WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY "WINTER" SPORTS?
You could call any kind of sport that people play between November and March – including football, rugby, hockey – a winter sport. But here we are talking about recreation or exercise that needs a snowy climate. Some traditionalists – and parts of the travel industry – believe that the only winter sport worthy of the name is the one in which you attach planks to boots and glide down mountains at speed. Of course, there is a much broader variety, including tobogganing, walking, even ice-fishing. But most people who set off for a holiday in the snow go skiing.
Skiing was not always a sport: in the Arctic, Stone Age man put on something remarkably like skis when he went out hunting. If you find that hard to believe, go to Rodoy, just below the Arctic Circle in northern Norway (tourist office 00 47 75 09 81 00; www.rv17.no) and look at the rock carving of a stick figure with long skis on his feet, holding a hunting implement. This is believed to date from 2500BC.
Skis have also been used in war, particularly by the Norwegian army; and the Swedish Vasaloppet Cross Country ski race ( www.vasaloppet.se), which is held every year on the first Sunday of March, commemorates a 16th-century Swedish victory over the Danes.
Scandinavian immigrants were responsible for introducing skis to the United States, where they were known as "Norwegian snowshoes". From 1856 to 1876, a celebrated postman, "Snowshoe Thompson", delivered mail on skis over a 90-mile route from Placerville, California, to Genoa, Utah. At around the same time, miners used skis to get around the mountains during the California Gold Rush. They also held ski races using 12ft wooden planks.
But modern skiing techniques, and downhill skiing as a sport, really developed in Europe in the late 19th century. An Austrian schoolteacher, Mathias Zdarsky, read about skis being used in Greenland, and ordered a pair. They came with no instructions, so he developed a technique of his own and eventually opened a ski school.
Zdarsky's technique was refined by others, including another Austrian, Hannes Schneider, whose methods included snowploughs and parallel turns, which most skiers still use today.
AND NOW EVERYONE GOES...
Not exactly. Only a million or so Brits ski each year. Nonetheless, once you add the French, Germans, Austrians, Italians, Spanish and North Americans, the average resort gets pretty clogged in busy weeks.
New Year, February half-term and the weeks either side of Easter (next year, Easter Sunday falls on 20 April). But even at these times there are variations on downhill skiing that will take you away from the crowds. Cat skiing and heliskiing are popular in areas where the terrain permits them: British Columbia offers some of the best opportunities. Instead of taking a lift up the mountain, you are dropped off by a vehicle, either a snowcat (expensive) or a helicopter (extremely expensive), and left to ski through virgin snow: typically, you might find yourself one of a dozen skiers on 1,500 square miles of terrain. Among the British operators, Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk) and Ski Safari (01273 223680; www.skisafari.com) offer one-day snowcat trips in the Canadian resort of Fernie; and Ski Safari also has heliski packages of varying duration in several Canadian resorts.
Less remote, but exhilarating in a different way, is ski jumping, in which you launch yourself into flight after hurtling down a long run. There are no facilities in Britain for learning to jump, which is possibly why Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, the bespectacled buffoon who competed for Britain at the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988, came last. Abroad, several resorts offer jumping. You need to be able to ski in order to jump – a good intermediate level should suffice – and a lesson or two. At Park City in Utah (001 435 658 4208; www.utaholympicpark.com), where the most recent Olympic jumping events were held, a two-hour lesson will cost around $30 (£19). Closer to home, try Oberstdorf, near the Austrian border in Germany; or the Scandinavian resorts of Kuusamo (tourist office 00 358 8 850 2910; www.kuusamo.fi), Lahti in Finland (tourist office 00 358 3 877 677; www.lahtitravel.fi), or Trondheim in Norway (tourist office 00 47 7380 7660; www.trondheim.com).
Those keen to see the view but too timid to try should head to the Bergisel Stadium in Innsbruck (00 43 512 335010; open daily 9am-5pm), where a new jump opened to the public yesterday, with viewing platform and scenic café, as the city's latest tourist attraction.
WHAT IF I'M NOT COMFORTABLE ON SKIS?
Travel by tube. Even terminally clumsy vertigo-sufferers can cope with sliding down a mountainside sitting in what is a cross between an inflatable paddling-pool and a giant ring-doughnut. "Tubing" is the least demanding way to slide downhill. Family-oriented resorts such as Leysin in Switzerland offer sophisticated facilities for tubing, with multi-lane tracks separated by snow crash-barriers, floodlights for evening operation and even drag-lifts adapted to haul the unwieldy tubes back up the hill.
A step up from tubing is snow-biking, which involves sitting on a BMX bike fitted with skids instead of wheels – or, in the latest configuration, crouching on a snowboard with cow-horn handlebars. Either way, it's excitingly bouncy but rather ungainly. By comparison, snow-karts are positively elegant. These low-slung devices are basically go-karts in one, perpetual skid. For safety reasons, they are normally allowed only on dedicated slopes. Snow-karters do it sitting down, so they have something in common with first-lesson skiers, who also frequently descend on their behinds.
Another sedentary constituency, the sledgers, is traditionally made up almost exclusively of small children and tipsy adults; but that could soon change. Porsche now markets a sleek, silver/black sledge at £144 (0118 930 3666; www.porsche.co.uk). This development has two implications. First, female skiers should think twice before accepting a lift back to their chalet from a young man who says he owns a Porsche. Second, sledging could soon become the most fashionable way of sliding down a mountain.
ISN'T IT MORE HIP TO SNOWBOARD?
Skiing is fashionable again. But that's because it has co-opted the style and – to a certain extent – the attitude of boarding, with the help of short, twin-tipped skis that make most boarders' and ski-bladers' tricks possible on skis.
Skiing has the handicap of a long history. Boarding, on the other hand, is about the same age as its average practitioner, being some 25 years old. Even its prehistory only goes back to 1969, when an American called Sherman Poppen created the precursor of the snowboard, a device called a "snurfer" (his prototype consisted of two skis bolted together).
With its own language, mode of dress and culture, snowboarding has tried to be inaccessible to people who are 30 or older – but without success, largely because the short, steep and often painful learning curve means that anyone prepared to put up with some bruises can become a boarder in a few days.
Boarding is simpler and more elemental than skiing, since the rider has only two edges and his or her body weight to play with; but it is also more physically engaging, if not necessarily more demanding. Facilities for snowboarders are improving all the time, although some resorts, including Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, still don't allow boarders. Boarders often rave about Mayrhofen, and other good boarding resorts include Avoriaz, St Anton and Riksgransen in arctic Sweden, where the bumpy terrain is like a natural "fun park". Boarding does have some disadvantages by comparison with skiing. Using a drag-lift, for example, is a lot trickier with a board. And when a slope flattens out, it can be difficult to maintain momentum without ski poles. On an incline, boarders often have to pick up their boards and walk, while skiers swish past.
SURELY YOU CAN'T SKI UP A MOUNTAIN?
You can if you know about skins. Uphill skiing is the domain of ski tourers and ski mountaineers, a tougher breed than the average skier, who aim to go as high as it is possible to go on skis, spending the night in Alpine huts. Unlike tourers, mountaineers climb right to the summits, taking their skis off and using ropes. Since they ski in places that lifts don't reach, there is inevitably a certain amount of uphill skiing. This is made possible by attaching strips to the bottom of the skis to stop them slipping back.
Originally, they were made of sealskin, and the name "skins" has stuck even though they are now synthetic. Tourers and mountaineers generally use skis that are light and flexible, but the essential feature is that they have bindings that will allow the heel to lift up off the ski. A good skier who wants an extra challenge can hire a guide, which is an expensive option, or join a club such as the Eagle Ski Club, whose members keep in touch with each other electronically ( www.eagleskiclub.org.uk) between skiing trips, and meet for weekends in mountainous locations. The club runs a number of tours of varying difficulty each year.
A variation is Nordic ski touring, popular in Scandinavian countries where there is a good network of huts. Nordic, often known as cross-country skiing, is an increasingly popular sport, not only in Scandinavia, where it originated, but also across Europe and North America. It tends to be seen by downhill skiers as a soft option, which usually means they have never tried it: cross-country skiing done properly reaches muscles other forms of skiing never reach.
Cross-country skiers will find pistes in many of the main European resorts – trails are particularly good in Schladming, La Clusaz, Cortina and Flims – but one of the best areas is the Engadine in eastern Switzerland, where Pontresina is a good base. In the United States, there are plenty of opportunities to get right away from the crowds, staying at a ranch rather than in traditional resort hotels or chalets. For an unusual cross-country experience, try Lake Spooner, in the Tahoe region of California, where you could join a moonlit ski-tour.
SOUNDS RISKY ... ANYTHING SAFER?
To put your feet directly on to dry – or at least snow-covered – land, the best sport to try is winter walking, which involves nothing more stressful than walking along a path that has been marked out for you, often through indescribably peaceful countryside. Many of the mountain paths used by summer walkers are unsuitable in the snow, but a lot of resorts keep at least some footpaths open during the winter. These are regularly groomed, so they can easily be tackled by anyone wearing normal walking boots or reliable shoes, and are well waymarked: the face of a snowman on the signpost usually denotes a winter path.
If you want to walk "off-piste", or to go out after a heavy fall of snow, you will need snowshoes. These rigid net structures fit beneath regular walking shoes and stop you from sinking into deep snow. Even so, an afternoon of snowshoeing is much more strenuous than normal walking. Snowshoes are relatively inexpensive to buy in areas where snowshoeing is popular, and they are sometimes available for hire from hotels. To buy a pair before you go, contact Peglers (01903 884684), which sells them for about £80. If you prefer your walking packaged up for you, Inntravel (01653 629002; www.inntravel.co.uk) includes a number of suitable resorts in its winter brochure.
IS SNOWSHOEING AN OLYMPIC SPORT?
No, but skating is. To learn properly, contact the National Ice Skating Association (0115 853 3100, www.nisa-uk.org) for your nearest rink. In many resorts it is a popular après-ski pastime, and most people just hire a pair of skates.
Another ice-based Olympic sport that is increasing in popularity, thanks largely to the success of the Scottish ladies' team in the recent Winter Olympics, is curling – although, so far, there are no rinks south of the border. It is played in teams of four, on specially groomed ice, and brooms are used to help the granite curling stones across it. It is a relatively inexpensive sport, since rubber overshoes are available at the rinks: all you need to provide is some warm clothing. Contact the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (0131-333 3003; www.rccc.org.uk) or head to Seefeld in Austria – one of the most important curling centres in the world.
ANY WINTER WATER-SPORTS?
Skating on thin ice can turn into a water sport, but ice-divers choose to get below the surface of the water. Try ice-diving beneath the frozen lake at the French resort of Tignes (contact Evolution 2, 00 334 79 06 35 76; www.evolution2.com).
To stay on, rather than under, the ice, try ice-fishing. This is popular not just in parts of the world where frozen lakes are a way of life for months on end, including resorts such as Banff and Beaver Creek, but also in less likely venues such as northern Arizona's White Mountains.
IS THIS ALL GOING TO COST ME A FROSTBITTEN ARM AND A LEG?
No, though you will need to invest in some equipment. Mountain conditions can easily change, and whatever you are doing it is essential to be prepared, even if you are only going out for a gentle walk. Take plenty of warm clothing, a compass and, if you are alone, a whistle to attract attention in case of difficulty.
The clothes, though, can be the kind you would wear in this country on a cold, wet day. Take a selection of wool and cotton layers, thick gloves, and a waterproof jacket and trousers in case you take a tumble or get caught in a snowfall. With many winter sports, the activity itself keeps you warm; the most chilling experience is sitting for 20 minutes on an open ski lift doing nothing.
Downhill skiing can get expensive, since you will have to fork out for a lift pass and either buy or hire skis and boots. But you can often find a special offer, even without waiting for last-minute reductions. For example, Britain's largest tour operator, Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk), has a selection of "Money Savers" that offer two-for-one lift passes, deals for single-parent families, and free equipment hire.
Low-cost airlines provide another way of keeping the cost down, if you don't mind booking your own accommodation, although prices go up as the departure date gets nearer. But if you can travel midweek and are prepared to be flexible, there are plenty of good deals available: easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com), for example, has cheap flights between Luton, Liverpool or Gatwick and Zürich or Geneva. Return fares in late February are as low as £55 return. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Salzburg, Turin and Treviso, plus airports in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
ANY LESS ENERGETIC ACTIVITIES?
You don't have to be sporty to have a great outdoor holiday. Tailor Made Travel (01386 712000; www.tailor-made.co.uk) has an unusual selection of winter holidays in British Columbia, which include snowmobiling; snow rafting; dog sledding; opportunities to observe seals, moose and other wildlife; and, intriguingly, a storm-watching trip, which involves observing the Pacific waves crashing over Vancouver Island.
Ski the world - but where is best?
That depends on what you are looking for. It is possible to ski in Japan (contact Club Med, 020-7348 3333; www.clubmed.com) or Chile (contact Scott Dunn Latin America 020-8682 5030; www.scottdunn.com), but most British skiers choose resorts in western Europe or North America.
Simply the best: Many people would say that Zermatt has everything: great slopes, reliable snow, stunning scenery, charm, good food and no cars, but it is very upmarket and prices tend to be high. Alternatives, if you are looking for luxury, could include Gstaad or Aspen, or, if you want a car-free zone, Wengen or Murren.
Family resorts: Popular destinations include Les Arcs, whose three villages have the advantage of being reachable on the weekly snowtrain from Waterloo; the Austrian resorts of Lech and Schladming; and Whistler or the much smaller Canadian resort of Big White.
Plenty of pistes: If you are a skier who likes a new run to explore every day, the three resorts in France's Three Valleys – Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens – or the Milky Way, whose resorts, Sestriere, Sauze d'Oulx and Montgenèvre, straddle the French and Italian borders, are worth exploring.
Cheap and cheerful: You can't do better than the Andorran resorts, particularly Soldeu and Pas de la Casa, which have built a reputation for providing value for money. Andorra is a great place to learn to ski, and the nightlife is lively.