Whether you’re a winter sport daredevil or only in it for the mulled wine, dust off your mittens for these alternative winter sports. Give standard skiing and snowboarding a wide berth with a few frosty favourites perfect for beginners, or test your snowy sport expertise by scaling ice or soaring up high. There’s an avalanche of choice, so wrap up warm and hit the snow.
1. Snowkiting in the northeastern USA
This sport will keep accomplished skiers and snowboarders on their toes – literally. Snowkiting gives you the sensation of weightless skiing, with a power kite speeding the snowkiter along or lifting them above the ground. The experienced (and brave) can also spin into mid-air acrobatics. A combination of skiing and kite-flying, using some of the principles of sailing to steer, snowkiting allows you to glide easily on flat land assisted by the breeze, or even ski uphill.
Sail away. Snowkiters need plenty of icy or snowy space and a breeze to play with, and the northeastern USA in winter has plenty of each. Beginners can get a helping hand at the Superior Kiteboarding School, which offers snowkiting lessons in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The pristine lakes of New Hampshire are also a popular spot for snowkiting.
2. Snowshoeing in the French Alps
Tread merrily over frosty plains on a snowshoe walk. Snowshoes distribute your weight over a larger area, stopping you from sinking into the snow. And the dark age of cartoonish tennis rackets strapped to your feet is over, giving way to daintier models with killer grip. This formidable footwear will keep you upright on snowy terrain, allowing you to take in breathtaking expanses of white rolling hills (and get a fantastic workout as you walk).
Step out. You don’t need much training to walk in snowshoes, just practice: you’ll have to walk slowly, steadily and with a slight rolling gait to start off. Most ski rental stores will hire them out, along with trekking poles to jab into the snow to save you from a slippery fall. You can snowshoe across the globe, around Lapland, the USA and eastern Europe. Morzine-Avoriaz, a winter sports hub in the French Alps, is a great choice as it has suggestions galore for snowshoe treks and tips on easy trails for beginners.
3. Ice fishing in Finland
Tranquillity, silence and staying still: yes, fishing still counts as a sport, and it can be done just as well through a hole in a thick layer of ice as on a warm summer’s day. This pastime creates red noses across Scandinavia and eastern Europe, and Finland is a great choice to drink in glacial views as you wait for a bite. Just don’t forget your thermal underwear.
Cast a line. Stepping out onto an unknown frozen lake could be fatal and failing to research fishing permits could land you a fine. Helsinki’s tourist office has some helpful resources for getting a fishing licence and novice ice fishers should start with a tour operator. They’ll be able to arrange an excursion to a monitored fishing spot, to ensure our slippery waterborne friends are safe from overfishing. They can also supply you with equipment and help drill through the ice safely. Go prepared so you don’t hurtle through some thin ice; save your lake plunge for the bracing Finnish pastime of ice swimming.
4. Dog-sledding in Norway
Feel the fresh air rush past your face as you glide through Scandinavian snowlands, a pack of lively husky dogs towing you at speed. Dog-sledding is a breathtaking thrill ride and plenty of tourist boards across Scandinavia arrange day excursions for total beginners. But if you imagine the bounding hound dogs will be doing all the work, think again: make sure you’re in good shape and expect sore arms in the morning.
Mush! Take a visit to the Villmarkssenter outside Tromsø in Norway to canoodle with friendly husky pups before a day excursion on a sled. Some tour packages will also warm your cockles with an authentic Sami feast of reindeer stew.
5. Ice climbing in Europe’s Chamonix Valley
If snowkiting doesn’t give you enough of a bird’s-eye view, then ice climbing will give you the adrenaline-laced vertigo you crave. Scaling ice falls is not for the faint-hearted (or inexperienced), so if you want to feel the thrill, sign up for a beginners’ class and prepare to hold on tight.
Reach new heights. The ice falls of Chamonix, across the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland, have plenty of sites for ice climbers are the perfect place to test your nerves. The best spots are driveable from Chamonix and there are plenty of beginners’ courses to choose from. The mountainous views are beautiful enough to be very distracting, but while clinging to an icy edge we suggest you don’t look down.
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Originally published December 2011. Last updated October 2019.