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7 Things You May Not Know You Can Do in Iowa in the Winter

7 Things You May Not Know You Can Do in Iowa in the Winter from the Iowa DNRNo need to hide under a blanket until the snow melts and the ice thaws - there are lots of great ways to explore Iowa's great outdoors in the winter, too.

1.    Primitive camping. No bugs, no poison ivy, and plenty of privacy when you camp in the winter. Use a four-season tent to shed snow and wind, and mummy sleeping bags made for below zero weather. Add an insulating, closed-cell foam ground pad, and a fleece or wool hat and you’re ready for a quiet night under the stars — except for owl hoots, coyote calls, deer snorts, Canada geese squawks and raccoons snarling.

Winter camping means electric sites and running water are turned off, but pit latrines are available.  Check to make sure your park destination allows winter camping, and bring your boots and snowshoes for hiking trails or cross-country skis to view Iowa’s winter wonderland. Don’t forget your binoculars to view wildlife by day and stars by night.

2.    Ride a bike in the snow. Fat bikes are popping up in Iowa this winter and for good reason. Hard-core bicycle riders want to bike in winter. “Fat” refers to the bike’s fat tires, usually 3.7 inches wide or wider. Those riding in snow deflate their tires to about 8 to 9 pounds pressure so they are riding on a tire making a foot long contact with the snow surface, increasing the bike’s stability. It’s slow going, but quiet. Riders can sometimes frighten wildlife that don’t hear them coming. You can ride anywhere a regular bike is allowed, but be considerate of how slow you are going compared to others using trails. Dress in layers with a wool cap and insulated gloves and boots, same as you would for hiking. Don’t forget snacks and a water bottle for those intermittent breaks.

3.    Paddle water trails. Preparation and safety is essential, as cold water cools the body 25 times faster than cold air. However, there’s nothing more scenic than paddling Iowa’s rivers in the winter with wildlife and bare branches contrasted against the snow. Go when the water is free of ice, plan a short trip and bring polarized sunglasses.

Wear a wool knit hat. Dress with moisture-wicking material next to the skin -- a water sports dry suit will keep you both warm and dry if you have access to one. For an insulation layer, wear wool fabrics. Outer garments should be water- and wind- proof. Neoprene gloves and mittens work well, or use Pogies (gloves that attach to the paddle). Wear water socks, insulated water shoes or boots. Use a spray skirt for your kayak or a spray cover for your canoe, to keep cold water splashes off your lap and body.

Before getting in your boat, stretch and warm up your core with warm tea or broth. Always wear your life jacket. Never paddle alone. Let family or friends know where you are going, what you are doing, and what time they should expect you to call when your trip is completed and you are safe.

4.    Stargaze. Although most of Iowa’s observatories close for winter, the season’s cold nights mean clear skies. Search for free stargazing apps for your smartphone. Generally these apps have star maps of an area superimposed with images of the things they are named after. Here are a couple of celestial events to watch:

Mar. 8 Jupiter at Opposition. The giant planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the sun. This is the best time to view and photograph Jupiter and its moons. A medium-sized telescope should be able to show you some of the details in Jupiter's cloud bands. A good pair of binoculars should allow you to see Jupiter's four largest moons, appearing as bright dots on either side of the planet.

5.    Play Disc Golf. Walking through snow and windy conditions adds more challenge to the sport. Find a list of available courses with the interactive Healthy and Happy Outdoors map at www.iowadnr.gov/h2o.

6.    Collect driftwood on firm lake shores and river banks when ice and snow aren’t gluing driftwood sticks together to the ground. Water flows are generally lower (except during ice jams), leaving logs and branches scattered along the shores and banks. Twisted roots and stripped branches make interesting materials for garden furniture, trellises and free-form sculptures. Be sure to check with park staff and with local and state regulations before removing natural material from an area. The occasional found object such as a rubber boot or bucket could be used as a plant container in the spring. Empty bottles and cans can be returned for spare change. Check overhead for sightings of eagles, hawks and osprey along Iowa waterways.

7.    Create gardens in a terrarium. The north side of tree trunks are excellent places to find moss in the winter and moist woodland areas have ferns to add to tropical plants for a closed terrarium. You can sift sand (a flour sifter works great) found along lakes and streams, and pick up attractive smooth pebbles to layer in your glass container. Accent the terrarium garden with rocks of interesting shapes, and small twisted pieces of driftwood. Or, check your nearby craft stores for colored sand, exotic mosses, tumbled rocks and glass, and other interesting objects to add color and interest to your miniature garden.

For more ideas, check out our Take It Outside and We Love Winter in Iowa boards on Pinterest.

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