Winter Sports for Beginners: How to Stay out of Hibernation and Keep Fit Year-Round
There seem to be two types of people in the world: those who dread the coming of winter, and those who eagerly await it. The folks in the latter camp—those who inspect the forecast daily for the first falling of fresh powder—usually look forward to cold weather for one simple reason: they love, and live for, winter sports.
While most of us are spending our spare time cuddled under a shawl on the couch with a hot cup of tea, these folks are out enjoying every bit that the season has to offer despite the sub-zero temperatures and disastrous snowstorms. To them, winter is simply the best time of year, and the very best excuse to get outside.
Of course, adrenaline-seekers like snowboarders and backcountry downhill skiers are the flashiest members this group, but there are also plenty of people who enjoy winter sports that are much easier on the body and more accessible to beginners. So why not take a cue from these all-season outdoor enthusiasts and learn a new winter sport, and enjoy better year-round health in the process? It may be easier than you think.
The winter sport with probably the lowest risk of injury, snowshoeing is suited for people of nearly all fitness levels. It's the perfect option for people who love walking or hiking in the woods and miss these recreational opportunities when winter arrives. Stepping in snowshoes in the snow is slightly more strenuous than hiking and burns an impressive number of calories even on flat trails (between 500–1000 per hour). And the best part is, this sport gives you the opportunity to enjoy the serenity of nature without the summer crowds.
It's inexpensive and easy to get started. Outfitters like REI allow you to rent snowshoes and poles for a small fee so you can try out the sport before you commit to buying your own set. In addition to the snowshoes and poles, all you need are your own warm clothes and waterproof boots. Lessons aren't necessary to get started; simply practice walking comfortably on snow in your own backyard. When you're ready to strike out, find a partner and head out on a groomed, well-marked trail in a state park, national park, or ski area—don't venture off-trail into the backcountry unless you have extensive snowshoeing and navigation skills. For a more social outing, or to explore new areas, check networking sites like Meetup.com for information on group snowshoe excursions in your area.
Snowshoeing too slow-paced for you? Cross-country skiing might be just the thing. It's more aerobic than snowshoeing, and allows you to cross more ground at a faster clip. It does, however, take a little more time to learn. Posture and style are extremely important in cross-country skiing to avoid aches, pains, and injury. Beginners are best off if they take a lesson from a local ski resort or park district—if the lesson includes free gear rental, you'll get extra bang for your buck. Once you've tried the sport and decide you like it, you can either rent gear from an outdoor retailer or take the jump and buy your own. This sport requires more equipment than snowshoeing—you'll need skis, boots, bindings, and poles—and so it's wise to shop in-person at a retail outlet to ensure you're getting the right gear for your height, weight, and planned activity type.
Non-snowmobilers might be surprised at the extensive trail network that exists in the northern United States. Wisconsin alone has 25,000 trail miles connecting every corner of the state. Local and state snowmobile associations across the nation have detailed trail maps that anyone can access, making it easier than ever to hop on a snowmobile and enjoy a daylong or multi-day trip. And though it isn't obvious to the naked eye, snowmobiling is actually a good workout, helping to build muscle in the arms, back, and abs, as well as the inner thighs.
The downside? The cost, of course. The price of a new snowmobile isn't much different than that of a slightly used car, putting this sport out of the reach of many. However, some tour companies offer snowmobile tours of scenic areas that include a guide, a rented snowmobile, and a simple driving lesson, making it perfect for people who want to try the sport but aren't willing to invest in a major piece of equipment. Companies like Jackson Hole Snowmobile Tours (operating in Yellowstone National Park), Vail Snowmobile Tours (which takes in the Continental Divide), and White Lake Snow Tours (in the Adirondack Mountains), can take you on a group or custom tour to pristine areas that can be out of reach even in high summer.