Five Ways to Explore the Outdoors During the Winter Season

A few years ago, Hannah Sanders was deep into the seasonal doldrums, trying to find ways to pass time during the long, dark days of winter. Then she learned about a wilderness survival class offered by Tennessee-based BigPig Outdoors, so she decided to step into the cold air and outside her comfort zone.

Soon after she was in the woods, shadowed by the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains, learning the basics of surviving emergency situations in the wilderness. “Immediately, I stepped in mud, and my shoes filled with cold liquid,” Sanders said. “I was like, this is going to be a hot, unpleasant mess.”

The following 36 hours tested her patience, as she learned how to start fires, build shelters, and treat injuries in extreme conditions, but ultimately Sanders came away with an experience that’s made her cherish time in the mountains more.

“I don’t want to sound dramatic but I think about this class all the time. Definitely every time I go into the woods,” Sanders said.

“If you want to be part of that beautiful environment, you should take a class to prepare yourself, build appreciation, and fully be there in that moment. My awareness is more open.”

Instead of hibernating through winter, take the opportunity to expand your horizons. Layer up and check out these cold-weather adventures that will help keep the blues away. 

basic wilderness first aid technique demonstration
Andrew Herrington of BigPig Outdoors demonstrates basic wilderness first aid techniques. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger


1. Learn Survival Skills 

Taking a survival course is more than just learning navigation and fire-starting techniques. It’s also about adjusting your mindset to always be prepared. “There are things I’m less fazed about now when I go out there,” Sanders said. “I’m more careful but also more willing to try things and know my limits.”

While survival courses are offered year-round, signing up for one during the winter gives you an opportunity to learn new skills under extreme conditions. 

BigPig Outdoors, Tenn.

At BigPig Outdoors, instructor Andrew Herrington’s mantra is “Drill the Skill.” Repetitive exercises help build up muscle memory to be prepared for emergency scenarios. The top three items he recommends always carrying in your pack are a lighter wrapped in duct tape for starting a fire, a puffy jacket, and a 55-gallon trash bag that can be used as insulation.  

Mountain Shepherd Adventure School, Va.

Brush up on seven priorities of survival—positive mental attitude, wilderness first aid, shelter, fire craft, signaling, water, and food—with a weekend rundown on the basics. In addition to learning a variety of knots and how to maintain a fire in the rain, this course will prepare you for the mental stressors that come with emergency situations. 

True North Wilderness Survival School, Pa.

If you want to dive deeper into wilderness survival skills, True North offers everything from introductory to advanced courses through hands-on training. Pair it with additional classes on land navigation and wilderness medicine to expand your skill set and confidence. 

Hike through Shenandoah National Park to one of the PATC’s primitive cabins. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger

2. Book a Cabin in the Woods

Sometimes beating the winter blues just takes a change of scenery. Throughout the Blue Ridge you can book cabins deep in the woods, ranging from primitive shelters to cozy getaways. 

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Va., W.Va., Md., and Pa.

Hike all day and relax by a warm wood stove all night. The well-known trail club maintains dozens of primitive cabins along the A.T., including throughout Shenandoah National Park, and the Tuscarora Trail that are reached via easy to strenuous hikes of varying lengths. Be prepared for potential winter road closures that could extend your hike-in length. 

Kooser State Park, Pa.

Nine rustic cabins are available throughout the year, sleeping four to eight people. You will have access to a refrigerator, stove, and sink with running water, and the fireplace will come in handy for keeping you warm through the night. The park’s high elevation makes it a prime destination for cross-country skiing. 

Table Rock Tea Company, S.C.

Just minutes from Table Rock, Keowee Toxaway, and Caesars Head State Parks, this one-room cabin is a tiny getaway in the mountains on a working tea farm. At 12 feet by 12 feet, the room sleeps four with bunk beds and a table, plus plenty of extra room to set up additional tents and vehicles outside. Make sure to fit in a free tea tour if you are staying Thursday through Sunday. 

Bed+Bough Treehouse, Ga.

While you certainly won’t be roughing it in this private treehouse, you can still enjoy the solitude amongst the trees in this wonky, asymmetrical getaway. Sit by the fire pit in the evening and use the built-in pizza oven before cozying up inside. In this north Georgia destination, you will have quick access to waterfalls and trails galore in the Chattahoochee National Forest

Photo courtesy of Ober Gatlinburg

3. Go Extreme Sledding

Sure, sledding down your neighborhood hill is fun, but sometimes you need to ramp up the thrill. Explore these options to satisfy the need for speed.

Blackwater Falls State Park, W.Va. 

You are in for a treat as you zip down the sled run at Blackwater Falls. Measuring more than a quarter-mile, feel the winter breeze against your skin as you ride the longest sled run on the East Coast. The Magic Carpet conveyor belt makes it easy to do this one again and again. When you’ve had enough, watch the 57-foot cascades thunder into the river below from one of the overlooks.

Massanutten Tubing, Va.

In central Virginia, Massanutten Resort has a serious snow tubing hill, with 16 lanes that are 900 feet in length with a vertical drop of 120 feet. Ninety-minute sessions are available for a reasonable $35, but book them in advance (massresort.com) because they often sell out. 

Smoky Mountains, Tenn.

Just outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer a variety of tubing opportunities. Hit the groomed slopes of Ober Gatlinburg, which also has an aerial tramway that provides sweet views of the area. Rowdy Bear Mountain Adventure Park has tubing year-round, from snow-covered slopes in the winter to nighttime riding in the summer. Want to tube but don’t enjoy the cold? Pigeon Forge Snow is an indoor park with snow 365 days a year with an inside temperature between 60 and 70 degrees. 

License to Chill Snow Island, Ga. 

At 575 feet long and eight stories high, the steep slide down Parrot Mountain at Lanier Islands is a thrilling ride. When you are done on the slopes, there’s more fun to be had with turns around the ice skating rink, snowball fights in the play area, s’mores by the fire pits, and a whirlwind of carnival rides. Also don’t miss a walk through the spectacular lakeside light display.

Beech Mountain Sledding Hill, N.C.

The town of Beech Mountain provides a sledding hill free and open for all kids 12 and under. With steep and gentle slope areas, kids of all ages will have a blast on this hill. If you don’t have your own sled, Beech Meadows Ski Shop has them available for rental. 

snowy trail
Photo by Ellen Kanzinger

4. Walk Through Winter

When snow falls in the South you have to act fast. Keep an eye on the forecast for a good dump, then strap on a pair of snowshoes and head for the trails. 

Deep Creek Lake, Md.

For reliable snowfall and plenty of space to explore, the Deep Creek Lake area of western Maryland offers a true winter wonderland. Book a guided excursion with All Earth Eco Tours to explore the backcountry of Swallow Falls State Park. If you’d rather go alone, rent snowshoes from High Mountain Sports or the Nordic Center at Wisp Resort

Elk River Inn & Cabins, W.Va.

Not far from the base of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Elk River Inn and Cabins in Slaty Fork has five kilometers of trails for exploring the deep woods of the surrounding Monongahela National Forest via cross-country skis or snowshoes. If you’ve had your fill at the inn, another 25 kilometers of trails can be accessed from the nearby Highland Scenic Highway. Rentals and lessons are available.  

Blue Ridge Parkway, N.C. and Va.

When the parkway is closed to cars due to weather conditions, it’s the perfect time to experience this iconic road on foot. Park outside the closed gates and hike in to an overlook of your choice. Popular spots with regular snowfall include Grandfather Mountain and the Moses Cone Memorial Park in North Carolina. Also, Elk Knob State Park offers unparalleled access to its trails during winter months for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. 

5. Don’t Wait for Snow

When the snow just isn’t falling, you’ve got to improvise. Here are more ideas for winter fun.   

Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre, Va.

You don’t need snow to ski, snowboard, or tube down Liberty Mountain. The Snowflex Centre at Liberty University in Lynchburg uses synthetic materials to create snow-like runs, so these slopes are open all year long. Sign up for lessons, bounce around on the Olympic-grade trampoline, or relax in the lodge with views of the sunset. 

Mammoth Cave National Park, Ky.

At 54 degrees year-round, the world’s longest known cave system will feel downright balmy in the winter. Take in towering formations, like the famous Frozen Niagra, and be prepared to descend and ascend potentially hundreds of stairs as you make your way through the cave. Once you are done underground, the park provides miles of backcountry trails to dive deeper into the area’s history and geology. 

Cover photo: Watch your step on the snow-covered trails of Blackwater Falls State Park. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger

Places to Go, Things to See: