Surviving the Shoulder Season (Without Flying South)

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year we like least. With the darkest days of winter approaching, but still insufficient snow to liberate our skis and snowboards from the storage room, November until January sees many of us retreat indoors. It’s time for binging on TV series, getting high on coffee instead of mountains, and, heaven forbid, even renewing our gym membership.

But while it might be tempting to trade the outdoors for in, you’ll miss out on a lot. And let’s face it: spending more than a week without hitting the trail is going to drive you bonkers anyway. So instead of succumbing to your instinct to hibernate, it’s time to embrace the dreaded shoulder season. You might even find some unexpected perks.

As inland lakes and waterways seemingly freeze up ever later with climate change, the paddling season is extending sometimes into the New Year or beyond. Another benefit is that those annoying motorboat owners will have long taken their boats off the water and you’ll be paddling in glorious, if somewhat chilly, isolation.

While it might be tempting to loll around in bed on a Saturday morning, it’ll be dark again by the time you even get your boots on. Try and get up earlier to squeeze out any extra daylight. Do your packing the evening before so you’re ready to head from bed to door. Or even head outdoors after work in the dark and you’ll wake up at first dawn in the wilds.

Even with only six hours of daylight (what we get here in central Sweden in mid-winter), you can still tramp your way for 20 miles or more. According to medical professionals, getting light and exercise is also essential for combating Seasonal Affective Disorder – or SAD – that lays many of us northerners low with melancholia and listlessness in the dark winter months.

You don’t only have to be active in daylight hours though. Buy a decent high-powered head torch and head out into the woods with some mates to practice your night-time navigation. You might not be able to see much of the scenery, but with all that dark you’ll have more time to study the stars. In the far north of Finland the darkest period between December and January, when the sun doesn’t even rise, is known as kaamos with its mystical blue light. Hardcore adventurers head north especially to experience it.

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If you don’t fancy camping, rent a cabin by a lake with your friends for the weekend and use it as a base to go out hiking or paddling during the day. Here in Scandinavia, people like nothing better than to then spend the long evenings by lighting some candles and cozying around the table, drinking coffee, baking, and conversing with friends. Cabins also tend to be much cheaper this time of year.

Finally, if you are not convinced by any of this, it’s a great time to plan your next adventure. Start plotting routes and planning logistics for that cool kayaking trip you’ve always wanted to do. Or find a course to brush up on your skills such as wilderness first aid. As I’m often too busy during the summer months, I also use the time to sort out my photos and re-read my journal – finding inspiration for magazine articles I want to write, or just simply reliving summer’s now-distant glow.

But remember – if you fail to get out and about in the darkest winter months, you are effectively wasting a full quarter of your outdoor life. So no more excuses, get out there!

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Alec Forss is an outdoor writer/photographer and freelance journalist focusing on environment and culture. He is based in Sweden. Follow him and his adventures at Alec Forss.

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