Ten Winter Skills to Learn This Year

Has the new year got you thinking about ways to live better? Here are 10 simple winter activities that will help you feel energized and inspired this season.

Illustrations—Florence Rivest

Experiment with cold-water swimming, safely

Why? Swimming in ice-covered water seems scary, but it can become a form of meditation. Cold-water swimming has been linked to improved sleep, focus, and immune response.

Never go alone. Always plunge with a friend, even if they’re watching from the shore. Cold-water swimming can stimulate real health benefits, but the dangers are also real. This is not a solitary activity.

Dress up for the water. Wear a toque, gloves, and neoprene booties. For an added layer of protection, wear wool socks under your booties.

Know the water. Don’t get into frozen water that you haven’t swum in before. Anticipate tides, if applicable, and stay away from currents.

Plan your exit. Pack a big towel—or even better, a towel robe—and loose, warm layers that are easy to put on after, since fingers get numb and you may lose some dexterity. Definitely bring a Thermos with a hot drink to help warm up!

Keep it short. You have nothing to prove. Beginners should stay in the water only briefly.

Savour the feeling. Stepping out of the water can deliver a powerful feeling of strength and rejuvenation. Enjoy!

Jessica Lynn Wiebe is committed to cold-water swimming. Read her full guide to “Getting Started with Cold-Water Swimming.”


Hone your skills as a snow sculptor

Why? Playing in the snow is pure fun, no matter how old you are.

Remove distractions. During the pandemic, when lockdown restrictions were in effect, many people spent more time outdoors. In winter, that often meant playing around in the snow. Lawns and parks erupted with snowmen, like some sort of mass uprising.

“When you remove all those distractions, you can embrace this simple, joyful act of making snow sculptures,” says Montréal-based artist Swapnaa Tamhane.

But don’t restrict yourself to snowmen. Snow is a wonderful medium, and a good snowfall is a great excuse to expand your artistic horizons.

Start with fascination. Let yourself be amazed by snow. It’s everywhere, and it’s weird! Snow can be transformative. It changes the light in the city and alters the space of the street, making everything both brighter and smaller.

Snow changes our auditory environment too; it is an effective sound absorber and takes the edge off traffic. It even forces our bodies to move more slowly. Nothing upends our lives quite so gently as snow.

Take stock of your materials. Study the texture of snow. “Snow has so many different textures,” Tamhane says. Rather than waiting for the right kind of snow, try a more collaborative approach and work with the day’s unique combination of density and moisture.

For very light, fluffy snow, Tamhane suggests tracing on its surface. With dense, heavy snow, you can get more detailed. In-between snow might let you work in a more monumental fashion. Explore! Try things out!

Want more inspiration? Try our “Short Guide to the Ephemeral Art of Snow Sculpture.”

Spend a winter night in your backyard

Why? Winter has a way of keeping us indoors and putting a pause on our camping ambitions, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Once you get the hang of it, sleeping outside in cold weather opens the door to a new world of multi-day winter expeditions.

The backyard? Really? Spending a night in your own backyard will allow you to test your gear and strategies without too much risk. If anything goes wrong, you can run inside and warm up.

Keep it in the bag. When picking a sleeping bag, try to get one that’s rated for colder temperatures than the ones you’ll be dealing with. You’ll want a bit of room so you can tuck in the clothes and other things you need to keep warm overnight, but don’t go too big, or you won’t keep the heat in. Expert tip: curl up with a bottle of boiled water.

Sleep with options. Go to bed with a change of clothes: a polar fleece, a light down jacket, and on really cold nights, a parka. You can dress up or dress down, depending on the temperature.

Bring a good sleeping pad. A sleeping bag can’t do all the work of keeping you warm — good padding is also essential. In winter, two (or more) mats are better than one, especially if one is inflatable and the other is foam. At home, you can stack up five or six wool blankets.

For more tips on polar comfort, read Guillaume Rivest’s full guide to ”How to Spend a Polar Night in Your Own Backyard.”


Cook salmon over a fire

Why? This traditional Finnish technique for preparing wild-caught fish is easy: all you really need are matches, a knife, a hatchet, and a fishing rod — or a good fishmonger.

Light a fire. Some types of wood work better than others: birch makes great coals, alder adds smokiness, and pine offers a beautiful aroma that will lightly flavour the fish.

Find a board. You can use your hatchet to split a log so you have a flat surface. Cedar is always a good choice.

Season the fish. Any herb will do, but wild herbs are best: chickweed, sorrel, fennel, marjoram, etc. Drive the flavour home with some coarse salt.

Pin it in place. Make some initial divots along the natural grain of the wood with your knife, and then use small sticks to hold the fish, tapping them into place with your hatchet or just a nearby log.

Let the fire blaze. Prop it up on some rocks 10 to 20 cm from the fire. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. The fish is ready when it is juicy and still translucent on the inside.

Serve. Brush butter onto the fish once it’s cooked. Use the branch of a juniper tree for some extra magic. Serve the fish directly on the board. Let it cool a bit and eat it with your fingers!

To learn the traditional Finnish technique for preparing fish on an open fire, read our guide to “How to Blaze Wild-Caught Fish Like a Finn.” 


Design a natural centrepiece with foraged materials

Why? Gathering wildflowers may be one of the joys of summer, but you can still decorate your space with nature’s bounty after the snow falls. Bring the beauty of winter into your home with these simple principles.

Embrace ephemerality. When creating an arrangement, try to reflect the impermanence of nature: how it moves and changes and breathes. Let nature guide you by mirroring the connections between plants in the wild.

Respect the mess. You can’t control everything. Nature is unpredictable, so don’t try to make your arrangements too neat and tidy. Let yourself — and your creations — literally go wild.

Celebrate variety. Pay attention to the contrasts in how things grow, such as in clusters of different sizes or at varying heights. In winter, keep an eye out for berries to bring bright colours to your designs.

Slow down. Whatever material you’re using, an arrangement can be a way of holding a soft, safe space in a fast-paced, overstimulating world. ”I want to create a moment of beauty that feels lighter than the rest of their day, even if just briefly,” says floral designer Leah Gibson.

To learn more about nature-inspired floral arrangements with Leah Gibson, read our guide “How to Design a Winter Centrepiece.”

Challenge your friends to a game of observation

Why? Entertaining friends on winter evenings shouldn’t be stressful. Sometimes, all we need to have fun is a good sense of observation and a simple game, like the endlessly replayable “Sixth Sense.”

Sharpen your instinct. When everyone (two people minimum!) is sitting comfortably in the same room, choose an object that, with a little luck, your friends won’t notice. Try to pick something at once obvious and subtle, something that’s hiding in plain sight.

Play detective. One by one, each person asks a question to the person of their choice and tries to guess which object they chose. The responder can only answer yes or no. The goal is to guess the other players’ objects before your own is guessed. The last person whose item is guessed wins the game.

Start over. Turn it into a game of 10 rounds, to make the fun last! You’ll know the room like the back of your hand.

For more ideas of simple games to brighten your evenings, read our miniguide “Dice, Cards, and Puns.” 

Make a delicious sauerkraut

Why? Making sauerkraut is much less complicated than it seems. You might never go back to the store-bought variety. Here’s a simple recipe:

Prepare your cabbage. Thinly slice a red cabbage and steam it. Place it in a sterilized jar (Mason jars work well).

Give it a bath. Mix about 60 ml [¼ cup] of salt in 240 ml [1 cup] of water, and add the brine to your jar. For a touch of flavour, add some caraway seeds.

Patience is a virtue. Go out and play while your sauerkraut rests. Let it stand uncovered on the counter for a full day, then close the lid for a week to let the cabbage ferment. Test it out! If it isn’t sour enough for you, try adding 15 ml [1 Tbsp] of white vinegar and 5 ml [1 tsp] of sugar. Then let it soak uncovered for another full day before closing the lid for another three weeks to complete the fermentation.

To learn more about preparing sauerkraut and to get to know Ilania, master of the art, read our miniguide “Cook Sauerkraut with Ilania.”

Fix the rebel stitch in your knitting

Why? No one is immune to the scourge of a nail or branch snagging on a sweater. A stray loop of yarn sticking out can unravel your confidence, but with a little patience and care, it can be set straight.

Assess the damage. Start by gently pulling the fabric all around the snagged stitch. By evening out the tension, the knit might come back into alignment on its own. If this doesn’t do it, summon up your fine motor skills and proceed to the next step.

Thread your needle and prepare your stitch. Arm yourself with a darning needle. Larger and less pointy than those used for sewing, this needle will be your ally, because the eye is large enough to thread the sagging stitch through. If the stitch is hanging out on the outside of your sweater, use your needle to pull it through to the other side, where you can keep the mending hidden.

Camouflage the imperfection. Like a meticulous surgeon, thread the point of your needle through the adjacent stitches and camouflage the pulled stitch among its neighbours. Stretch the garment all around it once more to make sure the tension is evenly spread. The operation is complete — and your sweater is ready to be worn again.

To learn more about mending your favourite woolens, read the miniguide and portrait of Thelma, ace knitter, in SAVOIR FAIRE, the book.

Keep your knife in tip-top shape

Why? If you love to cook, it’s probably time to show some love to your favourite knife, by keeping it honed. Luckily, you don’t need a blacksmith’s tools — a honing steel will do the trick!

Strike a pose. Hold the knife in your dominant hand and the sharpening steel in the other. Cross them so the blade is on top, with its edge resting at a 20 to 25 degree angle against the tool. Feel it rise in you: the confidence of a kitchen professional on the cover of a magazine.

Hone the neglected blade. Use an arcing motion as you bring the heel of the knife toward you (the part nearest the handle) such that friction is applied to the entire blade. Repeat beneath the sharpening steel to hone the other side of the blade. Continue this cycle a dozen times until your knife’s edge has been totally restored.

Test your knife. Return to your cutting board and savour how little effort it takes to prepare vegetable soup now. And don’t wait until you’ve pushed your blade to its limits to hone it again!

Find this guide, as well as the whetstone sharpening method, in SAVOIR FAIRE, the book, where Richard, the philosophical bladesmith, shares his story and invaluable advice.

Cook a comforting soup stock

Why? Instead of ending up in the garbage, your leftover meat and bones can be used to make a homemade stock that will add flavour to your next meals — and bring you the satisfaction of using your food to its fullest potential.

Build up your supply. No need to get straight to work on the stock after dinner. Keep your leftovers in the freezer until you’ve stockpiled—no pun intended—enough and carved out some time in your schedule.

Prepare the liquid. Finally ready? Place your leftover meat and bones in a pot and cover with water. Add salt to taste. Bring to a boil and let simmer for two hours, until the liquid is reduced to the desired consistency.

Wait. Take your stock off the stove and let it rest for half a day at room temperature. Dive into a good novel (or an issue of BESIDE!) while your stock cools and the fat rises to the surface.

Adjust the final texture. Using a spoon, remove the floating bits as well as the bones and other leftovers. All that’s left to do is strain your stock to give it a smoother texture.

Preserve your masterpiece. If you don’t think you’ll use your stock in the next few days, divide it into smaller portions to freeze.

These were the steps shared by Cécile Rankin with Eugénie Emond. Find them in SAVOIR FAIRE, the book, and read the story of the cheerful grandmother.

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