Adventure in Place: 5 Family Backyard Activities for Winter

The fast-approaching months of dropping temps and shorter days are cause for anxiety in many, even during a normal year.

But what if I told you that it didn’t have to be this way? Certainly, there are the obvious outdoor activities to stay busy during winter — but these can be prohibitively expensive and are often very crowded. Every year lift lines grow longer and trailheads increasingly resemble supermarket parking lots. Instead of thinking of winter as a season for only the hardiest adventurers, why not think of it as the latest avenue for exploring your home base in a new light, literally. 

The NEMO team has compiled a list of our favorite backyard cold weather activities, and we’d love to share them with you below! 

1. Animal Tracking

Photo: Caleb Woods

Many animals become more restful in the winter and rely on the stored energy from summer and fall spent gorging on their favorite woodland treats. But there are still plenty who will venture out into the cold for food and the warmth of the sun. During any other time of the year, spotting animal tracks or sign can be a rare occurrence for all but the most trained naturalist, but in the winter everything becomes so much more clear.

Photo: Travis Gagliano

A layer of freshly fallen snow creates a blank canvas for your local critters to paint their footprints on. You can follow the tracks of a rabbit as it hops to and from its favorite food source or see the quill drag of a porcupine as it meanders across the forest floor. Sometimes if you’re lucky (and the animal is not) you can find evidence of a predator attack from above with the telltale imprints of wings on the snow. We recommend picking up an animal track guide at your local bookstore — such as the Pocket Guide to Animal Tracks, or — if you get really into it, Tracking and the Art of Seeing. Once you’re feeling confident with identifying animal tracks you can really dive deeply into the world of reading animal sign such as browse (where the animals have fed), scat, and shelters! Strap a Switchback™ to your day pack for a comfortable, warm seat while you enjoy some lunch on the trail.

Pro tip: naturalists recommended that if you do come across fresh tracks in winter, resist the urge to follow them and pressure the animal to run causing unnecessary use of energy resources. There is plenty of discoveries to be made by following tracks backward.

2. Astronomy

Photo: Lucas Ludwig

Here in New England, we lament the fact that the sun sets around 4:45 but with a little perseverance and a warm jacket and hat you can make the most of the increased hours of darkness. In winter, the sky is often less obscured due to lower humidity and particles in the atmosphere. This makes for stunning views of the night sky. Partner this with an entirely different set of stars than you would see during the summer and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a refreshing evening outdoors.

The clarity enables you to often identify many celestial objects with the naked eye. For example, the stars Sirius and Betelgeuse are both visible in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as the constellations Orion and Taurus. If you have even a simple pair of binoculars you will have access to even more beautiful views. Better yet, sit down with your family on your Victory™ Blanket and create your own constellations and star stories, then head inside and put them together into a family star book. As the seasons change you will be able to observe the movement of the stars … giving you and your family something to look forward to each evening. For anyone interested in pursuing Astrophotography we recommend checking out our Adventurer’s Guide to Astrophotography — and if you decide you want to invest in a telescope, be sure to check out our friends at High Point Scientific.

Pro Tip: Dress those kiddos warmly so they’ll last longer outside and just remember to have fun!

3. Carve a Quihnzee 

Photo: Travis Gagliano

The Quihnzee originated in North America and was used as an emergency or temporary shelter by several native American nations. In essence, it is a large pile of snow that has been dug out, but it is just a tad more complicated than that. Follow these step-by-step Quihnzee construction instructions below! 

  1. Stamp down the snow that you will be building your Quinzhee on by walking across the build site, or using a shovel. This creates a solid platform for your shelter to sit on. 
  2. Begin piling snow on your stamped base. This pile should be at least as tall as you, and as wide as you can make it. As you pile snow be sure to place sticks in the walls horizontally at a dedicated depth (using equal lengths of sticks). This will allow you to determine how thick your walls are, but also create air holes when you remove the sticks. 
  3. Once you have your pile it’s time to pack it down! Climb on top of it and stomp or jump on it. This will compact the snow and let it harden. If it looks like your pile has shrunk — that’s ok — it’s time to pile on more snow! 
  4. Once your packed down pile is a “good” size, leave it for a few hours to set up. This allows the compacted snow to harden which makes a much safer and more stable shelter. 
  5. After a hot cocoa break (check out our hot cocoa recipe recommendations) it’s time to excavate! Choose a door location and start hollowing out your shelter, using the sticks as a guide for wall thickness. Once you have the desired interior size and shape (you should be able to sit up), remove the sticks to create ventilation holes. 
  6. Decorate as you see fit and make it your home away from home! 

Pro tip: A Victory™ Blanket will block out the cold of the snowy ground and make your shelter extra comfortable.

4. Build a Lean-to

There is nothing more iconic or simple in the realm of shelter building than the lean-to. It’s easy to build, and the best part is it does not rely on the availability of snow! 

  1. Secure a long pole between two sturdy trees, using rope or bungee cords to keep it in place. 
  2. Cover one side of the pole with sticks and brush, creating a solid barrier. Start with stronger sticks and lash them together, then pile on pine boughs or wide grasses that rain will run down, keeping you dry inside.
  3. If you want a more hardy lean-to you can cover both sides with sticks and brush, creating an A-frame shelter. 
  4. Decorate as you see fit, and give your new fort a name! 
  5. For an outdoor experience that is as relaxing as your living room, add a Stargaze™ Recliner Luxury and kick back with a book and some warm tea — no matter the weather!
Pro Tip: Use a weatherproof material such as waxed canvas above the layer of stronger sticks and below the boughs and branches for extra weatherproofing.

5. Winter Fires and Stick Bread

Photo: Jesper Froekjaer

Sitting around a fire and telling stories has been a tradition of mankind ever since the species unlocked the secrets of firemaking — and cold weather should be no obstacle for continuing this practice. With a little ingenuity, you can make a fire burn long and hot even on a foot of snow. Start by packing the snow down and building a base of the driest wood you can find — this will prevent your fire from pulling moisture out of the snow. From there we like to use the “log cabin method”, stacking logs like you would if you were building a cabin. Fill the gaps and the center with your tinder and kindling. As the snow melts your fire will sink, so be ready to throw more fuel on! 

If you’re looking for a tasty treat outside of the normal S’mores, the NEMO team would like to introduce you to Stick Bread. Our Danish team member Jesper introduced us to this delicious and fun activity on our latest retreat, and it couldn’t be simpler. We recommend preparing your dough ahead of time using the following recipe.  

Ingredients:

  • 3dl Water 
  • 25g Fresh or dry yeast 
  • 2 tsp Sugar 
  • 2 tsp Salt 
  • 500g all-purpose flour 
  • Optional 
  • Honey 
  • Jam 

Cooking Instructions:

  1. In a large bowl, add water to dissolve the yeast, if using dry yeast add together with the flour in step 2
  2. Add all-purpose flour, salt, and sugar. Knead everything into a smooth dough, add more flour as needed 
  3. Let the dough rise for 35-45min 
  4. Roll the dough into thin strips and twist them around freshly cut sticks, adding honey to the dough as desired
  5. Bake the bread over a fire
Pro tip: Cooking over hot coals providing the best results.