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Winter Hikes Provide Exercise and Nature Exposure

Dec 30, 2022 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Coral Woods in McHenry County in winter

Coral Woods in McHenry County in winter. Photo by Lisa Maier.

Lisa Maier finds solace in hiking outdoors in winter. “An early morning hike in the cold is a great way to slow down, decompress and reflect without distractions,” says the McHenry resident, who volunteers for wildlife projects in the Chicago region. “There is a special kind of magic that happens in the winter and not during any other season.” Finding that magic is one of many reasons, including sustaining physical and mental health, to hike in winter.

Sarah Rosenberg, a ranger with the Forest Preserve District of Du Page County, enjoys winter hiking at Churchill Woods. Photo by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Forest preserves and natural lands in the region are less crowded in winter compared with other seasons. “The forest preserves tend to have fewer visitors in the winter,” says Sarah Rosenberg, a ranger at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. “That means there are calm, quiet spaces to walk and sit.”

“Hiking in winter is great,” agrees Brian Arnoldt, program coordinator for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. “It gets us out of the house and it provides us with exercise. “Your body is working that much more to keep you warm.”

Some studies suggest that hiking outdoors in winter burns more calories than it does compared with doing similar exercise in warmer weather. Studies also say that metabolism spikes to deal with the cold. One study showed people that hiked in temperatures ranging from 15 to 23 degrees burned 34 percent more calories than those that hiked in temperatures in the mid-50s.

“People really need to make a point in the Chicago and Midwest to get outside, especially while it’s sunny in the winter,” Arnoldt says. “It can have a dramatic impact on your physical and mental health. In winter, especially, taking a hike outdoors positively affects your well-being, especially people with seasonal affective disorder [a type of depression that some people experience during the winter months].”

Winter hiking also provides an opportunity to enjoy nature in a new way. “In spring, summer and fall, the trees have foliage, but in winter, the leaves are gone, and that opens you up to new experiences,” Arnoldt says. “All the leaves on the trees and branches full of foliage muffle sound. In winter, when the trees are bare, you can hear things much farther into the woods (for example, an animal scurrying or woodpeckers tapping on trees). Some of our nature centers offer an evening owl walk in early winter, so you can hear the nighttime calls of owls and also coyotes off in the distance.”

Sunrise at Cricket Creek in winter in DuPage County. Photo by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Maier particularly enjoys listening for nature in winter. “Last year, I was leading a small group on a night hike in McHenry County in mid-January looking for owls,” she recalls. “We got a real treat as we stepped into a pine stand and heard this strange call that sounded like someone running their finger along the teeth of a small, plastic comb.” They determined it was a northern saw-whet owl, a species that visits the region in winter. “The owl was close, so the whole group got to hear it well. I had read about and listened to recordings of the ‘plastic comb’ call before, but had never actually heard it from a wild bird. It was so cool to get to hear that bizarre sound. It’s one I’ll never forget,” says Maier.

She notes, “While the overall quantity of birds is low in winter, this is the time for northern-dwelling birds to visit us. Every year is different, with some species irrupting south in huge numbers one year and absent the next. It is prime time to look and listen for owls and other raptors. Birds are also concentrated in areas of open water or food sources, and there is no foliage to make spotting birds difficult.”

There are a lot more animal tracks to see while hiking outdoors in winter, according to Arnoldt and Rosenberg. “The Cook County Forest Preserve has led winter hikes seeking animal tracks at Deer Grove West,” Arnoldt says. “We identify the tracks and talk about what kind of animal it can be and what they eat in winter. To see some great deer tracks and rabbit tracks is great, especially for the little ones who may have never seen that before.”

Rosenberg adds, “After the leaves fall, you have unobstructed views of birds and mammals still active in winter, as well as their nests.” Squirrels, for example, build large leaves of nest in trees for roosting during cold winters. She enjoys watching snow on a winter hike. “I like seeing snow on the tree branches, the red flash of a cardinal flying past, even the chunk of snow that falls and lands on the back of my neck.”

Boone Creek Nature Preserve in winter. Photo by Lisa Maier.

Maier says the scenery in winter is a good reason to hike outdoors. “The landscape covered in a fresh blanket of snow or frost is stunning, with different types creating different effects. Snow, being highly reflective, can create dramatic washes of colors, splashes of light and intense shadows,” she relates.

Rosenberg thinks hikers might also enjoy snowshoeing in winter. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County offers pop-up snowshoeing programs when conditions allow. “Last year, I led a snowshoe scavenger hunt at Churchill Woods in perfect conditions,” she says. “It was a sunny day with temps in the 40s and at least six inches of snow. All 20 participants were new to snowshoeing. It’s an easy activity to learn, and it was nice to see everyone’s confidence rise as we hiked around.”

Both Maier and Rosenberg said one reason to hike outdoors in winter is because there won’t be mosquitoes. Insects overwinter in protected places such as the crevices of tree bark as either adults, eggs or larvae. Woodpeckers can stick their long tongues in bark crevices to snatch them for a meal.


Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at


West Ridge Nature Preserve in winter. Photo by Lisa Maier.

Be Prepared for Winter Hikes

Dressing properly and planning ahead can make a winter hike safer and more enjoyable. “Always check the weather before heading out, and look for maps of the trail system, either online or by taking a picture of a map in the parking lot, especially if the area is new to you,” suggests Sarah Rosenberg, a ranger for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. “Wear breathable, wicking layers to keep you comfortable and bring extras just in case. Wear shoes that will allow you to layer socks underneath. A polyester layer close to the skin helps wick away moisture. Wear sturdy boots, not your canvas or leather tennis shoes.” Rosenberg also suggests wearing cleats on shoes when walking icy trails. Bring water. “You need to drink, even when you’re not thirsty, in winter,” Rosenberg says.

A frequent winter hiker from McHenry County, Lisa Maier, offers, “Weather in our region can be erratic so you want to be prepared for anything. That goes for trail conditions as well, which can be hazardous in sections. Also, keep a basic winter emergency kit in your car (blanket, flashlight, water bottle) and keep your phone charged and on your person.”



Rocky Glen at Waterfall Glen Preserve in DuPage County. Photo by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Selected Winter Hikes in the Chicago Region 

For a good winter hike, Brian Arnoldt recommends the nine-mile Tinley Creek Loop, in southern Cook County. “It takes you to some frozen lakes that the district is managing,” says the program coordinator for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. “The way that sun touches ice and comes down at a different time. It can be lovely and inspiring. Be prepared for the long hike or consider doing just a part of it,” he suggests.

McHenry County resident Lisa Maier enjoys hiking lakefront parks from Indiana to Wisconsin during the cold season. “They take on a different personality in winter, but be prepared for the wind,” she says. “Wooded areas like Daniel Wright and Van Patten Woods Forest Preserves, in Lake County, or Crabtree Nature Center and Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, in Cook County, are beautiful in winter. I also enjoy areas along rivers like LaBagh Woods (Cook), Ryerson Conservation Area (Lake), Buffalo Park Forest Preserve (Kane) and McHenry Dam (McHenry). My personal favorite place to hike in winter is a tie between Glacial Park Conservation Area and Boone Creek Conservation Area, both in McHenry County.”

The Forest Preserve District of Du Page County grooms several trail systems for cross-country skiing, including the trails at Meacham Grove, Fullersburg Woods, Greene Valley, Waterfall Glen, Blackwell, Danada and Herrick Lake forest preserves. Hikers there are asked to avoid walking on the set trails to keep them well-groomed, according to Sarah Rosenberg, a ranger for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Hikers can find ungroomed trails at Cricket Creek, Maple Grove, Oldfield Oaks, McDowell Grove, West DuPage Woods and Springbrook Prairie forest preserves, in DuPage County.

The Lake County Forest Preserves offers two lit trails during the winter for night hiking. A 1.3-mile trail at Old School Forest Preserve, in Libertyville, and a 1.65-mile trail, which includes a one-mile loop, at Lakewood Winter Sports Area, near Wauconda, are open to hikers, cross-country skiers and those with snowshoes until 9 p.m. through mid-March.