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Alpine, Skinny or Snowshoe?

The winter sports trifecta: three days, three sports! Which one should you choose and why?

So many of us think of downhill skiing and snowboarding first when we think of winter sports - and why not? It's a roughly $20 billion industry. It's fast, exciting, shiny, and very expensive.

I grew up in the downhill ("alpine") skiing industry but also have an appreciation for other winter sports, such as cross country and snowshoe. I recently carved out an opportunity to do all THREE of these things back to back (to back), to truly compare and contrast them. How do they rate?

Downhill Skiing

Hilltop beverage break. Downhill skiing, Mt. Hood Meadows Resort, Mt. Hood, Oregon

Ok. Downhill skiing (and snowboarding) are just.... a lot. A lot of flash, a lot of excitement, a lot of cutting edge technology. It's also a lot of money, a lot of work, and honestly, a lot of risk.

First, the excitement. It's just plain COOL. With notably cool personalities like Glenn Plake and Shawn White (among others) representing, epic and ridiculously awesome fashion statements like this and now this, and memorable movies like Hot Dog (yes it was terrible but you can't forget it either), it's just thrilling to be part of it all. And that's not even mentioning the untouchable filmmaker Warren Miller (RIP), whose annual movies each November had us all scrambling to pull out our gear in time for opening day.

In fact, skiing and snowboarding are so cool that, for some people, a lot of it is just being seen. I've actually known too many people that were far more about looking good than actually skiing. But if someone's not too athletically inclined and they want to be near the fun, who could blame them?!? Apres-ski (after ski) happy hour can be the stuff of legends, both here in the U.S. and worldwide!

Technology. I've been in the ski world for a long time (less so these days) and have seen some incredible advancements in the technology of ski equipment. Skis, boots, and snowboards are works of art that are amazingly responsive to a user's movement, and this makes downhill skiing extremely fun.

The money. Daaaaaamn, people spend a lot on this sport! As I said, it's a roughly $20 billion industry. So much to spend money on:

  • Lift tickets. In the U.S., daily lift ticket prices range from $20 (Michigan's Mulligans Hollow) to $199 (Vail in Colorado). Again that's per day, per person!

  • Equipment

  • Clothing

  • Transportation costs

  • Food and drink

  • Parking fees

  • Equipment rentals and/or lessons

  • Lodging

The work. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but it's true. It's a LOT of gear to carry around and keep track of, and it feels like it all weighs twice as much by the end of the day. Especially after a long day of outdoor activity in cold temps, when your body is exhausted. Add in a potentially long, snowy drive both ways, sometimes in inclement weather, in traffic, in the dark, and trust me, you're mentally zapped by the time you crawl into bed.

The risk. Again, I'm the downer here. But it's true! Between the three sports in question, it's definitely the highest risk. The most common downhill ski injury is to the knee - a whopping 43%, according to this recent Vail Injury Study.

DOWNHILL TIP #1: Take a lesson (or two). Your first time out can be super overwhelming and frustrating. Learning fundamentals from a pro can make ALL the difference in your success, as well as in your attitude about the sport itself. As a matter of fact, even if you've been skiing for years and you want to periodically check in with a pro to make sure you haven't developed any bad habits... totally worth an hour (or more) of your time.

DOWNHILL TIP #2: Dress to prevent being cold and wet. Sure, you're going to work up a sweat when you're actually skiing, but you'll spend a ton of time either sitting on the lift motionless or waiting in a lift line. Also, if you're a new skier, you'll be falling often, and likely be getting a little wet. Do yourself a favor and wear good gear that keeps you warm and dry.

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross country skiing, Sahalie Falls, Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cross-country, or "skinny" skiing, was introduced to me not long after we moved to Oregon. Our resort had (has) a great dedicated nordic area and I went out on occasion with nordic instructors to learn correct techniques.

I always remember fondly how peaceful it was to be out in the silent forest, and how different an experience it was from the activity of all the downhill skiers. Cross-country is easily accessible, relatively inexpensive, peaceful, fast-paced, and one helluva workout.

Accessible. Got snow? You can likely cross country ski on it. You don't need a resort. And you don't need a ski lift to get where you're going! However, keep in mind that you're still on skis, so you can't necessarily go anywhere...

Inexpensive. Every element of cross country skiing is cheaper than downhill. The equipment is cheaper (not that you couldn't choose to spend more, but you don't have to). You don't have to buy a lift ticket.

Peaceful. Leave behind the noise and the crowds of the day lodge and head out into the silent wilderness. While out cross country skiing I've seen deer and bunnies; something that definitely wouldn't happen closer to the resort. All this and you can go out as long (or as short) as you want and don't have to feel pressure to stay out all day like you do when you purchase a lift ticket.

Fast-paced. Sure, cross country skiing is FAR slower than downhill! But if you're comparing cross country and snowshoeing, you definitely will cover far more mileage on skis.

Workout. There's a reason why so many people have workout equipment that simulates cross country skiing. It's tough! It provides a serious all-body workout. But hey, you may be less inclined to complain about it if you're enjoying the scenery as you sweat...

CROSS-COUNTRY TIP #1: Again... do yourself a favor and take a damn lesson. Those suckers are slippery! This can be overwhelming and frustrating. Learning fundamentals from a pro can make all the difference in your success, as well as in your attitude about the sport itself. Totally worth an hour of your time.

CROSS-COUNTRY TIP #2: Clothing... less is more! You'll be getting one heck of a workout, so keep the clothing light, flexible, and breathable. Bulky layers will get in your way, so leave your heavy parka at home.


Snowshoeing to Mirror Lake, Mt. Hood, Oregon

Before this winter, I'd only snowshoed one other time. I just always chose to ski instead and never had someone push a pair of snowshoes in my direction! But it's got obvious benefits - you can just throw on a pair (no need for exact sizing) and head OUTSIDE! Snowshoeing is super accessible, very flexible, slow-paced, and most like hiking.

Accessible. You don't need to invest in an expensive pair of snowshoes that fit you precisely. You can use a pair of "ladies" size and they adjust to you! This also means you can easily borrow them, which is great when you're first trying them out.

Very flexible. When I first put them on they felt extremely silly and cumbersome. After about the first 10-15 minutes I thought, "Yep, snowshoes are stupid."

But I kept them on, and after around 30 minutes I started to really see their benefit. I could go ANYWHERE. Sure, I was on a semi-groomed trail, but I could step off the trail into the deep snow and still be fine. I could go straight downhill or back up, and feel totally secure. I could even run in them!

Slow-paced. You won't be breaking any time records with these, but that's kind of the point. Pack a lunch and take your sweet time!

Pretty much a winter hike. Snowshoeing feels pretty darn near hiking. You can go just about anywhere. While cross-country gives you a lot of freedom, snowshoeing gives you even more. The workout is similar to hiking too, but a bit harder because you're having to maneuver the snowshoes differently (and more) than you would your own hiking boots. But not much more!

SNOWSHOE TIP #1: What to wear? Less is more. Like with cross-country skiing, you'll be moving most of the time. Wear layers that you can peel off, and definitely skip the bulky clothes - they will get in your way quickly.

SNOWSHOE TIP #2: Wear either tall boots, waterproof pants that come down over the shoe, or gaiters, to protect from snow being flipped into the backs of your shoes. It only happened occasionally for me the first time, but it was enough that I'd have to periodically scoop out the snow from my boots. And my socks were soaked by the time I finished!

A Quick Recap

Downhill Skiing:

  • More exciting/thrilling.

  • Fast-paced.

  • Skis really maneuverable.

  • Very expensive.

  • Lots of gear needed.

  • Relatively higher risk of injury.

Cross Country Skiing:

  • More accessible. You do not need a ski resort.

  • Less expensive to get into than downhill.

  • No need for a chairlift or lift ticket.

  • Better (harder) workout.

  • Fewer people - trails usually not as crowded as a ski resort.

  • Faster paced than snowshoeing - can cover more mileage faster.


  • More accessible. You do not need a ski resort.

  • Even easier to get into - very inexpensive, and snowshoes fit lots of shoe sizes.

  • No need for a chairlift or lift ticket.

  • Similar workout to hiking.

  • Slowest pace.

So, which do I prefer? I just can't say - they're honestly different moods. But I am hoping Santa brings me some skinny skis I can call my very own... That beautiful wilderness is calling to me!

Which do you prefer and why? I'd love to hear about it.

Happy winter trails!


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