How to enjoy a British winter

Rather than staying indoors hiding, winter is a great time to get out and explore.

Although our winters can be (i.e. tend to be) wet and windy or cold and hostile, they can also be very beautiful, and a great opportunity to get out and about and enjoy our countryside. Colourful autumn leaves, crisp, sunny days or wet and wild weather all make wonderful settings for some mood-boosting exercise alone or with friends and family.

Benefits of winter exercise

According to the NHS, regular exercise has been proven to help you to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke and can also help to mange some diseases, like breast cancer, improving outcomes and reducing complications. Research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy.

Another great reason to stay active in winter is to reduce the chance of suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The exact cause of SAD isn't fully understood, but it's thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. 

Outdoor winter activities

Walking is one of the easiest ways to get more active every day. It's free and is ideal for people of all ages and fitness levels who want to be more active. Too many of us make the short trips to the shop round the corner, or taking the kids to school, in the car, rather than saving money and stepping out on foot. The NHS recommends you try to walk 10,000 steps a day. Most of us walk between 3,000 and 4,000 steps a day anyway, so working up towards 10,000 isn't as daunting as it might sound, remember every little bit counts.

There are lots of places to walk in the UK; through countryside, by the coast, in parks, or even through cities, taking in the sights. There are 15 National Parks in the UK including mountains, meadows, moorlands, woods and wetlands. The Ramblers have a network of volunteer led and self guided walks around England, and there are also specific health walks designed to get you moving at the pace needed to have the most impact on health, including some for people with specific conditions like diabetes and cancer.

If you use a stick to walk, check the end of the stick and think about a rubber gripper or using a tripod stick if the pavements look icy or wet, that little bit of extra grip can really help stop you sliding about.

If you use a wheelchair then you might not be counting steps but you can still get active every day on your wheels, especially if you're self-propelling. The winter can often be darker so adding a few reflective strips or spoke lights to the wheels of your wheelchair can help you be seen as you get out and about. A bit like bicycles, it's worth thinking about the wheels on your wheelchair and talking to the supplier about options to help you get a grip when you're out if it gets wet and icy.

More adventurous winter activities

Mountain walks

The UK's mountains are great places to start with more adventurous activities. Britain has seven 'main' mountainous areas, which have been declared as such because of their high visitor numbers. These areas welcome thousands of visitors every year to take in the scenery, admire the wildlife and have a bracing walk. The British Mountaineering Council has a lot of great information to help people of all abilities and ages to take to the mountains safely whether alone or as part of a local club.

Make the most of snow

When there's a blanket of snow, sledging is a great fun way to enjoy the outdoors. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoPSA) say to use your common sense when it comes to safety; think about your location - somewhere with deep snow and no obstructions such as trees, fences or rocks, and make sure you have plenty of space to stop. You'll also need to think about other people using the slope, and if you're making your own sledge, think about the "what-ifs" if you were to crash - are there sharp edges which you could cut yourself on? 

Skiing in the UK

For the more adventurous still, there's skiing close to home. Although many people travel abroad to take in some snow - the mountains of Scotland are home to some fantastic ski resorts -  Cairngorms, Aonach Mor, Nevis Range, Glencoe, Glenshee and The Lecht.

There are also four ski areas in the Pennines, and you can also ski in the Lake District!

To find details of your closest venue to ski in Great Britain - have a look at the Ski Club of Great Britain website that gives details of both ski resorts, real snow indoor slopes and dry ski slopes, and Disability Snowsport UK has lots of information on clubs and opportunities for people with disabilities to take to the slopes as well.

Alternatively, why not embrace the winter and consider other winter sports such as ice skating or curling?

What to wear in winter

Wearing the right clothing can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of the outdoors. Ordnance Survey provide some tips:

Waterproofs

Waterproofs are not just about keeping comfortable but warm as well. In cold, wet clothes, the body works around 55% harder than in dry ones, meaning that tiredness can set in quickly. When taking on a rural walk far from civilisation, this can turn a winter jaunt into a dangerous battle with the elements, so keeping dry is essential. To guarantee the best results, wear a waterproof jacket and trousers to keep the rain firmly at bay.

Soft-shell jackets

On days where rain is less likely and the temperature is creeping upwards, a soft-shell jacket may fit the bill. Designed as an alternative to coupling large 'hard-shell' waterproof jackets with fleece base layers, a soft-shell jacket allows the wearer a waterproof jacket that's still warm, breathable and wind-resistant. Be careful though, as these are good for in-between conditions, but may still let water in if you're caught in a downpour.

Boots

Anti-slip boots are a must for any walker, as the craggy, uneven ground takes on a menacing form when covered in pockets of water and ice. Likewise, cold, wet grass may seem like a safe bet but can turn greasy and slippery if conditions dictate. For this, sturdy walking boots are a must, and ones that also support the ankle should give walkers the comfort and warmth they need alongside a firm grip.

Those pushing themselves a little further may wish to use crampons - spiked contraptions that can be tied to boots in order to dig in to the ground or snowy inclines - to offer even greater traction in extreme conditions.

Head torch

For many winter walkers, the smartphone is often deemed fit for myriad purposes, with illumination being no exception. However, these apps and features will do little in the great outdoors when faced with tough conditions. Instead, a good head torch with spare bulbs and batteries will provide a much better light whilst also leaving hands free to move branches or catch hold in case of a trip or tumble.

Fleeces

Those going down the hard-shell route are wise to wear fleeces underneath. Waterproof jackets are now better at handling condensation through innovative materials and air-flow vents. Ideally, you need protection from the wind and rain while staying comfortably warm and dry inside the jacket. Waterproof jackets can be bought as 2-in-1s, with a zippable fleece included, but if not then a good fleece will provide added warmth to complement the outer jacket's protection.

Hats and gloves

Whilst the notion of 'losing 90% of body heat through your head' has long been debunked, it's still worthwhile wearing a hat to protect the ears from potential frostbite as the blood begins to change. As temperatures drop, blood thins and extremities (including ears and fingers) are shunned in favour of providing the brain and other organs with the supplies they need. To combat this, wool or fleece-lined hats and gloves should offer sufficient warmth, whilst walkers preparing for rain may wish to try winter sports-style alternatives that would offer waterproofing as well. Buffs (or snoods) are another popular choice and can be worn as a scarf or pulled up over your neck and head for added protection.

Maps

Another outdoors essential; a good map is a must-have for any outdoor enthusiast. Maps can't run out of battery power or fall foul of signal black-holes, so they should always be packed. Just as essential as the map, is the knowledge to use it. Familiarity with basic navigation, map symbols and how to use a map with a compass could make all the difference between a successful trip and a dangerous one.

Socks

A pair of quality socks can make a world of difference to your comfort and warmth levels. Thermal socks will keep feet warm and comfortable in sometimes-unforgiving boots.

High visibility

As the sun sets at around 1600 in the winter, it's wise to wear something that will get you seen by other path and road users. The typical yellow reflective jackets and trousers will do the job most effectively, but high-vis bands that can be worn around arms, shoulders or ankles will suffice for those looking for a more compact alternative to pack in their bag.

Running in winter

Provided you've got the right equipment, there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy running outdoors year-round, rain or shine. It is a great 'pick-me-up' that can improve mood and boost confidence. There are lots of organised community runs across the country led by Park Run volunteers, and if you're just starting out the Couch25K app can help keep you on track as you move from the couch to feeling the buzz of regular running. Here are a few more tips on getting your kit right from Ordnance Survey.

Footwear

Undoubtedly, there will be times during winter where the ground surface is slippery; either from leaves, mud or puddles. Therefore, good footwear is essential, so choose shoes that provide an adequate grip, keep your feet warm and support them. Some shoes are designed specifically for wet weather, incorporating waterproof materials and a longer-than-normal tongue, to give that added extra bit of protection against splashes. A pair that features reflective elements will help you to be seen in the dark.

It's a good idea to do some research before buying a pair of running shoes to ensure that you choose some that are appropriate for the type of running you will be doing - that is, trail running or a slow jog around the block. If you're serious, then don't buy off-the-shelf but go to a specialist retailer who can find the right shoe based on your running habits and style.

Clothing

It will often be cold when you start out but you'll soon warm up once you reach a steady pace, so it's sensible to wear layers. That way, you can maintain a comfortable body temperature, shedding and adding layers if or when required. Other essentials include waterproof - yet breathable - gloves, socks and a hat.

Be seen

If you're running in winter, it'll often be dark, so you should ensure you're seen! Use reflective or brightly coloured clothing - lightweight running jackets often have reflective seams or panels.

Enjoy winter, keep warm and think safety.

Stuart Beaty

Celsium, Birmingham, UK