Just when any dreams of deep powder days had diminished to a fool's hope, January has delivered with over a foot of snow over the last week. Here's our breakdown of which winter recreation activity is best suited for these wonderland conditions.
Let's kick this off with an undeniable truth: winter is the most polarizing season.
No, that's not a nod to the north and south poles existing in a state of perpetual, Narnia-like winter. Despite the abundant love that us Midwesterners have for living in our "four season climate," there's also a common joke that Florida is Michigan's "lower-er peninsula" due to the annual snowbird migration from our region. We've already covered this topic at length, but the mid-November to mid-March evaporation of recreationists on Michigan trails demonstrates just how cold-averse humans truly area.
Then there's the other faction of outdoor enthusiasts - the "Winter Believers." The Expedition Detroit archetype of recreationist. One who hits the trail regardless of the conditions, seizing on an opportunity to fully experience our natural environment during heat, rain, sleet, darkness, and certainly the freezing cold. For this adventure seeker, each fresh layer of snow represents a blank canvas, a pristine trail just waiting to be explored. Who cares if its your favorite local out-and-back - that spotless blanket of powder represents a clean slate and fresh opportunity for first tracks, re-establishing you as the first trailblazer to embark on its route.
That's why we love winter. Beyond the open trails, crisp air, and beauty of a snow-covered landscape, our coldest season provides daily opportunities for new recreational opportunities. Snow is the only natural phenomena that transforms your ability to engage with and explore terrain literally overnight. The powder dump that Mother Nature finally blessed us with over the past few days proves that theory in spectacular fashion.
Winter Believers do tend to struggle with one decision in these powder conditions, however: what is the best way to experience our snow-covered trails? Should I bust out the snowshoes for the first time this season or lace up the hiking boots? Is this the season to finally give cross-country skiing a go? Which activity fits within my budget or fitness goals?
We dive into each of these questions and more ahead as we breakdown a winter trail's three most popular winter recreational sports: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snow hiking.
Best Conditions: Any quality snow; accumulation of at least 6 inches
Equipment Required: Snow shoes and trekking poles
Thrill Factor: 🤟🤟
Skill Factor: Minimal skill acquisition required.
Cost Factor: 💵 💵 💵 ($100-250 for snow shoes and trekking poles)
Why You Should Snowshoe
As "long-time" Expedition Detroit readers know (and hopefully appreciate), we don't like to hide information behind the proverbial 8 ball in our articles. What I mean by that statement is that if we believe that a piece of equipment, trail, or advocacy cause is good or valuable to our readers, we declare that statement as straightforward as we can. The opposite is obviously true for any aspects of Detroit's outdoor ecosystem that we strongly disagree with.
For the purposes of this article, snowshoeing will check almost every box as the best-suited winter recreational activity for the vast majority of readers. For starters, as long as the snow quantity - not quality - metric of at least 6 inches is hit, then you have the climate's green light for snowshoeing. Yes, that means even in icy, somewhat slushy, or very deep powder conditions, snowshoes will easily and efficiently guide you through the least hospitable of Great Lakes trail winter conditions.
Snowshoeing also attracts most winter recreationists due to the minimal amount of equipment required, the relative affordability of that equipment, and the negligible amount of skill required for proficiency on snowshoes. Beyond obviously acquiring a sturdy pair of snowshoes, we strongly recommend acquiring multi-sport trekking poles for additional stability. Otherwise, always remember to dress appropriately for the conditions, but note that your body temperature will warm up dramatically as you engage the trail. You will burn noticeably more calories snowshoeing vs. hiking, especially given the additional weight on your feet.
Opt Out of Snowshoeing
There's really only two reasons why you may want to leave the snowshoes at home for wintry trail outing: (1) the snow accumulation is too low or (2) you are looking for an especially high or low-intensity workout experience. For snow accumulation, snowshoeing should be your default activity if there's more than 6 inches of powder on the ground; conversely, you will most likely have a miserable time in on the trail if you're snowshoeing over 3 inches of light snow.
Likewise, if you're looking for a high-intensity workout, complete with fast downhills and heart-thumping climbs, snowshoeing will leave you wanting in comparison to cross-country skiing. Hiking is on the other end of the spectrum - especially if you're only looking to ease into winter recreation with a leisurely stroll in low-snow conditions, lace up your trusted boots and leave the big ones in the closet.
Best Conditions: Groomed or maintained trails; accumulation of less than 3 inches
Equipment Required: Cross-country or nordic skis, ski boots, poles; ski goggles also recommended
Thrill Factor: 🤟🤟🤟
Skill Factor: Notable skill acquisition required for turning, stopping, balance, and maintaining momentum
Cost Factor: 💵 💵 💵 💵 💵 ($350 - $1,000 for skis, boots, and poles)
Why You Should Cross-Country Ski
In one word, "Adrenaline." You should cross-country ski if you are looking to pack in as much adrenaline as you can into your winter trail experience, especially if you the wallet and determination to learn a new and intense sport.
Let me pause by addressing the elephant in the article: yes, fellow downhill skiers and snowboarders, describing cross-country skiing as "adrenaline-inducing" and "intense" may have caused you to spit out your Red Bull. I had the same initial reaction when researching this article, but it turns out that cross-country skis get the heart pumping. As in a full-body, 700 calories per hour, continuous aerobic burn fest of a sport described famously as "the best cardiovascular exercise known."
Cross-country skiing still provides some of the thrill of downhill, resort-style skiing, but the main draw of the sport is based less in the speed factor (cross-country skis have an average speed of 7-10 mph) and more in the versatility of terrain that you can traverse. All across southeast Michigan, state, community, and certain Huron-Clinton MetroParks offer a variety of maintained and natural trail options of cross-country skiers, ranging from beginner cross-country skiing courses to the untamed berms and hills of mountain biking trails.
Put differently, cross-country skiing easily provides our most intrepid outdoor enthusiasts with access to thousands of miles of trail exploration during the winter months - trails that otherwise may not be accessible due to heavy equestrian, mountain biking, or general hiking use.
Opt Out of Cross-Country Skiing
Sorry, cross-country skiing advocates - you knew that this section was coming. There are unfortunately several reasonable reasons to opt out of a day spent burning trails (and calories) all over the Detroit region on your skis, some of which are entirely out of your control. To kick this downer topic off, cross-country skis are only effective in low-ish snow conditions - no more than 3 inches of powder, and ideally on groomed or well-trodded trails. Cross-country skis lack the width of their downhill or alpine touring cousins, and certainly snowshoes, thereby rendering them immensely ineffective in deep powder conditions.
Second, cross-country skiing has two significant barriers to entry: cost and skill. Even though cross-country skiing equipment is significantly cheaper than downhill skiing equipment, a quick glance at its "Cost Factor" indicator compared to snowshoeing and hiking will illustrate that this is perhaps not the activity for the cost-conscious recreationist. Mobility on cross-country skis may also not come as naturally to most winter adventurers, especially when snowshoeing takes all of roughly 30 seconds to adjust to. If you feel like a newborn giraffe just learning to walk while on cross-country skis for the first time, then you're probably doing it right. The sport certainly has a learning curve, but it's extremely rewarding for those who persevere through the initial growing pains.
Last, cross-country skiing provides a bona fide kick-ass workout. You will sweat. Your legs, lower back, and triceps will likely ache. Don't get us wrong, you will certainly grow to love this intensity of a workout experience if you stick with the sport, but if your idea of a blissful few hours spent in the woods doesn't involve a borderline-masochist calorie burn, then please opt for the hiking boots.
Best Conditions: Fresh snow; accumulation of less than 6 inches
Equipment Required: None other than waterproof hiking boots
Thrill Factor: 🤟
Skill Factor: None - if you can walk, you can hike
Cost Factor: 💵 💵 ($125-175 for waterproof hiking boots)
Why You Should Snow Hike
As many a wise person have said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Hiking - which we are aptly dubbing "snow hiking" for the purposes of this article - fits squarely into that sage advice. Especially if you're a recreationist on a budget, looking for relaxed trail exploration, in relatively tame winter conditions.
Snow hiking should always be your "snow trail" default recreational activity. Why? Well, if you're an avid consumer of our content, I'd be willing to bet that you already own a pair or two of sturdy, waterproof hiking boots. You may want to acquire snow spikes and trekking poles for icier conditions, but for an average winter day's trail conditions in the Detroit region, your normal hiking boots should be well-qualified for the trail.
Standard hiking boots can also provide mobility advantages when compared to snowshoes in "cusp conditions" - let's say 5-7inches of snow accumulation. Especially after a fresh snowfall when a boot's ability to grip the terrain is enhanced, your feet will greatly benefit from the decreased weight and range of mobility of your hiking boots vs. snowshoes.
Opt Out of Snow Hiking
By this point in the article, you can probably guess when you shouldn't disturb your hiking boots' winter hibernation, opting in favor of your snowshoes or cross-country skis. We'll state the reasons here anyways, regardless of how obvious they may appear.
To start with, if you're looking to recreate during a true powder day - 6+ inches of fresh snowfall, on top of whatever else may already have accumulated on the ground - then don't give your hiking boots (or cross-country skis) a second thought. Grab your snowshoes. Grab your trekking poles. Hit the trail knowing that you have undoubtedly selected the most efficient and enjoyable means of wintry trail recreation, because any alternative would result in agony-inducing muscular pain from your lower back to your calves.
Even in low-snow conditions, the other reasons to select cross-country skiing over hiking involve the desired intensity of your trail experience. Simply put, hiking is undeniably underwhelming as an adventure activity when compared to cross-country skiing. On average, you will be traveling three times faster on cross-country skis than even an elevated hiking pace, thereby enhancing your capacity to cover more terrain via an exciting mode of transport. Similar to snowshoeing, you will also burn noticeably more calories cross-country skiing vs. hiking.
What are your favorite snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or snow hiking trails? Do you have any special recommendations for beginners in any of these sports? Let us know in the comments!