Winter holidays are filled with delicious meals, desserts and sugary drinks, and often all that indulging can take a toll on our physical health. (Have you ever had a stomach ache after eating one too many pieces of Thanksgiving pie?) For this reason, holiday hikes are a popular tradition, one that can help you digest all those goodies while breathing some fresh, crisp air and spending time with loved ones.
The tradition of holiday hikes is especially appropriate during the COVID-19 pandemic, when spending time outdoors is one of the safest activities and forms of entertainment. On most trails, it’s easy to practice social distancing and avoid germ-covered surfaces. But remember to exercise caution and avoid crowded outdoor destinations.
Here are some tips for planning a festive holiday hike for this season.
Check the weather
The weather is constantly changing in Maine, so keep an eye on the forecast. Knowing the predicted high and low temperatures, humidity, wind speed and chance of precipitation will help you plan where to hike and what to wear. And something like a downpour may cause you to reschedule.
Also, if hiking on a coastal trail, check the tide chart for that area. Often it’s best to plan your hike around low tide so you’ve plenty of beach to explore.
Choose your hikes (yes, plural)
Do some research using guidebooks and online resources, such as the 1-Minute Adventure map, to select a local trail that matches your fitness and skill level, and take into account the amount of time you have to be outdoors. Then select a second hike in the area, and perhaps even a third. That way, you have a plan B, just in case you arrive at the trailhead and the parking lot is full.
Maine is home to hundreds of hiking trails that range in difficulty, and each one features unique natural and historic features. Trails that travel through evergreen forests are especially beautiful during winter months, and fragrant balsam firs (a common tree species throughout Maine forests) will remind many hikers of their Christmas trees at home.
When selecting a trail, exercise caution. Hiking during the winter can be more challenging due to snow, ice and shorter days. When in doubt, opt for the easier hike and take your time. Also, if there’s a substantial layer of snow on the ground, check with the trail’s maintainer (such as a land trust) to make sure the trailhead parking is plowed and the trail is accessible.
Staying warm is key to having an enjoyable holiday hike. Dress in layers and avoid cotton clothing, which retains moisture and can become very cold. Wear synthetic materials or wool instead. When dressing for cold weather, it’s always a good idea to start with a base layer of long underwear.
A lot of body heat can escape from your head and extremities, so wear a warm hat, mittens or gloves and thick socks. If you get hot, the hat and mittens are easy to stow in your pack for later.
Carry a face mask
One additional piece of gear you should carry with you during the COVID-19 pandemic is a face mask to wear when around other people. Masks should be worn while passing other trail users or sharing an outdoor space like an overlook or parking lot, according to the order made by Gov. Janet Mills in early November. When in doubt, wear a mask.
Pack a thermos and holiday snacks
In addition to your typical hiking gear, pack some holiday-themed snacks and drinks that will make your outing special. Prepare some hot chocolate, spicy hot cider or eggnog. For snacks, bake some holiday cookies such as peppermint sugar cookies or molasses cookies. Or, if you’re short on time, pack some candy canes or other store-bought holiday goodies.
Food is often a highlight of outdoor excursions. Pick a nice spot along the trail — whether it’s a mountain overlook, rocky beach or tranquil forest clearing — and savor your holiday treats. However, if it’s especially cold, you may want to rest for only short periods of time or eat and drink on the go. Staying in motion will help keep you warm.
Take safety measures
Increase your safety while hiking by planning and preparing. Learn about the trail you plan to hike ahead of time, and leave your hiking plan behind with someone who will check in on you to ensure you return safely. Also, consider carrying a first aid kit and survival gear (this is especially important on longer, more challenging and remote hikes).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, remember to follow the safety rules and guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine state government. Avoid touching frequently-touched surfaces like trail signs and kiosks, wear a mask when around other people (who aren’t in your group), avoid crowded outdoor spaces, and if you feel sick, stay home.
Sing and celebrate
If no other trail users are in sight, consider singing a holiday song you love. Just keep in mind that other trail users may be looking for a quiet environment for hiking, so try not to sing while in earshot. Also, keep the volume down and your caroling session short.
A quieter festive activity, often practiced around the Thanksgiving table — is to contemplate what you’re thankful for. But for the hiking version, focus on the present moment. What are you thankful for in nature that you’re experiencing? This feel-good exercise is fun to do alone because it helps you become more aware of aspects of the wilderness you might otherwise take for granted, like the shelter provided by the trees or the soothing sound of crashing ocean waves. It’s also a great activity to do with hiking companions, bringing positivity into your conversations.
Play trail games
If hiking with kids, trail games are an excellent way to keep them engaged and entertained. While staying on trail, you can do a scavenger hunt (in which you find and photograph natural items, and leave them where you find them) or you can take turns walking like different animals. You can search for different colors in the natural world or sketch a sound map, which is a visual representation of the sounds you hear. Breaking the hike up with different games can really make a difference in how much fun a child has on a trek — and the adults in your group will likely enjoy it, too.
Capture the moment
Document your festive hike through photographs or journaling. Snap a few photos with your smartphone or dust off that camera you’ve been meaning to use more often. If you’d rather write about your experience, carry a journal in your pack and spend some time jotting down notes while out on the trail rather than waiting until you get home. Sketching is also a great way to capture a moment.
If you enjoy using social media, post the photos or writing from your holiday hike. It might brighten someone’s day or inspire them to do the same.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.