Cold play: how to enjoy UK outdoor activities – even in winter

I wish I could say that every autumn I carefully wash and hang up my wetsuit, then check that all my camping and other outdoor kit is clean and dry before meticulously storing it away for the winter. In fact, after the first frost, I usually shove all that gear under the bed where it can be forgotten until next spring.

But this year feels different: with travel opportunities severely curtailed, the outdoor season in the UK needs to continue, perhaps right through winter. And I’m not the only one who feels this way – James Warner Smith, editor at Cool Camping, said bookings were up 300% for October and that the trend would probably continue into November and December. So how does one carry on outdoors in the colder months – and where?

Lockdown summer brought an explosion in UK sales of outdoor equipment, but now the seasons are changing, are all those purchases going to be useful? Winter kit is certainly thicker and warmer, but this is not only about the gear. Tim Frenneaux from online book club Adventurous Ink reminds me that inspiration is also vital: “A good book can really do the trick: after reading John Wright’s Foragers Calendar, and Simon Barnes’ Rewild Yourself, I’ve started spending far more time outdoors, despite the colder weather.”

I also recall the effortless capability of people in Nordic countries, where, far out in the wilderness, it’s normal to encounter older folk, young mothers and children among those revelling in sub-zero temperatures. They are demonstrating what the Finns call sisu, a resilient, positive attitude salted with large dollops of grit and equanimity. It’s the spirit that notices cold hard rain splattering against the double glazing, but still heads outside. If, like me, you aspire to such a noble state, here is some practical advice, some inspiration and – let’s not be too high-minded – a few ideas on kit from the experts.

Camping

With its sensible rules on wild camping, Scotland has to be the UK’s premier winter camping location, but it’s also its most demanding. One grizzled old-timer I met on a winter walk in Glen Affric near Loch Ness swore that his solution to sleeping out on snow and ice was to insert a west highland terrier down his sleeping bag. While this may appeal to some, I prefer the advice of Sara Lundy, a brilliant guide I hiked with in Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains.

The trip was in June, but we endured sub-zero temperatures and camped in heavy snow. “I always carry metal water bottles,” Lundy says. “Fill them up with hot water at bedtime, pop inside a sock or woolly hat, then you have warm feet inside the sleeping bag and non-frozen water to drink in the morning.”

When it comes to sleeping bags, Nick Smith, co-founder of Alpkit and a winter camping fanatic, has some clear advice. “Get decent insulation under you,” he says. “Then layer up inside your sleeping bag with a silk liner, thermals and a woolly hat.” His preferred bag is the Pipedream 600 (£279.99). “Use the baffles to seal it then, when you move during the night, you’re not pumping cold air in.” Less expensive but heavier if you’re backpacking is the SkyeHigh500 at £154.99 (pictured).

Any tent is going to need to withstand wind, rain and possibly snow, so a mountain tent with geodesic poles and a snow skirt is good. Sweden’s Hilleberg tents are legendary, but expensive; as a reasonably priced, non geodesic alternative, I’ve always found Vango’s Force Ten range totally dependable (from £290). I used one in the Sawtooths and it withstood a serious ice storm. Inflatable sleeping mats have come on in leaps and bounds too: OEX makes a good lightweight one for £45, but don’t let the kids use it as trampoline: they do puncture.

Frennaux is a seasoned wild camper who prefers ethical kit manufacturers such as Wawwa, Patagonia and Finisterre, an outfit that helped bring merino sheep to Devon in order to knit their jumpers and base layers in Manchester. When he does come down from his summit wild camps, Frennaux’s favourite winter campsites include Humble Bee Farm on the North Yorkshire coast and Castle Rigg in Keswick (both open all year). Cool Camping’s Warner Smith suggests Skyside in the Lakes (open fires and a good pub nearby); Stud Farm in Sussex (on the South Downs Way); and North Leas in the Peak District (bang on Stanage Edge for climbers).

Outdoor cooking

Sitting around a campfire is always a joy, but never more so than with winter stars twinkling overhead, a nip of frost in the air and some decent food to eat. A sea kayak, foraging and cookery trip with Do The North in Sweden shortly before lockdown was made memorable by apple crumble and custard cooked on a campfire, but in the UK it was Taste The Wild chef Chris Bax who raised my game.

“A cooking fire doesn’t just add heat; it adds flavour,” says Bax. “Try roasting leeks: you get a charred outer that has slight bitterness and a centre that is meltingly soft, smokey and juicy … sheer bliss.”

Bax recommends cast iron pots and pans from Shropshire-based Netherton Foundry. “A Dutch oven [£190] from them will last a lifetime and is the most versatile piece for cooking on a real fire. It’s just a solid flat-bottomed cast iron pot with a lid, but you can use it for everything from frying and roasting to slow cooking and baking bread.”

Bax uses hardwood logs like oak, beech and birch, and avoids anything that’s been treated. “The hardest part of cooking over fire is gauging the temperature. In time, you will get a feeling for what the fire is doing and what cooking times are needed.”

Even in winter there are herbs to forage, and Bax is deeply knowledgable – a skill he puts to good use creating alcohol-free cocktails. “Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) will bring bright citrus and tart apple flavours to fatty foods, and silver fir (Abies alba) needles are a substitute for juniper in meat dishes.” He encourages everyone to try outdoor cooking, even in a back yard or garden, but it’s best out in the wilds.

Hill and mountain walking

My own, rather brutal, initiation into winter hillwalking was in the 1980s on Kinder Scout, a Peak District hill I thought I knew well. I soon discovered that a metre of snow and a windchill factor can radically change your experience. Climbing and mountaineering instructor Henry Castle says: “Mountains are never ‘safe’ landscapes. They are hostile, with numerous hazards that can easily trip up the inexperienced adventurer.” But crisp, cold days with blue skies can, he adds, be the most memorable you will have.

Nick Owen, who leads the Langdale/Ambleside mountain rescue team in the Lake District, has some sound advice gleaned from over 1,600 rescues in three decades: “Allow extra time for wind, rain, snow and ice. Check sunset times and remember that mountain dark is very different to city dark.” His choice of locations starts with Langdale, “of course”, but he also loves the less well-known fells like Loughrigg, and the Howgill hills further east.

Castle runs winter training courses in the Scottish Highlands, which, he says, “is a different beast from the Lakes or Snowdonia, where you can have summer conditions in winter.” He recommends Garry Smith’s book North Wales Scrambles as a starting point – and for when restrictions are lifted again in Wales.

Owen carries a synthetic duvet jacket, spare batteries and torch alongside all-year essentials such as bivvy bag, map, compass, whistle, food and water. I would personally add a small gas cooker like the lightweight Vango folding stove, plus teabags, sugar, powdered milk and biscuits – a brilliant morale booster. If scrambles are involved, Castle adds several pairs of spare gloves. “If your hands don’t work, you’re pretty much screwed.”

On ice, Owen says, crampons are essential: “What is soft slush in the afternoon can become rock-hard by nightfall,” he points out. When it comes to clothing, his advice is: “Avoid natural down as it’s useless when wet. Go for synthetic, like Primaloft.”

Owen and Castle emphasise the importance of good preparation, learning to navigate and not being overambitious. For weather forecasts both recommend the Mountain Weather Information Service. The British Mountaineering Council runs winter skills courses that include navigation.

With boots, make sure you get a size large enough to accommodate thicker socks and with room for your feet to expand on long days. I prefer the width you get with brands like Meindl and Aku. Note that most boots are not sufficiently rigid to take full crampons: you need to buy mountain boots for that, and would probably want to do a mountaineering course on their use.

Kayaking

A quick glance at UK sea temperatures reveals something rather surprising: November is often warmer than June, and December the equal of May. Swedish kayak guide Patrik Forsling kitted me out once in the Bohuslän archipelago and is a big fan of winter trips: “For tranquility and exposure to nature, winter is best.”

Jethro Moore at Adventure Beyond in Cardigan Bay agrees. His own favourite locations are north Pembrokeshire and Scotland. “The Great Glen is perfect for canoe touring.” For river paddles, he likes the Wye and the Usk. “We have so much good canoeing in the UK. There is something for all abilities.” Websites to search include British Canoeing, UK Rivers and Go Paddling.

In true Scandi tradition, Forsling is an expert in preparation for cold weather. “If water temperatures are below about 10C, I’d recommend a dry suit. Take a dry bag with a change of clothing, plus neoprene boots, gloves, goggles and insulated cap. Synthetic material is better.”

Moore has a few additions too. “I used to take the mickey out of ‘dryrobes’, but they are brilliant.” These are long, zipped towels with hood and outer waterproof skin that make changing before and after a relatively painless experience; they start from around £45 and go up to around £140, from dryrobe. For warmer days, he would wear a winter wetsuit with built-in hood such as the Patagonia Yulex (around £320), a choice I can endorse as I’m always losing wetsuit hoods.

“For white water paddles,” Moore says, “I’d use a dry suit like the Typhoon (£99) with a wetsuit hood under my helmet. On calm water, I’d dress as for hill-walking: thermals, windproofs and waterproofs.” For further advice he recommends Adventure Smart.

Back in the US, Sara Lundy has recently returned from a fortnight of pack-rafting through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, an area the size of Northumberland that straddles the states of Idaho and Montana. Was there any item of kit she would recommend? “Waterproof socks” from Sealskinz (£29), she tells me. “They are a toe-saver for anyone who gets cold feet.

Surfing

Hitting the waves in winter is arguably the most extreme form of winter madness, but is incredibly rewarding. Andy Ainscough, managing director at Adventure Parcs Snowdonia, has found himself searching for locations now that the artificial wave at the “inland surf lagoon” has closed until next spring. “Winter is when we get our best waves in the UK and it’s never crowded. The obvious places to head are Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, but the north-east of England and Scottish coasts are also worth exploring. If you’re brave and like the big stuff, Ireland usually has the most consistent and biggest waves throughout the winter.”

Luke Hutchinson, an experienced surfer and beach lifeguard, recommends Saltburn, Whitby and Scarborough’s North and South Bays for beginners, Sandsend for the more advanced: “It is quite uneven and does have some rip currents.”

One thing Ainscough is sure of is the necessity of buying thick neoprene. He favours having two wetsuits, “s you never need to put on a cold wet one”. When driving to a surf spot in winter, he says, “I always get my boots and gloves on the dashboard near the heater to make them toasty before I put them on.”

He adds: “Round-toe wetsuit boots will help to keep your toes together and slightly warmer, and for the same reason I would choose wetsuit mittens over wetsuit gloves for warmth.” His choice is O’Neill’s Psycho Tech wetsuit (around £329). “You’ll need 5mm, maybe even 6mm in places.” Any wetsuit, he says, will improve if you wear a rash vest underneath and if it has a built-in hood. And finally, he is also a convert to the dryrobe – “a godsend”, especially if it comes with a surfer van.

Hutchinson adds another small, but vital, tip: “Use earplugs in very cold water. I like SurfEars 3.”

Most surf shops are open all year. A day’s hire of all the kit, including board, usually costs around £25-£35.

Wild swimming

The human body is truly a capricious contraption to be wandering around in, no more so than in its reaction to cold water dips. Do it a few times and, instead of learning to avoid chilly lakes and rivers at all costs, you may start to find it enjoyable, even addictive. There are physical and mental benefits: I say this as a wild swimmer who has learned that getting out of a freezing cold pond lifts your mood and also justifies a generous tot of brandy afterwards. Daniel Start, author of several Wild Swimming guides, has some practical advice for winter. “First, decide whether you’re going to be a bare-skin plunger or a neoprene swimmer – both are cold, but the former means much quicker, sharper immersions, while the latter means you can stay in longer and therefore swim further.”

Sensibly, Start recommends choosing a simple, easy place where you are safe, taking a companion, being warm before getting in, not staying in too long and warming up afterwards with clothing and hot drinks. “Be prepared for a significant temperature drop about 10 minutes after leaving the water,” (it’s known as afterdrop). He also warns against starting up in January. “Keep your swimming going into autumn and beyond. Don’t take a big break in autumn.”

His winter favourites are on the Thames: the first at Port Meadow near the Trout Inn in Wolvercote on the edge of Oxford. “Two miles of river have beaches and grassy meadow on both banks. There’s a popular pool and rope swing under the bridge.” Warm up in the pub afterwards. Another spot is downstream from the Barley Mow pub at Clifton Hampden further south. “You need to watch out for boats, but there are some lovely sandy bays.”

Start likes mesh shoes. “You can get them for around £15 or go upmarket with Vivobarefoot Bloom (£75), partly made from algae. They are amazing.” Like the surfers and kayakers, he is also a fan of the dryrobe.

Fell running

Running up hills in winter is a very different enterprise from doing it in summer, but Ruth Pickvance, former British fell champion and founder of Element Active, loves the cold season. “It’s exciting and unpredictable, with stunning light. Getting out in the winter makes me feel so alive.” She knows, however, that getting out of the door can be the hard part. “Sometimes even doing the ironing can suddenly look more urgent!” For that reason she doesn’t check weather reports for low-level routes. “It can just put me off.” She suggests running at the same time every day, and finding a friend to go with.

Pickvance’s favourite locations outside Wales, which is currently in lockdown, are Shropshire’s Long Mynd and the Lakeland’s southern fells.

One of the joys of running is that it requires little equipment, but Pickvance has some tips. “My number one item for the winter is waterproof socks with a merino lining.” To that she adds a thin merino hat, a buff neck warmer, mittens and a waterproof jacket. “If it’s wet, but not too cold, I use a lightweight one which has taped seams. If I want more protection I use a Paramo Women’s Mirada jacket (£250).” (Men’s equivalent is the Quito jacket, £217.)

If starting out from her car, she takes a flask of hot drink and a complete change of clothes. “I always change immediately on returning to the car as I know I’ll be damp and will cool off very quickly.”

Pickvance runs a beginners’ fell running course for women. Needless to say, she also likes dryrobes. I’m beginning to wonder how I ever managed life without one.

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