In some ways, it would be really nice if someone could flip a switch and "start" winter. But then, again, we'd probably all fight over when to start winter and when to shut it off. (My vote would be for Nov. 1 to May 1 ... but I'd be willing to compromise to Nov. 15 to April 15).

These shoulder seasons, when we are waiting for winter to really take hold (or, conversely, to really let go) present some particularly interesting challenges for Active Outdoors enthusiasts. Winter means cold, snow and ice, but in the shoulder season, depending on where you are, you may encounter all, some or none.

While we have had some genuine cold, and even some snow in places so far this season, there's heavy rain in the forecast as I write this, and we can't claim that winter has really arrived. That said, anyone who had planned to climb Mount Washington last weekend probably had to change their plans. On Sunday (Nov. 24), according to the data kept by the Mount Washington Observatory (mountwashington.org), the high temperature for the day was -6 F., the low temp was -15, the wind averaged 85 mph all day with the highest gust 126 mph. Bet THAT felt like winter ... Weather like that is a good reminder that if you head away from a road at this time of year, you have to be prepared for anything you might encounter -- and be prepared to change plans if things get bad.

Last winter was slow in arriving, too (at least by my standards), and I had two good "reminders" of how important it is to be prepared for the unexpected. I'll keep both in mind as I wait for winter this year.

The day after Christmas, I was out climbing Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire to break in a brand-new pair of mountaineering boots. The lower section of the trail I was climbing had a light dusting of snow on it, but the footing was good. Only once the trail started to climb did it become a solid sheet of ice, Fortunately, I had traction aids in my pack (along with extra clothing, a headlamp and an emergency kit) and was able to safely continue my hike. Without them, I'd have had to turn around. Traveling alone means you have to be extra cautious.

My second adventure came in late January on a backcountry ski trek in the Adirondacks. It had been below zero for three nights running and my companions and I decided to avoid a rocky trail section by skiing across a frozen pond. All went well until I broke through and ended up pretty wet on a 14-degree morning.

Spare clothes from our backpacks let me get dry and warm enough to ski back to safety fairly comfortably, but it could have been a lot worse. I've since purchased several small dry bags to carry spare long underwear, socks, and liner gloves, and to keep my spare clothes dry. Even wearing Gore-Tex, if you fall into water (though the ice ... crossing a stream ...) when it's cold, you are going to get wet and you need to get dry clothes on for safety.

Just as a reminder, go to the Hike Safe website (hikesafe.com) and brush up on the essentials. Before you head out into the wilds (even to cut a Christmas tree from one of the national forests), you need to consider where you are going, who you are going with, and what you need to stay comfortable and get back safely. It's true all year, but especially now, when winter is lurking nearby and could start any time. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com