It's time to learn a snow sport

Birgitta Lindgren is accustomed to hearing the fears of city dwellers who show up at her cross-country ski and snowshoeing center near Steamboat Springs, Colo., and admit they're afraid of the forest.

"It's not because of the animals. It's not from a fear of getting lost," she says. "They're afraid of getting mugged. And it's always city people."

Here's some good news: If there has ever been a mugging in her neck of the woods, Lindgren isn't aware of it. Here's some more: Novice skiers and snowshoers who show up Saturday at the Steamboat Ski Touring Center — and at locations in 21 other states — won't pay a cent for equipment rental, passes or instruction as part of Winter Trails Day, now in its 14th year.

The promotion is a highlight in the January-long Learn a Snow Sport Month, which has grown vastly this year to include resorts in 23 states, up from just a handful in 2008. Deals and dates vary depending on the resort, but they include discounts on lessons and equipment rentals, and they're aimed at getting newbies to a) take a lesson and b) do so early in the season so they can return to build on the experience.

The promotions are coordinated in part by SnowSports Industries America, which represents suppliers of snow-related sports products. As such, they're eager to keep skis, snowboards and related paraphernalia moving, and creating new aficionados is a way to do that. But the bleak economy also has caused ski resorts to dream up their own enticements as they attempt to broaden their customer base.

In 2007, the number of downhill skiers dropped 14% to 5.5 million from 6.4 million the year before. Cross-country skiing was down 36% during the same period, though promoters blame the declines on a mid-winter thaw in the East. The number of snowboarders increased slightly during the same period.

Snowshoeing remains one of the more obscure winter sports. But it's also among the easiest to learn, which is why it's a featured activity on Winter Trails Day.

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"If you can walk, you can snowshoe," says Mary Jo Tarallo, the SnowSports Industries' director of education.

A growing number of ski areas offering snowshoe rentals and guided tours report an uptick in participation. At Smugglers' Notch in north-central Vermont, Nordic center director Clayton "Zeke" Zucker recalls that rentals there once consisted of one-size-fits-all shoes that resembled wooden tennis rackets. Modern aluminum versions are sized to fit everyone from tots to adults.

"This is the one winter sport that is absolutely great for three generations of the family," Zucker says. "We've had kids, parents and grandparents out together on the trails. Everybody can do it."

Smugglers' Notch has expanded its snowshoe program to include themed nature treks, local history tours and a Tuesday night five-course candlelight dinner where participants ride the lift up to a mountaintop shelter and hike down on snowshoes.

At Pennsylvania's Seven Springs Mountain Resort, the 6-year-old snowshoeing program features a dedicated area and guided treks into adjoining state park hiking trails.

And at Steamboat Ski Touring Center, Lindgren says that, while the numbers aren't huge, she's surprised at how many people are snowshoeing.

"There's definitely a time and place for it," she says. "There are people who never get out because either they physically can't ski or because they're afraid of getting injured. On snowshoes, they can get out in the forest and off the slick streets."

For information on discounts and promotions related to Learn a Snow Sport Month, go to winterfeelsgood.com.

For information on areas offering free snowshoeing and cross-country skiing Saturday, go to wintertrails.org.

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