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Old School Backcountry

By Meredith Bailey

Improved gear and many tour choices make old-fashioned winter travel new again.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizka

Long before helicopters and chairlifts, winter activity enthusiasts accessed the Canadian Rockies backcountry with simple equipment and no mechanical help. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding and horse-drawn sleighs were essential modes of winter travel.

Today people craving crowd-free, nature-rich escapes are turning to these long-established techniques. Advances in gear have made ‘old school’ wilderness travel easy to learn and accessible for most everyone. What’s old is new again. Time-honored methods are still some of the best ways to explore the backcountry in the winter.

Cross-Country Skis

Evidence of Nordic skiing has been found in 5000-year-old artifacts excavated from Swedish bogs; free-heel bindings allowed hunters to efficiently glide across the snow. Telemark downhill skiing evolved as a sport in Norway in the mid 1800s and liberated adventurers from relatively flat cross-country trails. At the turn of the 20th century, Scandinavian immigrants introduced cross-country skiing to Canada.

Cross-country skiing remains popular today. “People enjoy the rhythm of gliding on the snow and the silence of the mountains,” says Paula Beauchamp, owner of Walks & Talks Jasper. Beauchamp’s Secrets of the Mysterious Maligne Valley Tour includes an opportunity to ski on frozen Maligne Lake. Beauchamp points out that because the sport is aerobic, skiers build internal heat and can easily stay comfortable on chilly days. She notes that modern boots are “10 times more comfortable and warmer than they were.”

Hard-core backcountry enthusiasts now venture forth on mountaineering equipment that includes shaped skis with steel edges, hard shell boots and convertible bindings that allow the heel to lock for parallel turning down steeper slopes. And those wanting to get their heart rate up increasingly use modern skate skis and a technique that’s much different from the traditional ‘stride and glide.’

Banff Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizka


The great thing about snowshoeing is how little gear and experience you need to enjoy the sport. Bundle up and strap snowshoes to your boots. If you can walk, you can do it.

For centuries Aboriginal Peoples wore snowshoes built from wood and rawhide to hunt and trek through snow. But today’s snowshoes are made with lightweight metal alloy or polymer frames and better fitting hinged bindings with claws that make it easier to walk uphill.

Snowshoeing is no longer a necessity of winter life. “It’s all about enjoyment,” says Gordon Stermann of White Mountain Adventures. “You get to play in the soft deep snow and just let go.” Gord’s Snowshoeing on Top of the World takes visitors above the treeline where “views are out of this world and there’s an authentic sense of winter.”

For many mountain fitness buffs, snowshoeing at a rapid rate is their workout of choice. Stermann notes even playtime during his easy tours leave guests “happily tired.”

Courtesy Whyte Museum

Dog Sleds

Used for thousands of years by First Nations, dog-sledding made rapid, long distance winter transportation possible. Adopted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the late 1880s and immortalized by American author Jack London in his iconic novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild, dog sledding is popular today both as recreation and a competitive sport.

“Dog sledding was Canada’s signature sport before hockey,” notes Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours owner Connie Arsenault. Her excursions offer insights into the culture and lifestyle of dog sled travel. They include plenty of time to interact with the dogs and provide instruction that give guests an opportunity to drive their own sled. On the backcountry mountain trails there’s no noise except the dogs’ feet on the snow and their synchronized breath.

“The equipment is definitely evolving; you won’t find whale ribs, antlers or animal hides anymore,” Arsenault says. Teflon, plastics and different types of wood make sleds faster and safer to operate. They are constructed to accommodate clients from infants to the elderly (who can stay comfortably seated and wrapped in warm blankets), and are fun for all ages and physical abilities.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizka

Horse-Drawn Sleigh

Skis, snowshoes and dog sleds may have progressed over the years, but Brewster Lake Louise Stables sleighs “are exactly the same as they were 100 years ago,” says company owner Kevin Stanton. The only nod to modernity on these traditional wooden sleighs are the cushioned vinyl seats that are “a titch warmer than hay bales.” Belgian and Petron draft horses work in pairs to pull the sleighs.

Stanton’s trips go to the end of the lake where it’s calm, cool and quiet. “I never get tired of it; I think Lake Louise is the eighth wonder of the world,” he says. During nighttime excursions “the starry sky, dark mountains and twinkling lights from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise make it pretty romantic.”

Historically, horse-drawn sleighs were the preferred way ordinary people got around when the snow fell. It is “an authentic activity and people feel connected to the tradition,” notes Stanton.

Park the car, turn off your phone and try an activity so old it’s new again. From a relaxed horse-drawn sleigh ride to a mush-your-own dog sledding experience to an adventurous snowshoe adventure, traditional methods of winter travel still offer enticing ways to access backcountry scenery and solitude.

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