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Wilderness wisdom 101

Wilderness wisdom 101

Michigan has an abundance of outdoor recreation traditions as vast and varied as the people who practice them, but not everyone was raised in these traditions or has access to them. As more and more people get interested in the outdoors and all the incredible opportunities it offers, it can be difficult to know where to start, especially if you’re new or inexperienced.

The good news? Everyone had to start somewhere, and these skills are good to learn even though they may take some work. Time spent learning and understanding the basics is well worth it; you’ll get to spend time outdoors, gain a new hobby and maybe make some new friends along the way!

To fully enjoy this experience – and help ease some anxiety – here are tips to get started on your journey.

Know before you go

It can be daunting to even think of starting a new hobby, especially if you don’t know how to begin. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways for you to get a taste of winter recreation while learning in a safe environment with knowledgeable instructors.

The DNR offers several of these opportunities. Through Outdoor Skills Academy classes, the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, recreational safety classes, gear rentals and guides and more, get the experience and knowledge you need to get started in a new hobby. Also check out local clubs and organizations, as they may have classes, volunteer instructors or group activity days – shared outdoor recreation experiences can help forge some lifelong friendships!

Whether it’s snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking, ice fishing, winter birding or more, winter holds many incredible opportunities to experience nature.

Prep, prep, prep

Once you’ve decided on the activity, the first step to enjoying any outdoor adventure – no matter the season – is to be prepared for your trip, especially if you’re new to the location or the activity. For winter, that means:

  • Check the weather.
    • Winter weather can be challenging for everyone, not just newbies. Take note of the temperature, wind chill and predicted weather.
  • Research your destination.
    • State parks, state forest campgrounds, thousands of miles of trails (including heritage trails) and other outdoor spaces require a Recreation Passport for vehicle entry. Check for closures, too, before planning your route.
    • Follow posted rules and make sure pets are allowed if you want to bring one.
    • Some areas may be open to hunting – check season dates and wear hunter orange or other bright colors if your route takes you through those areas.
    • Make sure you have any necessary permits or licenses, depending on your activity.
  • Plan your route and share it.
    • Knowing where you’re going can help you judge your pace and energy level in case you need to turn back unexpectedly. Always leave your itinerary, as well as a general travel time frame, with someone who isn’t joining you.
  • Make sure everyone is on board.
    • Getting into a new activity with friends is part of the fun; just be sure everyone knows what to expect.
    • If you’re flying solo, understand your own limits.
  • Bring backup navigation.
    • Cold can affect technology like cell phones, making navigation difficult. Cell service may also be limited, especially in more remote areas.
    • Learn how to read a map and compass. Bring a physical copy of the map, plus your route, with you, and take note of your surroundings, especially at crossroads or when taking breaks.
  • Inspect gear before you leave.
    • You don’t want to arrive at your destination only to find you’re missing key equipment or have broken gear.
  • Bring plenty of water and snacks.
    • Hydrate even if you don’t feel thirsty, and eat even if you don’t feel hungry. It’s easy to get in the zone and forget your body’s needs.
  • Have extra water, food and dry clothing waiting for your return.

Dress appropriately

Winter recreation does have a dress code, though the color scheme and style are up to you. To make the best of your day, make sure you’ve dressed for the occasion.

  • Layer clothing.
    • Wear a base, middle and outer layer. These help regulate body temperature to keep you warm and dry.
    • Base layers hold body heat. Wear moisture-wicking materials, and avoid absorptive textiles like cotton.
    • Middle layers insulate your body and help retain heat. Wear natural fibers like wool or goose down or synthetics like fleece.
    • Outer layers protect you from wind, rain and snow. Wear water- and wind-resistant materials.
  • Protect yourself from frostbite.
    • Wear appropriate shoes and socks – and pack an extra pair in case yours get wet.
    • Wear mittens – they keep your hands warmer than gloves.
    • Don’t forget your ears and neck; exposed skin is prone to frostbite.
    • Wear earmuffs, hats, headbands, beanies or other warm headwear, and neck coverings like scarves or gaiters to help control body temperature.
  • Wear sun and skin protection.
    • Snow is the most reflective natural surface on the planet. Reflected sunlight off snow can cause snow blindness, so protect your eyes with UV-blocking glasses.
    • Cold and wind can seriously chap skin. Frequently moisturize skin and apply lip balm.
    • You can still get sunburned in winter, even if there’s no snow or sun. Always wear sun protection when you’re outside.

Know what to look for

Winter poses some unique challenges when it comes to safe recreation, but knowing what to watch for can help prevent dangerous situations.

  • Frostbite.
    • When skin tissues freeze. This mostly affects the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes (hence the need for proper protection). Lantern-lit cross-country skiing is a fun activity, but darkness and wind chill are factors to consider – make sure to cover areas most prone to frostbite.
  • Hypothermia.
    • A potentially dangerous drop in body temperature where your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Avoid exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water, especially if you’re out ice fishing.
  • Fatigue.
    • Exerting more energy being active in winter because your body works harder to stay warm. Take it easy and take it slow, especially if you’re doing an intense activity like snowshoeing.
  • Excess sweating.
    • Can cause your body to lose more heat. Excess sweat can also chill your body; that’s why layered clothing is key. If you start to feel too warm, remove some layers and take a break – especially if you’ve been working up a sweat on your fat-tire bike.

If you or a friend has symptoms of frostbite, hypothermia or any other serious condition, seek medical help right away. For more information on these conditions, including how to assess and treat them, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s page on the topic. Also be sure to brush up on safety guidelines for your chosen activity.

Outdoor excursions may seem a little scary at first, but being prepared for unexpected challenges makes such situations less likely to occur. Take it slow and check in often with yourself and buddies, especially if you’re just starting out on your winter recreation journey.

Be mindful

Nature is a powerful and wondrous force, and one that should be respected. Part of wilderness wisdom is understanding where we fit within nature, and how to be proper stewards to ensure a healthy environment for generations to come.

Follow the “leave no trace” ethic, including picking up after pets – which should be on a 6-foot leash and under your control at all times when on state-managed public lands. Share the trails with others and avoid eroding or damaging cross-country ski tracks. Check out the #RecreateResponsibly video series, too.

While you’re out there, be sure to brush up on guidance for identifying invasive species, record your wildlife observations and adhere to recreation etiquette (for both motorized and nonmotorized activities) – a big part of ensuring everyone can safely and comfortably make great outdoor memories.

Looking to start your adventure? Check out Michigan.gov/WinterFun for ideas, activities, resources, rules, regulations and more. Pretty soon you’ll be sharing your veteran wisdom with a crop of newbies! 


By Emma Kukuk