As we come smack into the middle of the coldest part of the year, many of us have retreated under cozy blankets, huddled with hands around warm drinks and consuming comfort foods. January through March is mini-hibernation time for thousands across the Northwest. While it might seem logical to stay inside and wait out the cold until spring, being sedentary for too long can lead to weight gain, low motivation and feelings of downright grumpiness. It can be a challenge to get motivated to exercise during the winter months, but a great way to keep in shape and see some amazing outdoor scenery is on snowshoes or on cross country skis. There are countless trails with miles of back country to explore. From flat, easy loops to mountain top hikes featuring stunning views and untouched powder, the options seem limitless. Both are easy to learn, and as you progress, you’ll soon be looking for the latest and greatest gear and far-out trails.
Snowshoeing has seemingly been around since humans have lived in frozen environments. People all around the world learned long ago that by spreading out the surface area under their feet, they would not sink nearly as deep into snow drifts, making getting to places easier and a lot less work. Through much of time wood was the primary material available, and snowshoes resembled giant tennis rackets. Today, you’ll find a much more efficient mode of travel with shoes that are typically only 2 to 3 feet in length and built from ultra-light and strong materials often weighing less than 5 pounds each. Crampons along the bottom of the shoe give you added grip in varying terrain and ice, and most people also bring hiking poles for added balance. Just slip your sturdy winter boots into the shoes and you’re ready to go.
Cross country skis have also evolved from 7- to 8-foot long solid wood gliders to unbelievably light weight cambered skis that allow you more push with each motion. There are two common forms of cross country skiing. Classic style is used inside a grooved track. Keeping both skis in the track, the skier pushes down and launches himself forward on one ski, then glides until momentum slows and does the same with the other ski. Freestyle or skate skiing requires a little more coordination. Skiers go outside the track to the groomed flat surface and use a skating motion much like you would see on a sheet of ice. This allows the skier to go much faster but takes more time to master.
Where to begin
Ideally, you’ll want to begin in the gym on a cardio machine. Going straight from the couch to cross country will really punish the lungs, and you might not be able to go very far. Even those who train year-round will tell you the first day on skis gets their heart rate up quickly. This is also one of the excellent benefits to the sport. Cross country skiing is one of the best full body exercises you can do. As you push with your poles, you are engaging your biceps, triceps and shoulders. When you kick with your legs, you’re utilizing quads, hamstrings, calves and abdominal muscles. Your heart rate accelerates, giving you an excellent aerobic workout, plus your body tends to burn more calories exercising in the cold. With so much activity going on you warm up quickly so even on cold days most skiers wear lightweight caps, gloves, and jackets and you won’t need to bundle in bulky clothing.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of snowshoeing or cross country skiing, a good place to start is usually at your nearest ski mountain. Many of our resorts and mountains have separate groomed trails for cross country and snowshoeing. They can also provide rental equipment so you can try before you buy. Check with outdoor stores like REI for lessons and group events, and Nordic Clubs. Equipment can also typically be rented from these retailers. The hiking and biking trails at state parks are often converted into groomed trails during winter as well. Check with your closest park to see if it is accessible during winter months. Seeing your favorite hiking trail in winter often gives you a completely different perspective than during the spring and summer months.
Winthrop, Washington: Few people know that the largest groomed Nordic ski trail system in the country is right in our backyard. The Methow Valley surrounding Winthrop has 120 miles of continually groomed trails. The interconnected trail system is surrounded by more than a million acres of forestland which offers incredible scenery as you glide around the trails. Local naturalists also provide scheduled scenic snowshoe hikes at a variety of distances. Guests learn about the surroundings while taking in some truly awe inspiring views. This is also one of the best places for dog lovers as 35 miles of the trails are open to dogs. If you have a mutt that loves to run, consider skijoring. Place a harness around your dog and one around yourself (typically a rock climbing harness) and let your dog pull you around the track.
Glacier National Park, Montana: Millions visit “The Crown Jewel of the Continent” each summer but you’ll find far fewer crowds, more affordable lodging, and miles upon miles of snowshoeing and back country skiing come winter. Ski loops along beautiful Lake McDonald or hike up the Going To The Sun Road which is closed to vehicles during winter months. A stay in nearby Whitefish gives you access to all kinds of entertainment as well as downhill opportunities at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
McCall, Idaho: With five different Nordic areas McCall has trails for all levels, dog friendly skiing and snowshoeing, and even a biathlon course. Well known for year round outdoor adventure, there are also downhill mountains, ice fishing and snow tubing. You can end your day with a soak in one of the many natural hot springs in the surrounding areas.
Cross country skiing and snowshoeing not only provide a great way to keep active in winter, but an opportunity to explore the mountains that surround us. The woods go silent during winter and when you’ve left the parking lot and ventured out a few miles, you’ll be amazed at the quiet and tranquility you’ll experience.
These are lifelong activities that everyone from young children up can enjoy. Taking the family out for a day in the woods is a great way to come together, teaches your children about nature, and they’ll sleep hard after a day of pushing through the snow. Seek out the trails in your area or next time you’re on a weekend ski trip, carve out a little time to try cross country skiing or hike around in today’s high tech snowshoes. With miles and miles of trails across the Northwest, you’ll never run out of places to visit and explore. There are still months of winter ahead of us and that blanket and hot chocolate at the end of the day will feel all the better after a day spent skiing or snowshoeing.