[Editor's note: This post is sponsored by our friends at REI.]
Last winter a pair of blizzards came through Seattle one right after the other. Since nobody could get to work, everyone in our neighborhood seemed to gravitate toward Green Lake. People brought their families on sleds and cross country skis. They let their dogs off the leash. Kids built trails and jumps. I strapped on my snowboard and carved a few turns down 80th St.
For that short time it was like everyone was having spontaneous adventures. All you had to do was go outside. It was one of the best moments we’ve had so far as a family.
Normally though, once you have kids, it usually takes a lot work and planning to get everyone “out there.” With babies and toddlers especially, all the extra preparation and gear can make a trip seem more difficult than it’s worth.
Once you’re there though, seeing your kids excited about the outdoors, watching them play in the snow or see new wildlife for the first time, you remember: it’s always worth it.
The following 8 winter adventures cover a broad geography. They can either be set up as destinations in and of themselves, or simply used as ideas / inspiration for adventures if you have access to similar terrain nearby.
Overall they’re meant to get people started on adventures not just for fun, but as ways to build skills which, as you progress, will allow deeper and more exciting access to wilderness over time.
Remember to stay safe, warm, hydrated, and don’t let not having all the gear stop you from a new adventure or activity. It’s easy and surprisingly affordable to just rent extra gear at REI or a local gear shop.
Snowshoeing in the Front Range, Rocky Mountains
Snowshoeing is the easiest way to get off-trail and have the woods to yourself, even when you pull into a popular recreation area with a full parking lot.
My family and I love snowshoeing in the Front Range of Colorado (basically any National Forest Area along the Peak to Peak Hwy). Part of it is because of the quality of the snow itself. It’s so light and fluffy it feels like you’re walking through clouds.
Tips: Don’t forget to bring goggles (winds can kick up anytime); pack a thermos full of hot chocolate; always bring a map and compass and /or GPS. Sudden snowstorms can bury your tracks — don’t rely on them alone to make it back. Stay on marked trails until you’re familiar with an area. Here’s a great article on snowshoeing tips.
Canoe Camping in Everglades
After the wet season ends in November, winter months are the ideal time for exploring Everglades National Park.
Families with school-age children might consider renting or bringing a canoe for a backcountry adventure through water trails. This allows you to explore the mangrove tunnels, bright sawgrass prairies, and coastlines, then camp at night on safe, elevated platforms.
If this sounds like something you need to transition into, or if you have young kids, there are plenty of other options including dry-land camping, hiking trails, and excellent guided wildlife tours by boat. When we went there were a pair of dolphins surfing the boat wake, launching four and five feet out of the water.
Check out the paddling vid at right for a solid 3-minute guide to paddling with kids. There’s also a good link for camping by water here.
Winter Hiking in the Southern Appalachians
Early winter is actually one of the most overlooked times for exploring and camping in the Southeastern U.S. There are no insects, the forest floor is still piled with heavy, sweet-smelling leaf cover, and you’ll have trails, campgrounds, and shelters (along the Appalachian Trail) to yourself.
A good introductory option, or option for families with young children, would be car-camping in places such as Linville Gorge, or basing your adventure around day hikes, but sleeping at night in a cabin such as Peaks of Otter Lodge in Virginia.
If your family already has experience hiking and camping together, the next step is a backpacking adventure. My favorite choice in the Eastern U.S. is Linville Gorge. A less strenuous option (the trails into the gorge are extremely steep) would be backpacking along the Chatooga River trail.
Winter hiking, and especially camping, really centers around staying warm and comfortable. Even if you’re not camping, simply hiking with a lightweight stove and cookset, so you can quickly boil up some hot chocolate in the middle of a hike, makes a huge difference. Overall, if planned and done well, winter exploration in this part of world can the give you and your family a total sense of accomplishment, of working together as a team.
Rails to Trails Rides (nationwide)
In many ways, bicycling with your kids is the single easiest way to get them excited about the outdoors. One reason is simply the amount of great gear that allows you to transition your kids from passengers to riders, to let them essentially grow up on a bike. A second is that you can have lots of adventures riding right at home, exploring the city or surrounding areas, seeing them in new ways. After everyone feels comfortable having ‘trained’ locally, you can then, as a family, plan special rides everyone can look forward to.
Where my parents live in Florida is a recently opened Legacy Trail. It’s a little over a dozen miles with several rest stops (parking, shade, bathroom facilities) along the way. This is part of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nationwide network of trails created from former rail lines.
As the rail lines were exceptionally flat and straight, they make fantastic family bike rides, often passing through wilderness corridors in unexpected places, often just on the edge of major urban areas. Some trails pass over long trestles or traverse deep tunnels (bring a headlamp). Your kids will be stoked. Click here here for trails around the country.
Bouldering in Hueco Tanks
Even with winter temperatures, as long as it’s a dry day, you can still get good bouldering all around the country. Stone Crusade details spots nationwide. If your family really gets into it, a natural progression would be to plan out a trip to a classic spot like Hueco Tanks.
Tubing in Snoqualmie (or your local hill)
This is the winter family classic. Just get an innertube and/or other sliding craft — boards, skis, sleds — find a good sliding hill, and go for it.
Some ski areas like The Summit at Snoqualmie have tubing areas set up with rentals and perfect terrain. But probably the most fun of all is just finding your own local hill.
This is also a gentle way to introduce snow and sliding sports to really young children, even babies. The only real problem is keeping babies’ hands warm. Suits like these, with overflaps that cover hands and feet, work really well with a breathable shell and pants (or snowsuit) over top.
Snowboarding / Skiing Your Local Mountain
Becoming a “ski-family” gives you a lifelong activity to center trips around during the winter. The key is for everyone to have a good experience. Budget and time depending, there are two different options.
The first is starting small, finding your closest hill, then progressing from there. If you don’t live near skiable terrain, this doesn’t have to begin with a big trip to the Rockies. There are a surprising number of small local ski areas all over the country, from Wisconsin to New York to Georgia. Try out the place closest to you this winter and see how it goes, then progress from there.
Or, if you’re ready for everyone to get stoked (and spoiled) right away on incredible terrain and winter conditions, head towards the center of the country, to one of the major ski areas such as Keystone or Steamboat.
For people ready to follow fresh snow in different places around the country, check out this free REI Snow Report iPhone App, which makes it easy to check snow conditions, the weather, and lift status at up to 12 of your favorite resorts.
Backcountry Hut Trip in New Hampshire
Hut trips are probably the single most fun kind of winter trip. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about not going to a parking lot at the end of the day, but continuing staying out in the wilderness.
Huts enable you to do this comfortably and safely with the whole family in the winter.
There are various hut trips you can set up around the country, but for those looking for a great ‘out of the box’ winter adventure, this hut to hut trip in the White Mountains is among the most affordable ($300 per person for 3 days, 2 nights food / lodging + all equipment) for people who don’t already have equipment and live close to hut systems.
REI has an extensive catalog of winter adventures definitely worth checking out.
For more on getting your family fired up this winter, please check out the 10 Fundamentals when Packing for a Fun Family Ski Trip.
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David Miller is senior editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism), and BETA magazine. After living for the last two years in Patagonia, Argentina, he is returning with his wife and two young children to the Southern US. Follow him @dahveed_miller.
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