PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) Can millions of people be wrong? Not if they're trying to find a sport that is inexpensive, requires no lessons and is as easy as walking.
The name of the game: snowshoeing.
It's one of the fastest-growing outdoor winter activities in the United States, where it's estimated that more than four million people strapped on snowshoes and headed for the hills last year, according to national recreation sources.
It's cheaper than downhill skiing, easier than ice skating and less complicated than cross-country skiing. The low-impact activity offers participants a way to safely visit the wilderness when it's cloaked in wondrous winter white.
Snowshoeing's simplicity is the primary reason the sport has grown so dramatically in the past decade. Nine years ago, there were an estimated 500,000 snowshoers.
Snowshoeing is something you can do whether you're 77, like me, or 7,'' says Bill Thousand, a longtime trip leader with the Pueblo branch of the Colorado Mountain Club. It's a great equalizer sport. All you have to do is walk.''
In Pueblo, Thousand says int-erest in snowshoeing seems to parallel the national trend. The mountain club offers more snowshoe hikes each year at least when there's enough snow, he says. If there is less than 5 inches of snow on the ground, the club's scheduled snowshoe hikes are usually turned into regular hikes.
But what I like best (about snowshoeing) is that you don't have to wait for ideal snow conditions, like you do for downhill or cross-country skiing,'' Thousand says. You don't have to wait for packed snow or deep snow or snow that's safe. You can snowshoe when you can't do anything else.''
Snowshoeing also requires much less preparation than skiing. Basically, all that is needed are poles and snowshoes, which can be rented for as little as $7 a day or purchased for around $70 to $130. It's a good idea to add some warm, layered clothing, a hat and gloves, waterproof footwear (hiking, cross-country and work boots all work well) and a pack filled with food, water, a first-aid kit and extra clothing.
Recent innovations have made snowshoes much more user-friendly. No longer are they heavy, unwieldy boats made from leather and birch that require users to walk bowlegged. Now most snowshoes are small, between 22 and 30 inches long and around 8 inches wide, and light, weighing about 3 1/2 pounds a pair and made from durable plastic and/or aluminum.
Most modern shoes also have aggressive metal cleats or hard plastic molding on the soles for better gripping. Some also have steel stabilizer ridges on the soles to help prevent slipping sideways.
They've just gotten smaller and smaller and smaller,'' says Bob Walker, owner of The Edge sporting goods store in Pueblo. They've changed dramatically.''
Walker says there is a surge in daily snowshoe rentals any time nearby mountains get hit with a big winter storm.
Snowshoeing is a really good way to enjoy the mountains, just like cross-country skiing or hiking,'' Walker says. Some people do a lot of hiking in the summer, but in the winter they never go near the woods. They don't know what they're missing they don't know how quiet it is in the winter. It's so different than in summer.''
In non-drought seasons, there are a multitude of ideal snowshoeing destinations around Colorado. Snowshoers also can make their own trails in open public land.
That's what I like best (about snowshoeing): You can go practically anyplace you want,'' says Nancy Thousand, Bill's wife.
Although the sport is easy enough that formal instruction is unnecessary, novices are encouraged to accompany an experienced snowshoer at least once before going solo. That way, newcomers can learn a few nuances such as the best ways to climb and descend hills or break trail before attempting it on their own.
Beginners are also encouraged to try snowshoeing in relatively level areas.
I often take school kids out who've never done anything like this, do about 30 seconds of instruction like remembering not to step on your right foot with your left foot and they're ready to put 'em on and go,'' says Dave Van Manen, director of the Mountain Park Environment Center who prefers to snowshoe in Pueblo Mountain Park. That's the best way to do it. It's not hard at all.''
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