with the dog.” If you’re out at night or in the early morning before sunrise, there are reflective vests, reflective clothing, headlamps and lighted dog collars. And cold temperatures may make your mask feel more comfortable.
“When I was a new runner, I only ran in perfect weather,” Bernstein said. “But I found the right gear and clothing, and now I go out in the rain and the cold.”
Regina Clark, who lives in Braddock Heights, has hiked the entire 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail in sections, a feat she completed in seven years. She’s also completed numerous marathons and ultramarathons. She worked for many years as a neonatal nurse at Frederick Health and now works at the hospital’s gym with patients needing physical rehabilitation. But she prefers to keep her workouts outdoors.
“The biggest thing is clothing,” she said. “When it gets cold outside, you have to be comfortable, and you have to have proper lighting.” Adding and subtracting layers is easier than wearing a thick, warm jacket, and it’s more comfortable.
At home, Clark hauls a few items out of her garage to get in some weightlifting. One is a weighted rope she repeatedly lifts. Another is an old tire. “I drag it around, and I put bricks in it to make it heavier,” she said. “I can turn it into an arm workout, a leg workout or an ab workout. I also have a log, and my son cut some handholds in it for me. It weighs about 75 or 80 pounds. I use it for deadlifts and squats, I flip it from end to end, I do the farmer’s carry.”
She’ll also do squats, lunges and planks, sometimes adding those into her runs or hikes to turn them into a full-body workout. “Just getting your body down to the ground and back up burns calories,” Clark said. Playgrounds offer outdoor equipment good for chin-ups and pullups.
“Once you get out the door, that’s the key,” she said. “That, and the proper clothing, and that’s not as expensive as you might think.” There are local discount stores that offer synthetic, water repellant and merino wool clothing that’s great for layering.
Several days a week she watches her grandchildren, and she prefers to spend much of her time with them outdoors. With layered clothing and snack breaks, the kids stay comfortable.
Trail House in Frederick has been supplying Frederick hikers for 36 years. Drennan Hicks and his wife, Katie, co-own the store. “I used to work as a trail guide, and we would stop and take layers off to encourage hikers to think about doing that,” Drennan Hicks said. Sweating through layers can make you feel colder.
“I spent a lot of time in Vermont, where it might be 15 below, but people are still outside,” he said. Even when there’s snow on the ground, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are options with the right clothing and gear. “We have some awesome places to hike around here close by, like Gambrill and the (Frederick) Watershed,” he said.
Food and hydration are key to winter hiking, he said. You might not think you’re thirsty, but water is important. Hot tea, hot chocolate and hot cider can be treats for winter hikers. He recommends carrying dried chocolate or cider packets with a tiny portable stove, which can turn a short hike into a winter delight for kids, he said. “They won’t remember the cold, but they’ll remember the hot chocolate,” he said. It’s also important to bring snacks, because food helps keep you and your kids warmer.
While expensive hiking boots aren’t necessary, footwear that can hold up to rocks is recommended. “We’ve had a lot of people realize tennis shoes aren’t good for hiking,” he said. Products like Hot Hands and Toasty Toes can keep the extremities warm.
Tammy McCorkle is a retired Maryland park ranger who lives in Frederick. She still hikes in the parks that used to be her office, and she welcomes the number of new hikers that have discovered the outdoor trails in and around Frederick since the pandemic began in earnest in March.
Winter hiking began gaining more enthusiasts locally pre-Covid. She did a Maryland Park Service First Day Hike on Jan. 1, 2020, and was one of more than 200 people who came to hike the trails of Greenbrier State Park in Boonsboro.
“You don’t have to go on a major road trip,” she said. “The advantages to hiking in the winter are fewer people and no leaves on the trees. Sometimes on the Appalachian Trail, you get views the whole way. You also don’t have to worry about bugs or snakes, and bears are not as active.”
McCorkle recommends accessing the Appalachian Trail, or AT, at Gathland State Park, Washington Monument State Park or even Pen-Mar Park. There’s also the Catoctin Blue Trail in the Frederick City Watershed and trails at Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Cunningham Falls and Gambrill state parks and Catoctin Mountain Park.
She suggests using trekking poles for any walk that is steep or rocky. “It helps keep your energy up, because you’re using your arms and it divides your body’s workload.”
For people who are looking for a flat walk, McCorkle recommends the C&O Canal towpath, accessible from Brunswick, Lander, Point of Rocks and Dickerson.
Hiking essentials McCorkle recommends include map, basic first aid, headlamp, food and water. People often don’t realize how quickly it gets dark in the late afternoon.
Former Frederick resident Ann Wessel, who now lives in Minnesota, agrees that getting out the door is the biggest challenge. “It’s good to go with another person or group so you’ll stick to it,” she messaged. She hopes to get through the Minnesota winter by cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
For many women, hiking in groups is safer and more fun. Charissa Hipp of Williamsport, a travel communications expert, leads the Maryland chapter of Girls Who Hike, a private Facebook group of women who hike once a month formally, but who gather informally for hikes all over the state.
Hipp takes her 5-year-old daughter Julia on many hikes, including winter hikes. Julia one day hopes to hike the entire AT, and she’s already hiked the entire 41-mile Maryland AT over five days.
Hipp said the keys to keeping cold weather hiking fun for kids and adults are being prepared with food, water and lighting, wearing layered clothing and enjoying the outdoors. “We only hike as fast as our slowest hiker, so you have clusters of people,” she said.
Attitude is key, said McCorkle. “Being in nature improves your mood,” she said. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.”