Urban Winter Adventures

I grew up at a year round camp in northern Michigan. It was a pretty idyllic setup for an outdoor loving kid. Whenever campers were around, there were activities to be a part of, gear to rent, and people to supervise.  I took full advantage of that: pond hockey, winter tubing, fishing, swimming, canoeing, archery, riflery, bonfires, nature walks, cross country skiing, the list goes on. To be honest, when I consider it now, I’m really jealous about how little planning and prep were involved for my own mom! 

Adventures Take Preparation

During this season of life my husband and I are raising six kids ages 15-4 in urban St Paul, Minnesota. The way we adventure as a family is a far cry from the ready made experiences of my camp childhood. Urban winter activities mean I need to be on my game to explore opportunities, get kids registered (sometimes months in advance!), source affordable gear, and shuttle everyone to whatever is on the schedule. Winters here can be bitterly cold so everyone needs reliable winter layers.

Adventures Don’t Have to Be Expensive

We aren’t a family flush with resources so we don’t make it to the slopes, have snowmobiles, or a winter cabin to retreat to. I’ve become a bit of a deal hound to make winter fun. Thankfully St. Paul and Minneapolis offer a wide variety of winter opportunities. Of course, there are always the options of museums, indoor playgrounds, and the like.  But we are outdoor loving families, so let’s look at ways to enjoy urban winter adventures no matter your budget and time constraints.

As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Kids play at urban playground in the winter

Urban Winter Adventures Have Benefits

Urban adventures benefit from the cultural diversity, concentration of resources, and accessibility that a city creates. While rural winter adventures may be more dependent on weather conditions (cold, snow, ice) many urban winter adventures can still go on when weather isn’t cooperating. Cities host winter carnivals, regional winter sport events, or community ed programming.

I’ve listed a lot of activities local to our family (in Minnesota) but it’s not difficult to locate winter offerings in your own area. Check out team member Elaine’s post Urban Outdoor Adventures for more inspiration.

Need some motivation, check out our Affirmation Cards For Getting Outside!

Winter Adventures for Toddlers & Preschoolers

Our tiny adventurers need extra attention during the winter season. Uneven terrain, mittens and hats that fall off, and lack of stamina in the cold call for short and sweet outdoor play. Waterproof clothing and boots, extra snacks, and lots of patience needed.

Nature Centers

Ok I’ll be honest, I didn’t often think about Nature Centers in the cold season. We happily visited outdoor play areas and trails during the summer but it didn’t translate to winter. I was surprised to realize there’s still plenty on offer when it’s chilly outside.

Many nature centers offer winter gear to rent such as snowshoes and cross country skis. Summer hiking trails become groomed winter trails. You can explore the property looking for animal signs and take advantage of resources and knowledgeable staff inside the center. Plus it’s a great place to take a break when littles need to come in from the cold.

Ice Skating

Ice Skating is a great activity to start young. Cities in cold climates often have maintained ice rinks spread through their communities. Lessons may be offered.

Our family has amassed quite a collection of used skates from local thrift stores. Smallest skates can come with double blades, sturdier for little ones to get started on. Traditional figure skates and hockey skates are available at small sizes. Hybrid skates are our favorite for little kids. With a boot more like a rollerblade they are easy to put on and take off, insulated, have stiff construction to help kids stay upright, and are generally more comfortable.

One tip for teaching kids to skate. Get a skate trainer or bring along a kid size chair, ideally with metal legs/feet, for them to hang on to as they maneuver.

Toddler holds on to wall while ice skating

Playground with Treats

Playground time in the winter calls for layered clothing, sleds, and a thermos of hot cocoa! No reason to abandon local parks and playgrounds when the warm weather departs. Make sure kids have warm and grippy mittens to grab hold of cold metal equipment and waterproof pants or snowpants for when the inevitable slipping and sliding ensue.

When everyone needs a break spread out a waterproof blanket to sit on and pass around the cocoa and snacks.

Check out our post on Best Winter Books to read to your group of adventurers.

Winter Outdoor Experiments

Try blowing bubbles with your littles when temps are below freezing. You can use regular bubble mixture (best if left outside to chill for a while first) or make a cold specific bubble mixture like in this STEM focused tutorial.

Mix a simple snow spray paint with water and food coloring in a spray bottle. Let your kids take a couple bottles of “paint” outside to spray around.

Make maple syrup candy with heated maple syrup and clean snow. Just like Laura in Little House in the Big Woods.

Winter Farmer’s Market

Through the winter farmer’s markets go on even up here in the land of cold. With a focus less on local fresh produce and more on cheese, hot food, canned goods, and coffee the market has a more intimate atmosphere. Winter market are a great way to invest in your local community and they’re an easy walk with little ones as you stock up on goodies.

Toddler going nordic skiing

Winter Festivals

Winter festivals are great family activity for young to old. Accommodations are made for accessibility, food is always in abundance, and there’s so much to see. The International Snow Sculpting Competition in Breckenridge, CO draws people from around the world for a week of snow filled artistry and activities.

Zoo Visit in Winter

A zoo visit in winter is a simple and sweet activity. Some animals are much more active during the colder months. We find that arriving in the morning means more active animals as well. It’s also nice to have indoor spaces to visit as needed!

Girls sits next to window of tiger enclosure with winter background

Winter Adventures for Elementary Age Kids

Elementary age kids are at a sweet spot for observation, nature study, and fun. Getting out with them in winter is less work than toddlers and, I have found, require less harping (oops, I mean encouragement) than teens!

Nature Walks

Nature walks are great with any age. I appreciate doing them with elementary age kids because they are so naturally curious and observational. Winter walks have different highlights such as easy to see tracks, bird nests exposed without leaves on trees, plants look different, and animals can be easier to spot. Check out this post about making observations in nature.

Maple Tree Tapping

Our family taps around 100 trees at our family farm every year. However, we live in urban St Paul, MN. There are maple trees in our neighborhood so we’ve started tapping those as well. We got permission from a couple of our neighbors to tap their trees and then gifted them a quart of syrup when we were finished.

One year while homeschooling we did a maple syrup unit study like this one. From math to science to history there are so many ways to incorporate the process of harvesting maple syrup into your curriculum.

Man and young girls harvest sap from maple tree in city

Build A Quinzhee or Igloo

Building your own winter dwelling doesn’t take much space, even a tiny yard can accommodate one. If snow allows, build a quinzhee, basically a giant pile of snow with the inside carved out. You could even sleep overnight in it. Find directions here.

If you don’t have snow but temps are below freezing you can make an ice igloo. It’s a simple enough project that kids can do it themselves over the course of a few days. Instructions are here.

Woman in snow quinzhee

Broomball

In essence it’s hockey but played in shoes or boots. Broomball is a good game for those who aren’t confident on skates, or for when ice conditions aren’t ideal for skating on. It’s something the whole family can participate in whether they know how to skate or not. Folks still take it seriously up north though and there are plenty of leagues to join.

Ice Fishing with Kids

Urban ice fishing is a much loved activity at least here in the Twin Cities. It’s something kids and adults can participate in. This local non profit in our area takes groups of students out on the ice.

If you’re just getting started then take a course or take a look at an online instructional such as this one.

Kidarod Adventure Race

Inspired by Alaska’s famed Iditarod, the Kidarod is a two mile winter adventure race for ages 5+. Climb, pull, slide, jump, and run through a winter wonderland obstacle course. Hosted by the YMCA of the North and other Minnesota based companies. I participated in this race a few years ago with one of my kids and plan to do so again. It’s tons of fun, non competitive, but gives all the energy vibes of a big event.

Mother and daughter at Kidarod winter adventure race

Winter Adventures for Tweens & Teens

Closer capability-wise to adult skill level activities (but with more energy, haha) our tweens and teens are forming personal preferences and connections when it comes to outdoor time. They may be branching out into recreation you don’t have experience in or ability to participate in. But they are also so fun to recreate alongside. Try taking a class together to gain a new skill!

Full Moon Hike

In the city it can be difficult to see the stars with so much ambient light. But we can still see the moon! Our local parks offer full moon hikes during the winter. Some are age restrictive but some include kids. With shorter days kids don’t have to stay up too late to enjoy the experience of hiking at night. Bring along a headlamp, but you may not need it. Snow and a full moon make for very bright night time conditions!

Check out more ideas for Family Winter Play After Dark.

Outdoor Winter Science Class

Nature Centers again for the win! Sign up your kid for a weekly outdoor science class through your local nature center or community ed programming. We love that this class is only for girls, promoting the sciences in the next generation of women.

Check out this post on Winter Unit Study for more ideas!

Ice Skating/Pond Hockey

My own tween/teen winters were defined by countless hours of pond hockey. It’s just hockey played outdoors instead of on an indoor rink. We live in the land of Hockey (with a capital H) now but I admit that the level of competition and intensity of Hockey Lifestyle turns me off a bit.

Pick up some pucks and hockey sticks and get on the ice as a family at those local ice rinks. It’s such a fun activity to do together, whether or not you’re a pro. And pond hockey is an excellent way for your kids (and you!) to become a better skater. Hockey skates aren’t required but are helpful to have.

Have a lot of ice by you? Check out Wild Ice Play with Kids!

Kids navigate snow maze

Learn to Ski/Snowboard

You don’t need to leave the city to hit the slopes. Our local golf course transforms into a small ski village every winter, offering classes and rentals. They groom several cross country trails on the course as well. It’s not the same as getting to the mountains, but it’s accessible to a diverse audience, convenient for lessons, and a fun outing for teen friends.

Want to learn how? Check out How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski and How to Teach Kids to Snowboard.

Winter Cycling

When the snow comes down here in St Paul the fat tire bikes come out. While they are used a lot on snow covered mountain bike trails we see quite a few on our metro bike trails. The fat tires keep you from sliding on the ice and plow through snow and slush without a problem.

If you don’t have a fat tire bike, mountain bike tires are usually burly enough to handle city trail conditions.

Check out Winter Bike Commuting with Kids if you like to commute year round.

Family bikes through neighborhood in the winter

Curling

Curling is a popular winter sport in northern climates. It can be played on ice pitches inside or outside. It’s an easy entry sport, doesn’t require a lot of physical fitness or athletic ability so it can be a great activity to try with your tweens/teens. Look for a curling club in your area.

Adventures for Adults

Long cold months, short days, tons of clothing and gear to put on kids and dry off afterwards… We adults need motivation to get out the door in winter and chances to recreate without pulling off a group event every time. Thriving during winter is possible when you find what activities give you joy and refreshment outdoors and make time in your schedule regularly for them.

Adult Only Night Hikes

Night hikes for adults only? Sign me up. Nature Centers and Parks and Rec programs offer adult only activities as well. If a quieter walk in the woods is what you need then check out what’s available locally. Some are women specific, focus on astronomy, or seasonal wildlife.

Snow sculpture of woman

Polar Dipping

Brought to popularity in recent years, polar dipping has a small but devoted following. Here in the Twin Cities several ice holes are maintained by the city to allow for safe, winter-long plunging. Dips are short, 45 seconds or so, and require neoprene booties for your feet. Practicing plungers proclaim physical and mental health benefits. If an outdoor sauna waits lakeside, all the better.

Take an Outdoor Skills Class

Learn to kicksled, navigate during winter with an orienteering class, hot tent camp, etc. Community Ed programming, YMCA camps, local experts, and outdoor stores offer instruction in skills and activities appropriate to the season and location you live in.

People explore an ice castle at night

Snowga

A great ski/snowboard warmup or join a group in a park. Yoga doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wear capris and a tank top. Bundle up and down dog in the snow!

Snow Volleyball

Played for many years in other countries: Russia, Switzerland, and Austria to name a few, snow volleyball is gaining popularity. While we couldn’t find leagues in the US yet we should definitely join in casually until they are available. Get a group of friends together to play at your local park!

Cross Country Skiing

A few of our local parks groom many miles of urban trails for cross country skiing. One of them makes their own snow as well and their rec centers rent out gear at reasonable fees. Cross country skiing makes for a great date night excursion, winter substitution for runners who’d rather be outdoors than on a treadmill, or time out with friends.

Check out Teaching Kids Cross Country Skiing and 15 Tips for Cross Country Skiing with Kids for some great tips.

Kids cross river in city in winter

Winter Adventures Wherever You Are

It’s taken me a while to settle in to urban winters. I miss the easy entry activities of my childhood and wish I had those options available for my kids and myself now. When we are planted for a season in a place we aren’t familiar with and don’t love it can be hard to see what is around us.

I’m making choices to dig into what’s available locally, unique opportunities in our city, and creating family rhythms around winter for my own kids, in the here and now. I hope you’re inspired to seek out new winter adventures no matter where you live!

Urban Winter Adventures

© 2024, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.

Author

    by
  • Jen Levin, mama of six, lives in St Paul Minnesota. Raised in the north woods of Michigan at a year round camp, she had a wild and free childhood. Jen and her husband ran an outdoor adventure program for college age participants for 7 years in Arkansas. They enjoyed helping others experience nature through canoeing, climbing, backpacking, and caving in the Ozark National Forest. Now Jen is figuring out how to nurture outdoor kids in an urban location. She’ll drive the extra miles for a clean lake and is happiest on, in, or near the water. Her family loves camping, swimming, canoeing, backpacking, and harvesting maple syrup at their family farm.

Leave a Comment