Thursday, January 12, 2012

Choosing to ski

Our family only does a handful of winter hikes and snowshoe trips per year, much preferring to explore trails on skis.  That being said, I'm starting to realize that snowshoeing might actually be surpassing skiing in popularity right now.  Every trail I set out on is full of snowshoers.  Last weekend in fact, we skied up to Boom Lake, a place I'd only ever seen skiers before, and encountered a good 25+ snowshoers on the trail.  I keep checking my meet-up groups as well, looking for ski trips to join, only to discover that the posted trips are predominately aimed at snowshoeing or winter hiking. 

I know that the sports of downhill skiing and backcountry skiing are still alive because thrill seekers will always be seeking out fresh powder for turns.  I've also seen plenty of evidence that classic xc skiing on groomed and track-set trails continues to be popular though perhaps with an older generation.   What appears to be fading in popularity is the kind of skiing I most like which is light ski touring.  Light ski touring is similar to xc skiing except that the trails aren't groomed or track-set.  Most people use modified skis equipped with metal edges that are slightly wider than the classic xc ski.  These skis can be fitted with climbing skins for steeper hills and are perfectly suitable for many hiking trails in the Rockies.  Many people also use AT skis or telemark skis for more moderate ski tours or if they want to do turns.  My definition of ski touring however, does not involve turns or venturing into avalanche terrain. Popular ski tours in the Rockies are the Boom Lake trail in Banff, the Goat Creek Traverse from Canmore to Banff, and the Chester Lake trail in Kananaskis.

Skiing the Boom Lake Trail with our son in a pulk
On our way in to Chester Lake with our son in a Chariot
Both groomed and natural trails are starting to see an increase in snowshoe traffic.  The benefit of skiing these trails rather than snowshoeing them though is that you get to ski down the hills rather than walk both up and down.  You can also get farther in a day since skiing the downhill sections will reduce your time by half.  A good example is the Elk Pass trail in Kananaskis.  It is a 12km return trip on either a designated snowshoe trail or a groomed ski trail.  According to the Hike Alberta website, it takes 2-4 hours to get to Elk Pass and back on snowshoes.  On skis the same trip would take 2.5 hours at most.  A skier can easily do 20km on groomed trails at a moderate pace in 3 hours. 

Scenery along the Elk Pass Trail

One other advantage of skiing is that you can easily make the journey into several back-country cabins that would be a boring slog on snowshoes.  The Alpine Club of Canada's Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara is the best example here.  It is 11km to the hut on a wide snow packed road that although a bit of an uphill trudge on skis, is tolerable because you know you are going to have an amazing run back down to the car.  It's never so steep that you have to have any technical backcountry skills but it's just steep enough to allow for a lot of double polling and easy gliding.  On snowshoes, the same trail would take the same amount of time to go down and you'd essentially be hiking up and down an 11km road.  Not fun in my opinion.  If I'm going to go snowshoeing, I'm going to look for a beautiful hiking trail covered in powder rather than walking on a hard packed road.

The Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara
Now before you come to the conclusion that I disapprove of the sport of snowshoeing or that I think it's boring, I have to say that I find snowshoeing to be quite enjoyable.  One of my favorite trips so far this winter was a snowshoe trip we did late November up to Elbow Lake before the highway to Highwood Pass closed for the winter.   However, you have to know when to snowshoe and when to ski.  There are many trails that should never see snowshoes.  There are also other trails I would never travel on xc skis because honestly I'm not an accomplished enough backcountry skier.  Even true backcountry skiers would not take skis on trails if they were too steep or narrow for making safe turns and would opt to travel by snowshoes.

Snowshoeing at Elbow Lake with our son in a carrier

Below are my own personal guidelines when making the decision to ski or snowshoe.

Any groomed and track-set trail should be left to the skiers that the trail is intended for. 

It is actually dangerous for skiers coming down should they catch an edge on a snowshoe track.  There is also a good potential for collisions if a large group of snowshoers should be coming up a trail and not be able to get out of the way fast enough to avoid a downhill skier. 

Popular trails to ski and avoid on snowshoes:
Friends skiing with their son on an official ski trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Skiing with our kids on the Great Divide ski trail, at Lake Louise

Hard packed trails do not need snowshoes.  We use ice cleats or yak trax if we are concerned about slipping.  Snowshoes are designed for powder.

Popular trails to hike:
  • Most of the trails around the townsite of Banff including the Sundance Canyon Trail
  • Most official snowshoe trails (These trails are great for beginner snowshoers and families with small children.  However, they are usually well packed down rendering snowshoes unnecessary.  Leave your snowshoes in the car if there is no fresh powder or strap them to your backpack and set out on foot)
  • The trails around Ribbon Creek and Kananaskis Village.  (If you want to visit Troll Falls, you should be able to just walk.  I've never seen enough fresh snow on the these trails that you'd need snowshoes.  They only add extra weight to your feet.  If you want to burn more calories, go ahead with the snowshoes.  Otherwise, leave them in the car.)
    Lake Agnes, Lake Louise in spring and the trail was so hard you could have worn running shoes. 
    Hiking to Troll Falls when our son was a baby.  No shoeshoes necessary.

    Toddlers and babies will stay much warmer in a Chariot or Ski Pulk so unless it's a warm spring day, we choose to ski rather than snowshoe with our son in a child carrier.

    Our trip to Elbow Lake last November was our first and last snowshoe trip with our son this winter.  We found it impossible to keep him warm enough in a child carrier.  His dangling feet and hands got cold, we couldn't wrap him in blankets, and there was no protection against the wind.  We've gone skiing though when it was as cold as -25C with wind chill and our son has always been toasty warm in either his Chariot or Pulk.  

    Toasty warm in his pulk

    Sleeping in his Chariot last winter - not covered but still snug as a bug

    Watch for my next blog post:  Choosing to snowshoe
    My next story will specifically target family-friendly trails that are safe, short to moderate in length, scenic, and fun. I'll introduce you to my favorite trails that are perfect for snowshoeing and focus on the times it's better to snowshoe than to ski.


    1. Every time I read your posts I want to get out on some Canadian snow! :)

    2. Great post, I like your suggestions for choosing snowshoeing or xc skiing depending on the conditions!

    3. Love your blog! I've never seen so much snow in my life. It's so beautiful.

    4. Finally had a chance to read your blog. Very well written! I was out on the West Bragg Creek trails today; Moose Loop. There were these two people snow shoeing on the trail. They were in the middle (the skating lane), but so close to the track sets that I had to holler at them to move so I wouldn't take them out. I even warned them that one more person was coming, but because they couldn't see the person right away, they spread out and hogged the x-c ski trail again.

      I had a beginner x-c skier with me today. I was waiting for her to catch up frequently, and it happened to be there were lots of downhill sections where we met these snowshoers -- where a beginner and even well skilled x-c skiers need to snow plow to control their speed. Difficult to do when snowshoers are taking up the groomed cross-country ski trails.

      This trail is designated a x-c ski trail only. There are snowshoe trails at West Bragg, and snowshoers should stay on those trail. I don't go cross-country skiing there. Better yet, snowshoers should go searching for fresh powder - the purpose of snowshoes!

      There's my rant for the day. Great blog Tanya!

      1. Thanks Joe. Loved your comments. Well said!! I'm going to write a snowshoe story next focusing on where to hike and encouraging hikers to get off the ski trails. There are so many great places to hike and snow shoe that are far more beautiful than West Bragg. The Fullerton Loop in the same area comes to mind. :)

    5. Hi Tanya,
      Check out our outdoor play group at

      1. Thanks Dianne, I will check out your blog. Just started my own outdoor playgroup and can always use inspiration.