Options beyond skiing: A new sense of adventure

Specialist operators are now offering a wider range of winter options, says Stephen Wood

Looking forward to the coming ski season? If you are representative of the UK population as a whole, the answer is very likely to be "no". Almost 62 million people live in this country, but according to the most recent estimates fewer than one million ski holidays are sold here each year. The great bulk of British residents have no feelings about the coming season for the simple reason that they neither ski nor snowboard.

But just because the majority of people in this country don't participate in winter sports doesn't necessarily mean they don't like snow, mountains, winter landscapes and being outside on cold, crisp days. Hence the market for what the adventure specialist Exodus characterises – on the front of its 72-page brochure – as "winter activities".

The term is too broad, of course. Typical winter activities in the UK include scraping windscreens, and queuing for what the electronics industry deems to be the year's most desirable Christmas gift. But just a glance at the holidays offered by Exodus, the market leader, indicates the parameters: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog-sledding and snowmobiling. On its mixed-activity weeks, the range extends to ice-fishing (remarkably popular in Nordic countries) and ice-climbing. The only obvious omission is ice-yachting, which is certainly more exciting than ice-fishing sounds.

These holidays aren't big crowd-pleasers. Andy Ross, manager of the winter activities programme at Exodus reckons that the whole UK tour-operator market probably doesn't exceed 6,000 such holidays per season; and he adds that Exodus has seen no growth in sales over the last couple of years. But put in context – the UK ski market fell by 13 per cent and then 11 per cent in those two years – flat sales actually represent a very solid performance.

Cross-country skiing accounts for more than half of the holidays sold. But it's a very traditional market, says Ross: "Getting young people interested in it isn't easy." That said, Exodus has refreshed the programme for this season and the new trips are doing well, especially the one focused upon the Engadine ski marathon in Switzerland. On the eight-day trip, guests have five days of instruction and pre-training in the village of Santa Maria before taking part in the annual 42km marathon, which attracts more than 13,000 participants. The trip is already sold out.

Dog-sledding being a minor element of the operation, it is snowshoeing and the mixed-activity weeks which are picking up the slack from cross-country skiing. The pleasure of these holidays, says Ross, lies largely in the environment. "It's a terrible cliché," he says, "but you really do enter a winter wonderland. We steer clear of ski centres with big hotels, putting guests in very small, traditional places; and especially in the remote parts of Scandinavia, they really feel as if they are heading into the wild. It is rare for snowshoeing groups to encounter anybody except the occasional cross-country skier."

The geographical range of the snowshoeing trips is broad. Probably the most surprising location is Bosnia, where Exodus offers eight-day trips. "We started summer trekking there about five years ago. We thought it was an interesting destination, but didn't really expect it to take off. Now we have four or five trips every summer, and we've just launched mountain-biking holidays, too."

Exodus is not the only tour operator taking snowshoeing to remarkable places: its rival Explore is offering five-day trips to Lebanon this winter.

The appeal of mixed activities weeks is that guests can try out several winter pursuits, all of them reasonably accessible. You don't need much training, skill or nerve to tackle cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, for example. And in many cases – especially in Scandinavia – the equipment and specialist clothing are provided without charge.

There are winter activities which take some learning, notably downhill skiing and boarding. And this season, Exodus has launched learn-to-ski holidays in Slovenia. To winter-activities people, however, downhill skiing is a hard sell; when offered as a single-day option it is rarely taken up, says Ross.

But the reverse strategy works well with family skiing in Scandinavia, where "winter activities" are a welcome distraction for young, short-attention-span skiers: in its brochure the tour operator Neilson now offers snowshoeing, dog-sledding and snowmobiling, plus visits to Santa's grotto, as pre-bookable elements of a ski holiday.

Travel essentials

* Winter activities with Exodus (0845 330 6007; exodus.co.uk) cost from around £830 for cross-country skiing group trips, £760 for mixed activities, £2150 for dog-sledding, and £750 for snowshoeing: all prices are for eight-day trips, two sharing, including flights.

* With Neilson (0844 879 8155; neilson.co.uk), the most popular activity is husky dog safaris, which cost about £40 per adult for a 2.5km trip.

* The Lebanon trip with Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) costs £977 including flights