With winter in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, I want to encourage everyone to remember that there are quality cold experiences waiting to be had outdoors! For many new practitioners of the Wim Hof Method or cold training in general, graduating from the controlled environments of cold showers or the ice baths can be a daunting task. We have been conditioned to see the outdoors as the untamed wilderness, full of danger! And, to some degree, it is! Wim Hof often talks about “hard nature” as the ultimate teacher, and while cold showers and ice baths are incredible tools for health and wellness, in the end, our ultimate goal is to overcome mental obstacles and fears that prevent us from living fully. The winter weather gives us an opportunity to break through our modern conditioning. You’ve seen it in other people’s videos and pictures, now it is time for you to make your move! Time to get out into “hard nature!”
Now that you are ready to get out into nature, there are three big rules for cold walks to follow. Incorporate this wisdom into your practice, and get ready for a unforgettable cold exposure out in nature!
1. Always Pack a Safety Bag!
This is a rule that many people don’t think about early on. We are excited and confident in our ability to endure the cold, so we just assume that we won’t need any warm clothes. After all, isn’t that the point of a winter walk?
Why would we bring clothes along?
At first, you might not need a Safety Bag. Perhaps you are simply going to walk outside in your driveway for a little while. Well, in that case, if you feel the need to escape the cold, it will be very easy to walk indoors and warm up. No big deal.
However, when you begin to get more confident and more adventuresome, you will likely want to wander further away from the safety of the indoors than a simple driveway walk. As for me, I generally like going to parks and nature preserves. I love the quietness and the serenity that I feel when I am all alone in nature. In many cases, I wait for the cover of night to take a winter walk simply because I don’t want to have to hassle with onlookers. This means that I may be more than a 5 or 10 minute walk away from the safety of the indoors, and that means that if I don’t plan for an unexpected need for warmth, I could find myself in a dangerous situation. Suddenly, the very act that was meant to make me stronger and happier could lead to extreme afterdrop, hypothermia, or even frostbite. That is why we always pack a safety bag.
A safety bag is your portable warm place. It is the insurance policy that you want to have so you can focus on the experience, knowing that you are in no real danger. In my safety bag, I always pack warm-up pants, a hoodie or sweatshirt, a coat, and possibly even a yoga mat. Why a yoga mat? Well, in some cases, it is nice to have an insulated floor to stand on if you need to change into thermal clothing quickly. I don’t always take a yoga mat, but if I have any plans to take off my shoes or get into water, my yoga mat is coming with me!
You should always have gloves and a hat on a winter walk, and you should always wear shoes in your winter walks unless you are very well trained and want to do extreme extremities training. Wim Hof ran a marathon barefoot above the arctic circle, but he was very well trained! Even with all of his training and mind/body control, he suffered frostbite on both of his feet. Frostbite is a real thing, and it is nothing to play around with. Wear shoes if you are going on any walk of any real distance, especially if you are walking in the snow. It is okay to take off your shoes for a little while, but don’t make “barefoot” your clothing choice on any significant cold walk.
Again, being prepared for the off chance that you begin to feel miserable or cold in your core is the difference between someone who is serious about training for a healthy life and someone who is asking for problems.
2. Be Mindful of the Experience. Be present.
Winter walks can be a lot of fun. They can challenge us in ways we have not been challenged before. Things like windchill, precipitation, and barriers in the road can make a winter walk unlike any other cold experience you have ever enjoyed. This is why it can be easy to lose concentration and forget to listen to your inner voice.
What do I mean by your inner voice? Well, first of all, it doesn’t use words. It is the subtle way that your body communicates with you. It will let you know the difference between the cold that you feel on your skin and the cold that could actually hurt you if it has infiltrated into your core. Especially early on, it is important to try to do cold walks that allow you to focus on your cold experience. This is how we learn to listen to the inner voice. Focus on the way your body feels. Focus on how you respond to changes in the temperature or in the wind. Focus on the cold itself.
This is why it is usually not a good idea to have a lot of conversation during your first winter walks. It keeps us from listening to our inner voice. Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who has trained with me knows that I am a talker! Having your friends at your side or being with others who are interested in cold training is very good! It adds an element of safety, and it provides for great insights in discussions afterward. The thing to remember is that the goal of the exercise that you are performing is to learn to listen to your body and to increase your self-control. Try to focus on the task at hand. Appreciate what is happening in the now, and when the experience is done, take some time to reflect.
3. Don’t wait until you feel miserable to get warm.
People often ask me, how long should I stay in the cold? The answer that I always give them is, “it depends!” Not very satisfying is it?
Please understand that I don’t mean to be cryptic. It’s just that the answer to the question is not going to be the same for everyone. It depends on a lot of things.
The two most important factors to consider are the level of cold training that you have accumulated and the state of mind that you are in. If you have done a lot of cold training and you are very focused, your abilities in the cold will vastly outweigh a novice to cold training or someone who is not focused.
Even with that said, how much cold training have done recently? Did you train hard yesterday? Well, you might be recovering from that today. You may need to take it a little easier today in your training. Did you trian really hard for weeks and then stop altogether for a month? Well, you have probably lost a small amount of your cold resistance.
Even with that said, focus is a factor that is impossible to fully measure. You might really be focused one day and climb a mountain in your shorts with no problems whatsoever. It is really impossible to tell another person an exact time.
The only one who can answer that question is your inner voice, the little whisper that will let you know that you are about to reach your limit for the day. In the beginning, it is hard for us to hear that voice, so I usually recommend that you never wait until you feel miserable to go in. Just set a reasonable distance or time goal, and go in immediately after that, even if you feel like you could go for hours and hours.
Nevet time, you can set a slightly longer goal, but on you first outing, set your sights on something very reasonable and don’t forget your Safety Pack, as discussed earlier. As you experiment with slightly more challenging goals, you begin to hear the inner voice if you try. You’ll begin to notice the subtle changes that occur throughout a cold exposure and be able to navigate them more effectively. Eventually, you’ll hear the inner voice and know that it is real. It isn’t just a made up “woo woo” thing.
When you hear the inner voice telling you to go inside or to put on clothes, you better do it.
Trust it more than the clock or the thermometer. Sometimes it will surprise you. Sometimes, I will have a goal to walk an hour in the snow, and twenty minutes in, the inner voice tells me that it is time for me to get warm. And it doesn’t joke. The inner voice has no sense of humor at all. It’s all business.
No one likes to listen to the inner voice when other people are around or when we are trying to impress other people. This is why the ego is your enemy when it comes to cold training. Yes, it is okay to be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t get cocky! When your inner voice says “get warm,” you had better listen!
We listen to the inner voice whisper. Don’t wait for it to scream!
If you ignore the inner voice, prepare for after-drop or worse. The inner voice will not wait until you are miserable to speak up. If you wait until you are shivering and miserable, you have waited too long, and the best thing you can do is go into the warmth and try to relax while your body has to deal with the problem of cooled blood running through your core. If you feel really miserable, go seek medical help.
Always listen for the inner voice. Never wait to feel bad to go in. You should never feel bad throughout the whole experience. You should always feel in control.
In the end, “hard nature” is one of the most rewarding ways to train in the cold that I know of. I love cold walks and cold water swimming. Just remember that while these are things that I encourage everyone to try, it is important to take measures to ensure that you will have positive experiences so that you can continue to train in the cold for years and years to come. Now go out there and experience the cold!