Don't feel the need to hurl yourself down a mountain strapped to a board or two, but still want to play in the snow? Check out snowshoeing. As far as winter sports go, snowshoeing doesn't discriminate. Snowshoeing meets everyone in the middle and is a great way to get acquainted with winter recreation without the usual equipment costs.
The first thing anyone who enjoys snowshoeing will tell you about learning the sport is that if you can walk, you can snowshoe. The ease and accessibility of snowshoeing has made it one of the fastest-growing winter sports, especially in Idaho, where there is easy access to the Nordic trails at Bogus Basin, Tamarack, Sun Valley, the Park 'n Ski areas off of highways 21 and 55, in addition to numerous snowshoeing clinics and free winter rails programs—often with free snowshoe rentals and day passes are offered through several resorts.
REI in Boise offers free snowshoeing clinics for newcomers. The next is a Women's Clinic on Wednesday, Dec. 12. As REI store manager Tom Chelstrom explained, the clinics cover the basics of where to go, what you need to bring with you and how to go about getting outside.
"The first time you go, you're a beginner. The second time, you're intermediate," says Chelstrom. The techniques aren't difficult to master and, unlike other winter sports, more time is spent standing and moving than lying face down.
Peg Havlovick is the director of the Nordic Program at Bogus Basin. She agrees that snowshoeing is a sport for anyone.
"Snowshoeing does not have a technical learning curve, which is part of the reason it's grown," says Havlovick. It has also helped make snowshoeing an outreach tool that schools and community centers in Boise use to get underprivileged, disabled and alternative education groups into the woods and out in the snow.
The Snow School Program at Bogus Basin targets school groups in the fourth through sixth grades. For $5 per student (plus transportation costs), school groups can get into the snow. Kerry McClay is the program coordinator and one of the group leaders, and he notes that the ease of the sport is why they use snowshoeing to get kids outside.
"To be honest, that's why we use snowshoes, they can strap 'em on and head out, and it makes it accessible for everyone," says McClay.
Along the way, the volunteer leaders discuss water cycles, snowpack, snow crystal formation, how plants and animals adapt to the winter environment, and what plants and animals live in the higher alpine elevations. "
It's nice to put [the students] in a situation where [their natural affinity for snow] comes out. Some of these kids haven't been in a winter environment beyond the frost in their front yard," says McClay.
Paul Schoenfelder is the recreation coordinator at Fort Boise Community Center, where outreach programs lead between 15 and 20 teams of youths snowshoeing through the winter months.
"This is a low impact, easy to do, inexpensive ways for kids to get exposed to wintertime sports and get to know the winter environment," says Schoenfelder. "You can go and explore things. You can go anywhere with those snowshoes: down into the gullies and creek bottoms. Get a few feet off the trail and you forget you were on the trail."
The best part about snowshoeing is the low cost of jumping into the sport. "The investment on the front end is less than with skiing, $100 buys a pretty good pair of snowshoes," says Havlovick. And once you have the equipment, all you need is warm, comfortable clothes, a sturdy pair of shoes and a destination.
Bogus Basin is a good place to begin. The resort boasts four snowshoeing trails with two-way traffic and 12 Nordic trails where snowshoers can stay on the outer edge to walk. A day pass costs $5 and a half-day pass is $3. Shoe rental is $10 for the day. For anyone who just wants to try out the sport, marked trails are a great place to start and the possibilities blossom from there.
Chelstrom said that first-timers may want to stay on marked trails, but after the first trip, may get anxious to try something else.
"Frankly, staying on a groomed trail can be boring," Chelstrom says. The only obstacle to getting further afield is finding a place to park your car. Idaho law provides that you can park anywhere you can get all four wheels off the pavement. "Anywhere you can park, you can go snowshoeing," says Chelstrom, "You don't really have to worry about parking your car or finding the trail." Basically, all public lands, once blanketed with snow, can be considered your personal winter playground.
Once you're ready to get off trail, you can buy a seasonal (November to April) Park 'n' Ski trail permit for $25 at just about any sporting goods store and head out Highway 21 to the Gold Fork Trailhead. Gold Fork is a 5-mile groomed trail, but right across the highway, the Summit/Skyline trails can be used to access an extensive trail system from Banner Ridge to the north to Whoop-em-up to the south.
Before you take a flying leap into fluffy piles off marked trails, however, there are a few things to consider. First, always have a backup plan. Let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back. Next, make sure you're prepared by marking out your path and navigating well, wear moisture-wicking clothes in layers and sturdy shoes that support your ankles. Be sure to stay hydrated and take a meal or two plus snacks. And finally, have an emergency kit in your car that holds the essentials of outdoor recreation: map, clothing, compass, food, water, first-aid kit, headlamp or flashlight, fire starter, matches, knife, sunglasses, sunscreen, water filter and whistle.
Like many sports, snowshoeing can expand far beyond the beginner trails. Getting out and away from the crowds into the quiet serenity of nature may lead you into the backcountry, and with Idaho's immense wilderness (the most wilderness in the lower 48 states), this is a great place to learn how to go deep into the woods. In the mountains, avalanche equipment and awareness, as well as rescue skills, are a must, all of which can be learned through clinics and practice. Kirk Bachman of the Sawtooth Mountain Guides will lead the Dec. 19 and Jan. 16 and 19 free clinics at REI on backcountry travel and avalanche awareness. Of course, the crazier you get about the sport, the more the costs can go up, but Chelstrom notes that good gear can greatly increase your enjoyment and maneuverability.
"Though snowshoeing is quite simple, there's a big difference between modern gear and the old wooden shoes you see hanging over someone's fireplace," says Chelstrom.
The more difficult the terrain, the better the workout and the greater the endorphin rush. There's nothing like the body's natural chemicals to get you hooked on the sport and get you outside more often to take advantage of Idaho's wonderful winter environment.