9 Activities to Make the Most Out of Winter

A man skating on natural ice

David Thyberg / Shutterstock

Some people try to avoid winter weather by heading to a warm destination or planning a few months of indoor activities. But other hardy souls embrace the cold by playing snow sports or undertaking winter-weather adventures. These activities provide motivation to go play in the ice and snow, and they can act as a remedy for the winter blues.

Think of these winter adventures as ways to feel like a kid again — when you didn't even care about the cold because sledding and snow-fort building was so much fun.

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Ice Hotel Stays

Photo: Matias Garabedian/Flickr

Most ice hotels are built every year when the weather is cold enough for safe construction. Some of these, such as Hotel de Glace in Quebec, rely almost completely on ice, even creating ice beds. (The beds are topped with mattresses and box springs so guests do not sleep directly on the frozen surface.) Dining rooms and bars are decorated with ice furniture as well.

Snow and ice hoteliers keep the temperature low inside their venues for obvious reasons, but they provide electric blankets, sleeping bags and parkas for guests.

Some hotels, like Hotel de Glace, have several dozen rooms. While the most spectacular hotels are made using ice, some use a combination of snow and ice or are made exclusively with snow. Guests do pay a premium for the novelty of sleeping in frozen surroundings. Rooms generally cost several hundred dollars or more (current rates for Quebec's Hotel de Glace start at around $300 per night).

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Snow kiting

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Snow kiting is a close cousin to kite surfing. The sport traces its roots back to adventurous alpinists who started using paraglider sails to ski uphill. Now snow kiters practice their sport using skis or snowboards on frozen lakes or fields. Some kiters use their setup to travel long distances over flat or uphill terrain without any motorized assistance.

Frozen lakes are popular for newer kiters because the flat surface allows for minimum drag, which means that they can move forward without having to use a powerful (and difficult-to-control) kite.

Snow kiting is possible with regular alpine skiing or snowboarding equipment, though people who practice the sport regularly have special bindings that allow for some rotation to reduce stress on their ankles and knees. Snow kiters use both foil kites (usually for traveling at higher speeds) and inflatable kites, which are easier to transport.

One of the advantages of snow kiting is that you can learn the basics in water (where falls are much softer) during the summer and then translate the techniques to a snowboard or skis in the wintertime.

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Ice climbing

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Ice climbing takes a high level of fitness, but specialized equipment and techniques allow climbers the chance to scale frozen slopes that would otherwise be impossible to conquer. Alpine climbers may climb on glacial ice or permanently frozen ice. Most beginners start on frozen waterfalls.

Climbers need to become proficient in the use of ice axes, which they embed in the ice as they pull themselves up. Crampons allow them to stick to the ice with their toes. Like other forms of climbing, ice climbers use safety equipment such as ropes and harnesses.

Ice climbing is celebrated in places like Colorado and Norway, which host festivals and competitions. In countries like Iceland, where ice and glaciers are a part of the landscape, you can combine beginning ice climbing (on less than vertical slopes) with hikes on glaciers using crampons.

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Tour skating

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Practitioners of tour skating sometimes call it Nordic skating because it is especially popular in Scandinavian countries. Unlike skating on a rink or track, tour skating takes place on natural ice, which covers lakes, streams and canals in the winter in northern latitudes.

Skaters can travel for long distances over the ice, and many tour skates have bindings so that you can use them with regular winter hiking boots. Tour skaters who venture beyond marked routes often carry spiked poles and safety equipment to test the thickness of the ice and pull themselves out of the water if necessary.

Long-distance skating is also popular in parts of the northern United States and Canada. Ottawa's Rideau Canal, for example, becomes a five-mile-long "skateway" in the wintertime. Conditions are also cold enough in parts of New England and the northern Midwest. The Netherlands is famous for tour skating as well, but people there often use long-bladed speed skates instead of blades with bindings that are more common in Scandinavia.

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Snow sculpting

Photo: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

If you see snow and ice and think "building supplies," then snow sculpture might be a good wintertime hobby for you. Snow sculptures elevate the concept of the snowman to highbrow art. Festivals in northern Europe, the U.S., and Northeastern Asia bring professional snow and ice sculptors together where they can showcase their skills.

In North America, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival and Ottawa's Winterlude feature snow and ice sculptures, while the Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival (held in China's coldest city) and the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan each draw millions of visitors with their unbelievably ornate snow figures.

In cold regions, materials are readily available to try your hand at snow sculpting. Professional methods usually call for starting with a mound of tightly-packed snow. You then shape it with chisels, hand saws and other manual tools. Some pros use molds to shape details and then attach them onto the main structure.

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Snow biking

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Fat tire bikes work well in slippery conditions. In snowy parts of the world, ambitious riders don cold-weather gear and head out for wintertime rides using bikes with especially wide tires. Regular mountain bike tires may work on groomed trails, and off-road enthusiasts ride with special wide-tread tires (3.8 inches wide or more) or studded tires that can grip icy surfaces.

One trick that winter bikers use is to deflate their tires so that more of the tire touches the surface, providing greater grip. Some riders put the tire pressure as low as 5 psi in especially-harsh conditions.

One of the advantages of winter fatbike riding is that you can ride off road (or even on road) during the other seasons of the year by changing the tires or increasing their level of inflation. Snow biking is growing in popularity. There are even races and festivals in Switzerland, the Rocky Mountains, and the Midwest.

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Ice swimming

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Ice swimming, as its name suggests, involves swimming in winter. This not-for-the-faint-hearted pastime often requires cutting a hole in the ice covering a lake or pond. In Scandinavian countries, the practice is connected with saunas. People jump into the just-above-freezing water in between stays in the traditional hot rooms.

A club in Harbin, China draws hundreds of winter swimmers every day, even though the air temperature is well below freezing all winter. In both these regions, ice swimming is thought to provide health benefits such as decreased stress and improved circulation.

The practice is popular in North America too. Polar bear clubs have long attracted people who are interested in ice swimming for the thrill, camaraderie or purported health benefits. In the U.S., ice swimming is connected to charities such as the Special Olympics, which raises funds with Polar Plunges.

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Seeking the aurora borealis

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The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are visible in far northern latitudes. Though you might see these natural lights, which are caused by solar winds disturbing the magnetosphere, in the northernmost of the Lower 48 states, you have better chances in places like Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Scandinavia where aurora tours take people out to see the light show during the winter.

Aurora-chasing can be an adventure. Since light pollution makes it difficult (if not impossible) to see the northern lights, you need to travel to rural areas if you want a realistic chance of seeing this natural phenomenon. Even in the most remote Arctic location, cloud cover can make it impossible to see auroras. Your best option: staying in a place where auroras are visible so you can see them without having to leave your accommodations.

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Sledding and tobogganing

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If you spent your childhood in a snowy region, then you've probably been sledding. In some places, organized races and events give adults an excuse to travel back to the sledding days of their youth. The U.S. Toboggan National Championships in Camden, Maine, for example, feature teams that race down a specially made track on toboggans (runner-less sleds).

In Switzerland and Germany, racing on traditional horn sleds, which have massive runners that curl up like horns in front of the sled, has become popular. Some teams take the events seriously, while others focus on fun by donning costumes.