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Winter Hiking, Snowshoeing, and Skiing

Let's face it, for almost 8 months of the year, mountains in the Yukon are covered in snow. If you want to be outdoors in the Yukon wilderness beyond the 4 snow-free months of the year, you need to equip yourself for these snowy conditions. Depending on your budget and abilities (and what you consider fun), you have some options.

Hiking Boots with Gaiters

During the fall-winter shoulder season (usually October), there is often a few inches of snow on the ground at higher elevations. When there isn't enough snow to warrant strapping snowshoes to your pack, then a pair of waterproof hiking boots in combination with gaiters will do the trick.

Gaiters are waterproof (like Nylon or Gore-Tex) and wrap around your leg from your boot to below your knee, normally with either a strap below your boot or with a drawstring to cinch tight at your ankle. Gaiters are light, inexpensive, and keep snow from getting in your boots as well as keeping your legs dry. Check out the Outdoor Research website for examples of different types of gaiters.

Snowshoes

After Autumn has finally passed, the snow starts to get deeper, and continues to stay deep until Spring. Walking in deep snow is very tiring, as each step "post-holes" your feet and legs down through the snow. Snowshoes help distribute the weight of each of your steps along the base of the snowshoe so that you don't sink as far into the snow.

The larger the snowshoe, the more you should stay afloat, but avoid unnecessary weight by properly sizing your snowshoe for your body weight. Most manufactures supply a body weight guide for each of their snowshoes. Having a snowshoe that is rated above your body weight does not contribute much towards extra floatation and adds weight with each step.

Snowshoes come in a variety of prices, which will be reflected in the weight, comfort, durability, and ease of putting on and taking off the snowshoe. As with most winter gear, you get what you pay for with snowshoes! Some snowshoes have built-in crampons which help with walking up and down steeper sections, especially on hard-packed snow.

Snowshoes excel in the forest, where tighter turns and debris on the ground limit the use of skis. You can definitely use snowshoes in the alpine as well, but as soon as you turn around to come back down, you'll be wishing you could just glide down effortlessly on skis. Walking downhill in snowshoes is almost just as much effort as walking uphill. Snowshoes are much cheaper than skis, so if you want a taste of the alpine in winter, start with snowshoes and see how you like it.

That being said, there are some trails into the alpine where snowshoes are still preferable to skis. Windblown areas where the snow is a hard crust or has been blown hard enough to expose rocks are better suited to snowshoes. Shorter trails that start through the trees are also better suited to snowshoes than skis. Some examples of these trails in the Yukon include Caribou Mountain and Fish Lake.

You can also use snowshoes for hiking up slopes with your downhill skis or snowboard attached to a backpack, although it not as convenient or efficient as using alpine touring skis or splitboards (see below).


You can find skis, splitboards, gaiters, and snowshoes (and more!) at Up North Adventures in Whitehorse.

Nordic Touring Skis

Nordic touring skis are like beefed-up cross-country skis. They are wider, have metal edges for carving, and in some cases can support a heavier ski boot (similar to a downhill ski boot). With all nordic touring skis, the heel never attaches to the binding, even on the descent.

You can attach skins to the bottom of nordic touring skis which add friction so you can climb up steeper inclines. Some touring skis have directional fish-scales on the base which allow the skier to climb up inclines and still ski down without friction. This is great if you are skiing hilly terrain where you would either have to add and remove your skins all the time, or ski awkwardly downhill for short sections with the skins on. Some trails to try nordic touring in the Yukon include Summit Creek and Tally-Ho Mountain.

Nordic touring skis differ from alpine touring skis because they are designed more for touring rather than getting in downhill turns. The heel of the boot doesn't attach to the binding like alpine touring skis, making downhill turns more challenging (some nordic touring skis have detachable heel cable straps which help with this). Nordic touring skis are usually slightly thinner as well (meaning less floatation) and are not bi-directional (sorry, no skiing backwards after doing a 540 off a rock face with these skis). Finally, the boots are not usually as stiff or technical as alpine touring ski boots.

Telemark skiing is a form of skiing where the heel of the boot does not attach to the binding (free heel). Telemark skiing actually fits into both the Nordic Touring and Alpine Touring categories, because the skis are great for cross-country touring, but they are also used for skiing down knarley powder terrain.

Alpine Touring (AT) Skis & Splitboards

If you are climbing up a mountain for the sole purpose of getting some wicked powder turns on the way down, then you want alpine touring (AT) skis, or a splitboard if you are a snowboarder.

AT gear is made to climb steep slopes and ski down these slopes in deep powder. They are heavier than nordic touring skis and don't have scales on the bottom because you climb up with skins, remove the skins, and ski down - usually avoiding flat or hilly terrain. They are also more expensive than touring skis, especially the boot and binding system which differs from touring skis because your heel locks into the binding for the ride down.

Splitboards are snowboards that split apart along the center so that they resemble skis. On the way up a mountain, your boots face along the length of the snowboard so that you can walk up in the same way you would with AT skis. When you're ready to go down, the splitboard locks together again, becoming a snowboard. A popular trail in the Yukon for AT skiing and splitboarding is the area around Feather Peak.

Know the Risks

Whatever you choose to do in the winter, make sure that you understand the risks. The largest risk is an avalanche. If you haven't taken an avalanche course, it's best to avoid going near any open slopes or through any valleys where an avalanche could slide into. If you enjoy being out in the mountains in the winter, a lack of adequate avalanche knowledge will limit where you can go. There are different levels of avalanche courses available in the Yukon throughout the winter. Just remember that a little knowledge is dangerous, so when in doubt, double up your knowledge by going out with someone who is experienced.