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Winter Trail Melee: Snowshoeing vs. Cross-Country Skiing vs. Snow Hiking

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