If you live in northern states during the winter, you need to learn to enjoy the outdoors or else you will be spending a lot of time indoors.
Even though it’s fun to come up with crafts to do with the kids, it’s nice to be able to get outside and get some fresh air. There are plenty of outdoor activities you can do without acquiring a lot of supplies or spending a lot of money.
If you are going to spend money on anything this winter for outdoor activities, spend it on good gear! What I mean by good gear is invest in quality winter pieces. Yes, a good pair of boots that are guaranteed to -40 °F are more expensive, but you will keep them a long time and you will use them outdoors A LOT and you will enjoy being outdoors so much more.
A quality pair of gloves, jacket, hat and boots are a must. If you can afford them, snowpants or underarmor coldweather clothes will help you enjoy warmer legs, but in some instances layered pants will be just fine. I find that a silo (or gaiter) is helpful in keeping my neck warm, most any scarf will work fine, but I like how a silo does not have any bulk or flapping ends to get in the way when I am active.
Now, with that spiel out of the way about quality cold weather clothes, onto to helping you locate budget-friendly excursions & activities. I will give you ideas on places that generally offer activities and have included some links to websites, but you will need to do searches for these types of locations in your area. Lots of places have activities listed on their website, but it doesn’t hurt to call to see if they have things listed that are not on there.
My favorite places to locate affordable winter activities are through your community park and recreation department (many have gear to check out for free or at a low cost or offer locations within their parks to enjoy the activities), nature centers (often they offer a variety of activities that are free or are low cost that go beyond winter sports, including learning about animals in the winter), and state parks (again, more opportunities for low-cost gear and locations to enjoy winter sports.) Many of my links will be focused on Minnesota or the areas surrounds me that we enjoy, but it will give you an idea of places to go & what to look for.)
We like to go ice skating and own our own skates which saves on skate rental fees. Check if your friends/family have skates their children have outgrown or maybe you can just borrow for the day. Our community offers a free Ice Park with ice rinks they put in and a staffed warming house (although we need to provide our own skates.)
A call to your city hall will help you determine if your community offers any outdoor rinks. A neighboring community parks & rec department offers free outdoor rinks & skating rinks maintained on the river with a staffed chalet with skate rental available. And one other community offers an indoor rink with skate rental, but they also offer a monthly free skate time with a canned food donation. When you call your city parks & recreation department, if there is a cost, be sure to ask if there are any free skate days. I have seen skate rental from $2-$5 typically.
Many MN State Parks offer snow shoe rentals. Call the park you will be going to check on availability and cost. Another place to go snow shoeing is a Nature Center. Our closest (and favorite) nature center is River Bend Nature Center, which does offer snow shoe rental. They also have Snow Shoe Days or their Winterfest where renal is free for members and reduced for non-members. Again, be sure to call and ask at your nature center if there is any days to try them out for free or a reduced price. Expect rental to be about $6-$10.
A childhood favorite! And still a favorite of mine. You don’t need to buy an expesive sled. A $5 circle sled just like the one you had as a kid still works great. Or check with friends who might children who have outgrown their sleds and are taking up space in their garage.
To locate a good (& most often free) sledding hill, either ask a friend with grade school children or call up the city parks and recreation department and ask what is available. Even if they city does not offer a sledding hill, they probably will know where most people in the area do go sledding. Even some MN state parks offer sledding locations.
Expect to pay $12-16 a person to go tubing for a 2-hour session. But some places to offer discounts. Elm Creek Reserve offers a punchcard for a reduced rate, which would save you money if you plan to go often or have a big group. Buck Hill offers a reduced admission of $10 if you are coming to tube for only the last hour (which in my experience the crowd has thinned so you may be able to get in as many turns during this hour that 2 hours during peak times.) Buck Hill also has a cheaper fee if you tube in the evening instead of the day.
Want more ideas? Read Part 2 of the Outdoor Winter Activities on a Budget!