When the temperatures drop and the snow starts to fall, many people opt to stay inside rather than head out into the great outdoors. While we all like to snuggle up by a wood stove with a cup of tea during the colder months, it turns out that the winter season is one of the best times to get out and enjoy the beauty of the natural world. Especially in parts of the world with ample snowfall, the wintertime opens up opportunities for a whole host of activities that just aren’t possible during the spring, summer, and fall.
New to the world of winter sports? Don’t worry, we’ve got the ultimate guide to snowsports, coming right up, so you can have a better idea of the fun that awaits you before you head outside this winter season. Let’s get to it!
Perhaps the simplest of all of the activities you can do in the snow, snowshoeing is a way to travel on snow without sinking up to your hips in deep powder. Back in the day, snowshoeing was just another way to get around during the winter months, but in recent decades, it has become a pretty popular recreational pursuit.
Thankfully, snowshoeing doesn’t require any special skills and the only specialized pieces of equipment one needs are a pair of snowshoes and a good pair of trekking poles for balance. Since there are many different kinds of snowshoes out there and snowshoeing for the first time can feel a bit awkward, we recommend hiring a guide for a day hike into the mountains, just so you can master the basics before heading out on your own.
See our Guide To Snowshoeing for more on this winter sport.
Skiing is an incredibly popular activity that, like snowshoeing, originated as a form of transport in the winter months. These days, there are many different kinds of skiing, so we’ll talk about the most popular forms here.
Cross Country Skiing
Cross country skiing is a form of “Nordic” skiing where one travels across long distances of flat or rolling snow-covered terrain solely under human power. Modern cross country skis tend to be much narrower than the skis you’d use in “alpine” or “downhill” skiing, as they’re meant to be lighter and more nimble over longer distances.
Cross country skis feature unlocked heel bindings, which means the foot freely moves around a pivot point, usually located at the toe, which is better for forward propulsion. There are two main disciplines of cross country skiing: classic and skate.
Classic skiing is, as the name suggests, the original technique used for cross-country skiing. In this technique, skiers propel themselves forward in a striding and gliding motion, alternating between each foot as they move forward. Classic skiing can be done on either ungroomed tracks or on prepared trails that have a pair of parallel grooves cut into the snow.
Skate-skiing is an alternative form of cross country skiing where skiers propels themselves forward using a kick and glide motion similar to what one would do while ice skating. Skate-skiing is generally reserved for use on groomed trails and many new skiers find it to be more challenging than the classic technique.
In direct contrast to cross country or “Nordic” skiing, “Alpine” skiing is when one slides down a snow-covered slope using a pair of skis with fixed-heel bindings. Alpine skiing is what most people think of when they think of recreational skiing, as it is typically practiced at ski resorts with groomed trails and ski lifts. However, Alpine skiing can also happen off-piste (outside a maintained resort) as a form of “backcountry” skiing, which we’ll discuss in a bit.
In the world of skiing, telemark, or tele, skiing is the odd one out. Telemark combines elements of both alpine and Nordic skiing. When tele skiing, one uses an alpine-type ski with a free heel binding, which allows the skier to make the unique “telemark turn” while moving downhill. Telemark skiing can be practiced both at a resort and in the backcountry.
Backcountry Skiing (Ski touring)
Backcountry skiing is any form of skiing that takes place outside of an established resort. Generally speaking, backcountry skiing is human-powered, though one can pay for the luxury of being taken to the top of a backcountry mountain or slope in a helicopter or snowcat.
More often than not, backcountry skiers use either telemark or alpine-touring (alpine skis with bindings that have freely moving heels, which can be locked down for the descent) skis. On the uphill section of their route, backcountry skiers generally use “ski skins,” which allow their skis to climb up relatively steep slopes without slipping. On the downhill section of the route, the skiers get to enjoy a nice, sometimes challenging, descent with minimal crowds and beautiful backcountry landscapes.
Although snowboarding and alpine skiing are both practiced in similar locales, they do have some important differences. Like alpine skiing, snowboarders glide downhill over snow. Unlike skiers, however, snowboarders attach both of their feet to one board (the snowboard), which they use to slide downslope.
Snowboarding was originally inspired by skateboarding and surfing, though it is now a true discipline in its own right. Although most snowboarders stay in-bounds at resorts, the advent of “splitboards,” which turn into skis for uphill travel and revert back into a snowboard for the downhill, have made backcountry snowboarding much more popular in recent years.
Backcountry safety in the winter
Although winter is a fantastic time of year to head outside and enjoy the natural world, the winter season poses some unique risks to backcountry travelers. If you plan to ski or snowshoe in the backcountry, you need to be prepared with the proper equipment for staying warm and dry in frigid conditions.
Additionally, navigation in the winter is very different from summertime navigation as trails can be difficult or impossible to find. Finally, avalanches are a major hazard for most winter backcountry travelers. Thus, unless you already have an extensive background in winter navigation and avalanche fundamentals and rescues, it is highly recommended that you hire an experienced guide to accompany you on your adventures until you build up the requisite knowledge to comfortably venture into the backcountry on your own.
A professional mountain guide and experienced outdoor educator, Gaby enjoys traveling and exploring the world’s most remote locales. As a writer and editor, Gaby has written for a variety of climbing and travel blogs, news sites, and climbing magazines. She is currently finishing a master’s degree in outdoor education but in her free time, Gaby loves a strong cup of coffee and searching for the next great adventure. You can check out more of Gaby’s work on her website: www.gabypilson.com