Embrace the cold, avoid getting SAD

Here’s our annual note for when the temperature seems too cold to hike.

Saturday’s forecast calls for a high of 28 degrees at Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury. That will occur long after we’re off the trail . For the most part, we’ll be hiking in the low 20s. But it will be sunny, and a little sun can make up for a lot of cold.

North Carolina has, on average, 28 clear days every winter; only seven states see more cloudless days, according to data compiled from two climate agencies. Virginia averages 25 clear days. In short, you could live in much worse places to avoid feeling SAD

SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a type of depression that can set in when the days are short and the sun sets early in the day. Once this mood-altering disorder takes hold, according to the Mayo Clinic, it can be hard to shake; it’s best to fight it off before it has a chance to make itself at home, leaving you hibernating in a stupor of despair.

One way to combat SAD, says the Mayo Clinic, is to go outside and move—the more regularly, the better. Even when it’s cold, a brisk walk in outdoor light can help. Another way to lift your mood is to be with other people; socializing with a dose of laughter helps you connect with others, an opportunity in short supply these days. Hiking regularly also can reduce levels of stress, which can contribute to SAD symptoms. According to psychiatry.org, 5 percent of Americans experience SAD, with the most severe bouts occurring in January and February.

Frankly, all of us could stand to reduce our stress levels. So, even if SAD doesn’t get you down, brisk movement and being with others is a great way to keep stress at bay by releasing endorphins and elevating mood.

So while the benefits of being out in the sun are beneficial year round, they are even more so in the short days of winter. But because of the cold, you sometimes need a little extra motivation to drag yourself outside and make it happen. And the best motivation? you ask. 

Hike with a group. 

It’s one time when peer pressure is a good thing. You wake up, you see it’s 28 degrees, you pull the covers back over your head and reach blindly for the snooze button. But then you remember the group waiting for you at the trailhead. You remember that Sue was supposed to hear about that promotion this week, that Jack was on the verge of adopting a shelter dog, that last week when Elliot failed to show he was the topic of discussion. You also remember that, once you’re 5 minutes down the trail and starting to warm up, you really love hiking this time of year. 

The obvious current caveat about hiking in a group: while being outdoors is still considered safe, you want to make doubly sure the group you’re hiking with is safe. With any group you join, be it a hiking-related Meetup or a group from work, find out what their policy is and see if it’s one you’re comfortable with.

It may take a hike or two to find the group that’s right for you. That’s fine. Because once you do find a group that works, you’ll find yourself spending a lot more time on the trail at a time of year when it will do you the most good.

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