Many of us in the northern latitudes have a love/hate relationship with the winter months. There is nothing better than a bluebird day with friends on the mountain after a fresh storm, but let's face it: How many of those do we get each season? The short days and cold temperatures make it tough to get the outdoor time we crave, and that is when cabin fever can set in for the unprepared. One way to keep your spirits high after the holidays is to try out some new and unusual winter sports. So bundle up, because it's gonna be a cold one!
One of the best ways to take your seasonal game to the next level is to become familiar with the ever-intimidating winter backcountry. Having the right gear and knowledge to become a true alpine backcountry skier/boarder takes years of experience and thousands of dollars in gear, but even those people had to start somewhere. A pair of snowshoes might be my all-time best winter investment in terms of cost effectiveness. They set me back less than $100 and have given me year after year of winter enjoyment. Another great option is to get your hands on some backcountry cross-country skis through renting or buying a used pair online. Both of these options will get you more experience outside of the ski resorts and begin to prepare you for a whole new world of terrain and adventure. I highly recommend taking an avalanche safety class to learn how to recognize suspect terrain for anyone headed out.
It sounds cold just saying "winter camping," but with the right gear, it can be one of the most unique experiences you will ever have. You've never heard silence or seen stillness quite like a sunrise in sub-freezing temps. Many people do this for the sole purpose of getting a jump on some backcountry skiing, but it can be super fun just as a new way to enjoy the winter. Staying active is a great way to fend off the cold, so while you are out there, take a shot at building a snow cave. Learn how here. This is one of those activities that would be smart to try out near your home before heading too far into the wild. Attempt an overnighter in the tent in your backyard on a super cold night, or try building your first snow cave at a nearby park to get a practice run in. Learn more tips here.
Staying overnight in a tent during winter is pretty hardcore, even for most outdoor enthusiasts. Booking a yurt for a few nights, on the other hand, is downright cozy, comfortable, and full of charm. Most come with at least a wood burning stove, while others have propane heaters to keep everyone toasty. Even with sub-zero temperatures outside, the thick canvas keeps the cold where it belongs while giving the patrons enough space to stand up and spread out. There are yurts available to book all over the U.S., especially in the West, and they offer a wide variety of amenities. Some of our favorites can be found here.
There is something so rugged and primal about the Iditarod, the world-famous dog sled race that traverses the Alaskan wilderness for a thousand miles. Only a tiny few will ever experience this ultimate test of human and canine spirits, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't have a little taste. Tour guides, outfitters, and kennels across the northern parts of the U.S. readily provide tourists with the chance to be pulled by a team of dogs across winter terrain, and it is easily one of the most unique ways to enjoy the season. Sitting on a sled for an hour being pulled by dogs not quite enough adrenaline for you? Look no further than dog sledding's crazy cousin, skijoring. Grab some skis, a 30-foot rope, and someone with a horse, because its about to get real. Check out this video to get an idea of the mayhem involved in this niche activity that is not for the faint of heart.
Have you ever seen someone driving home from the woods in December with a tree strapped to the top of their car and wondered, "How the heck can I do that?" Well, it's not as hard as you think as long as you apply for a permit and follow these rules laid out by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture. The pride you get from finding and cutting down your own tree far exceeds that gained from visiting your local dealer. It can become a tradition that your family always looks forward to, or at least a funny memory of that one year that you all ended up covered in sap and pine needles. Don't let the Griswolds have all the fun...round up the kids and go find yourselves a tree!
Could millions of Midwesterners be out of their minds? Or is there more to the frigid sport than most of my fellow Westerners understand? Large swaths of the country would not consider ice fishing as rare or unique, but it is still a niche sport out in the West and something all anglers should add to their repertoire. Just like with any sport in the cold, there is a certain level of skill and equipment that amateurs simply don't have, even if they are avid fishers in the summer. I recommend going with someone who knows the ropes or getting hooked up with a guide or outfitter. As with fishing during any time of year, the best times are had with a few friends and a few drinks.
For many people, the winter weather that puts an end to the mountain biking season is a sad eventuality. Normally we put the bikes away for the winter or convert them into stationary rides for the indoors. This all started to change around 2005 when the first fat bikes were released. The wide, deeply treaded tires of these new frames allow people to continue their passions year round and provide a whole new way to keep cabin fever at bay. They don't work in all conditions or on all terrain types, but they do allow you to vastly expand the number of days you can ride each year. Purchasing one might be a stretch for most people, but many outfitters now rent them in ski towns, so give one a try this winter.
Dog Sledding Photo: Hemsedal Aktiv