It was the best kind of problem, the kind where any decision is a good one, but one outcome might be slightly better than the others. How is that a problem you ask? Sounds like a good thing, right? And what if I told you that this dilemma was in January here in the frozen northland, and the decision was what to do ‘OUTSIDE!’ That’s right: a dilemma of too many winter activities! What an embarrassment of riches! That may sound crazy to some of you, however, when there is good snow here in northeastern Minnesota there are so many options for snow loving adventurers.
I know that some of you reading this are already rippers on the slopes, whitewater kayaked the St. Louis River at massive flows, bad to the bone bikers, and you can sleep out at 10 degrees below zero. If I didn’t have some respect for the written word I would insert emojis in here of praise be to you, worshipping hands in the air, you adventure beast! And I mean that only half sarcastically. People have accomplished some amazing feats of adventure, like kayaking 100’ waterfalls or skiing off cliffs of equal size or greater. People can be awesome. This article is like preaching to the choir for you. For you diehard adventures, think of this a resource to help in your struggle to get that partner, spouse, friend or relative ‘out and about’ in the winter.
For you newbies this can be a useful resource to springboard you into some winter fun. Also, if you already do one of these activities and thumb your nose at one or many of the others, then I encourage you to look at things from a perspective of opportunity, I will explain. Just keep an open mind.
Dress for Success
First off: there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. You need to be dressed correctly to fully enjoy winter and be safe out there. The name of the game is all about layering. Start out with base layers that wick away moisture and maintain heat even though they might get wet: poly, fleece, and wool are good choices. The saying ‘cotton kills’ refers to its inability to retain body heat once wet. Over your base layers wear insulating layers covered by an outer shell. Depending on the activity you may want an outer shell that can breathe a bit, like when cross country skiing, or one that is wind resistant for downhill skiing.
Here are a couple of good blogs on how to dress for cold weather activities. The first is good for overall cold weather and the second is specific to downhill skiing and snowboarding: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/layering-basics.html
There seems to be a lot of hurdles for people to overcome to get into outdoor activities and adventures. Some are financial, like ‘dude, I can’t afford a fatbike or downhill ski set up.’ That is understandable. Beyond that it seems many hurdles are of the internal/mental variety. From it’s too cold for me, I have no coordination, or a fear of trying new things—my rebuttal: dress for it, you will get muscle memory from repetition, and moving out of your comfort zone helps you grow.
I personally believe one of the biggest hurdles to winter recreation is the feeling of intimidation. More so for skiing, boarding and biking than snowshoeing. Potential new comers can be intimidated by ski lifts, fancy and expensive looking gear, the adventure elite, and those kinds of things.
The outdoor rec industry itself hasn’t always done the best job of promoting things to new comers by focusing too much on the grandiose and elite. For example, many advertising campaigns only by feature hardcore paddlers or skiers hucking their meat off of the biggest and baddest drops. Don’t get me wrong, I think that stuff is awesome, and I love to see athletes push the envelope. I am just referring to the idea that this type of marketing can scare off new comers, same can be said about elitist attitudes.
Fortunately, certain outdoor rec companies are catching on to this and have begun featuring Average Joes and Janes enjoying their gear while also still sponsoring elite athletes and promoting their endeavors. Balance is key.
If you are an elite athlete in your sport then if you truly love that sport and that lifestyle, then please be an ambassador and welcome newbies and stop them from skiing in jeans!
For you Nervous Nelly’s, just give it a try. I suggest going into any new thing with an open heart and an open mind, put forth some effort and who knows what can happen?!
Ok, now that we are dressed for success and have the right attitude to take on new things let’s talk about fun things to do and how to get started. I will refer to the Duluth area as a reference point for locals and tourists visiting the area. I know there are good gear shops and places for recreation in the Twin Cities or north of Duluth, but for brevity we will focus here.
Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding
Gliding on snow is pretty much my favorite thing to do in the winter. I prefer to do so facing forward but for you sideways-snow-gliders I give you props for being out there: either way glide some snow. Gliding snow is exhilarating regardless if you are ripping turns at Mach speed, chasing freshies, or just learning how to ski from a wedge to parallel skiing. It’s got it all: fresh air, exercise, fun and personal challenge. It’s really not that hard to at least try it.
Once you have the fundamentals down, you can ski or board solo (maybe not solo back country) and enjoy some alone time, ski with a buddy, make it a social event, or a family outing. With runs of varying difficulty you don’t need to shred black diamonds to have a good time. You don’t have to become a racer or rad freestyler: you can progress at your pace. I am not saying you shouldn’t progress to any of those things, just different strokes for different folks. You can take it as far as YOU want or just enjoy casual skiing, making big arching turns on a bluebird day. And riding powder is heaven!
If you haven’t skied or boarded in ages or are brand new and have no gear, I say sign up for a rental/lesson package and feel things out. It isn’t the cheapest sport to get into gear wise so make sure it’s what you want to pursue. Spirit Mountain in Duluth has options for rental and lessons to give it a try: https://www.spiritmt.com/
These two shops in D-town often have good intro package deals for skis and snowboards as well as cross country ski gear:
Cross Country Skiing
Overall, this is my favorite winter activity because I love gliding on snow (for me skiing is on par with whitewater kayaking and rafting). I enjoy the exercise and challenge of it, as well as the beautiful places it can take you.
Cross country (xc) skiing is a sport for just about everybody of varying physical abilities. The disciplines within it can suit people of varying interests. From traditional (classic style) to skate skiing to back country, you can find your jam. You can chase hills and speed, or just kick and glide along in gentle terrain.
Fortunately, the Duluth area is Nordic country! From state parks to city trails to private areas, like Snowflake open to the public, there are tons of options. I love gliding on a fast packed and tracked trail as much as I love gliding down a north shore stream. You don’t have to choose just one method, and you don’t have to be a racer head (racer heads I love you).
A lot of folks think that the end game for xc skiing is racing. People ask me all the time ‘Are you training for the Berkie?’ I answer, ’The Berkie is awesome, but no. I just really love skiing for fun and exercise.
Akin to downhill skiing, take it where it leads you personally. Maybe you become a racer, maybe you just like touring for exercise, or maybe you use it to explore the back country like the BWCA: the choice is yours.
I suggest contacting the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club about lessons and group outings:
Also, if you live in the northern Midwest then there are probably community education opportunities to learn xc skiing.
Some diehard skiers are like ‘why would you bike in the winter when you can ski?’ Hey, great question. At first I thought that too. Now, my answer is why do just one thing?
For starters, not every winter is a good snow year, so fatbiking can be a way to save your winter and be active. I look at it like this: if there is fresh snow then downhill ski, then cross country when trails are packed or enjoy fresh snow back country xc skiing. Once it has been a few days since fresh snow and you have skied your brains out by then all the bike trails are usually packed. Then go ride. Rinse and repeat.
If you love biking then why aren’t you fatbiking? It is a heck of a leg workout and single track through winter forests is a beautiful experience. It’s quiet, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, never dull.
Like its Nordic roots, Duluth has become a mountain bike MECCA thanks in huge part to COGGS and IMBA building a connected network of trails with over 89 miles to ride! With trails that range from steep and technical to flowy, you have options.
Checkout COGGS for trail conditions, details on group rides and events: https://www.coggs.com/
The Ski Hut, Continental Ski, Twin Ports Cyclery, Stewarts, Galleria Bicycles, Carlton Bike and Rental in Calrton, and Spoken Gear in Two Harbors are all area bike shops that sell fattys, have demos and group rides. For a guided intro to fatbiking, the Duluth Experience offers fatbike tours: http://www.theduluthexperience.com/
Snowshoeing and Hiking
I included these two activities together because snowshoeing is really hiking, except when there is deep snow snowshoes are required so you don’t posthole through the snow with each step. Akin to xc skiing, snowshoeing can take you away from the crowds and you can enjoy the deep silence of winter.
Most state parks in northern Minnesota have designated snowshoe trails and let you checkout a pair. I prefer a pair with a built in crampon that allows you to climb slippery slopes. Although a classic pair of wood snowshoes have a cool vibe to them.
From REI to L&M Fleet and Farm to online sources like Sierra Trading Posts, snowshoes are easy to find.
If it’s a lackluster snow year then a good hike can be just what the doctor ordered. If it’s icy bring some crampons. There are tons of options for light crampons that can fit over the soles of almost any winter boot.
This is one sport where you really can’t and shouldn’t go it alone. For starters, when climbing you need a climbing partner to belay for you…you know someone to hold the rope, pick up the slack, prevent you from falling, everything that is belaying. So if you get bit by the ice climbing bug find a partner.
Luckily, you can safely get a taste of ice climbing. You can go to events such as The Duluth Ice and Mixed Festival in February where you can try out some easy climbs at Casket Quarry in Duluth. The quarry is now a city park featuring climbing. This will give you a chance to swing an ice axe and stick some ice all while dangling like a human popsicle.
Ice climbing isn’t for everybody, but I will say that when you are all decked out in ice climbing gear (ice crampons, ice axes, climbing harness and a helmet) you look and feel pretty bad ass.
To try out ice climbing check out Duluth Climbers Coalition: https://duluthclimbers.org/
What the heck are you talking about?! Hey, for real it happens. I have whitewater kayaked the St. Louis River in December, paddled Lake Superior during the winter months, and I have friends that surf Lake Superior all year round. If you are or get into paddling, just dress for it and extend your water time—a drysuit sure helps.
There you have it: a plethora of activities! A good snow year truly equates to the land of plenty when it comes to winter adventures in the northland. I will leave this hear for inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivFNO7qorvI
See you on the slopes this winter or on the St. Louis River this summer!