Affordable Winter Sports for the Depression

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In December 2008, Karen De Coster outlined a number of lifestyle changes that readers might want to make in order to survive (and even thrive) during the current depression. (Yes, that is exactly what we are experiencing no matter what the president and the political classes are telling us.)

We who live in the Snowbelt (and at the current time, the snow is belting us, as we have more than three feet outside our house) are also exposed to winter sports, which to most people mean skiing and snowboarding. As one who in years past has loved downhill skiing, I like living in an area where one can take a relatively short drive to the nearest slopes, and in Western Maryland, we have the choice of a lot of resorts that are quite good by Eastern U.S. standards.

However, as I shall demonstrate below, downhill skiing or snowboarding can be rather costly, not exactly an activity which might be friendly to the budget of a middle-class family. What to do? Can a typical family of five find winter activities that are fun, promote family cohesiveness, and still will not empty the bank account?

A number of families here have done just that by going the route of cross-country skiing. While I would not claim that X-C is a "perfect substitute" for downhill, nonetheless it not only is a lot of fun, promotes great exercise (better than downhill), and, for purposes of surviving the depression and still enjoying life, it is much less expensive.

For the cost comparison table below, I have taken a family of five, two adults and three children, and make the following assumptions:

  • They only can go on weekends
  • No one owns any downhill or X-C equipment
  • They are beginners who need lessons (we assume group lessons)
  • They will not go crazy buying food, but will purchase some eats and drinks
  • They live some distance away from the activity centers.

With that in mind, I have a cost-comparison chart for downhill skiing at our closest resort, The Wisp, located by Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, skiing at Whitegrass, a premier X-C and telemark skiing, located in Canaan Valley, West Virginia, and skiing at Backbone Farm, which is located by Backbone Mountain near Oakland, Maryland. I will give more detailed descriptions of the places after presenting the chart. I also include snow tubing at the Wisp, which people can do for two hours and involves sliding down steep hills in a tube in a safe environment.

Weekend Cost Comparisons Between Downhill and X-C Skiing (All Day)






Lift Ticket/Trail Fee






























As you can see, the numbers are remarkably different. Furthermore, because we have our own X-C skis, a weekend jaunt to Whitegrass or Backbone Farm suddenly becomes even less expensive. (Actually, I do my X-C skiing out my back door, as we live in a rural area where there are trails, farms, fields, and lots of snow. Ironically, the snow is too deep for me to ski today!)

Now, price is not the only factor. Some people simply do not wish to do anything but experience the rush of going downhill quickly, although if you wish to combine X-C and downhill, there always is telemark skiing, in which skiers perform beautifully-styled turns in an X-C atmosphere. (Frequent contributor D.W. Mackenzie is a certified telemark instructor and can run with the best of them.)

However, as one who has done both, I definitely prefer going the X-C route. Because I have learned to do turns on my backcountry skis (which are X-C skis that are wider than touring skis and have metal edges, but have X-C bindings), I can say that I prefer to be kicking and gliding and making tracks rather than standing in a lift line. Granted, we are speaking of individual tastes here.

As for exercise, there really is no comparison between the two. While one gets something of a workout by making turns while going downhill, the X-C exercise experience is second to none, as numerous measurements taken over the years have demonstrated that X-C skiers have the strongest cardiovascular systems, and it is an activity that uses all of the body.

But there even is more than just what happens on the snow; there also is the "lodge" experience, and once again, I choose X-C over downhill in that category. In a typical trip to the Wisp or any other downhill ski area, the lodges are very impersonal. Individuals who are not part of the same group rarely interact and certainly no manager is going to be asking people if they are having fun. The lodges themselves are chilly and not particularly friendly.

In contrast, let me tell readers about the experiences we have at Whitegrass and at Backbone Farm. Chip Chase, a man nearing 60 yet with the physique and the strength of a man half his age, founded and currently runs WG. Not surprisingly, he is an expert skier and, if truth be told, a kid at heart. (I say this not because I think he is immature, but rather because when he is on skis, he wants to have fun, and he wants everyone else at WG to have fun, too.)

The atmosphere inside the WG lodge is quite informal. A family might be playing checkers or a card game, while others are eating some of the remarkable food prepared by the WG cooks, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. People talk to one another, as conversation is part of the experience. In fact, a lot of people come to WG in the evenings on weekends for the food, the music, and the friendship.

Then there is Backbone Farm, an organic farm run by two of my favorite people Max and Katherine Dubansky. The Backbone lodge is small, warmed by a wood stove (like the lodge at WG), and the Dubansky children run around interacting with other children who are there. Katherine bakes cookies and cakes (for sale at reasonable prices) and all sorts of teas and hot chocolate are available. (They are not licensed to be a "restaurant" in Garrett County, which means that Katherine’s famous dishes are not available.) Oh, and you can bring the dogs. Try that at the downhill ski area!

At a place like the Wisp, no one wishes to linger in the lodge. It is get a meal or a snack, and then get out. The atmosphere at both WG and Backbone Mountain is quite different and certainly more family-friendly. We ski for a while, come in to warm up and chat, and then go out to ski some more. There are miles of groomed trails and pretty much something for everyone.

(I will add that I like the Wisp and believe it to be a very good downhill ski area. It provides a lot of wonderful services and the like, but, nonetheless, there are certain aspects of about any downhill ski site that pretty much are the same if one is in Maryland or the high mountains of the American West.)

For me (and most LRC fans), there is an added attraction to both X-C areas: the WG and Backbone people clearly are anti-war. Now, this is not the anti-war atmosphere in which one has the experience of being trapped in an elevator while being harangued by a wild-eyed Trotskyite. Instead, we experience the gentle, subtle, but nonetheless firm resolution of kind and generous people that the current U.S. wars cannot be supported under any circumstances.

Furthermore, Chip and the Dubanskys are people with useful skills. Chip helps to convert the WG land (which is owned by a nearby farmer) into a cattle ranch during the warm months. He also is a chimney sweep, and I guarantee you he is a good and conscientious one. Max and Katherine are doing what Jim Rogers recommends and a lot of us would like to be doing: making a living running a farm, and a true organic farm at that.

In other words, the WG and Backbone Farm experiences are something that can enrich an entire family. The benefits are obvious, and the added attraction is that one does not have to sell the farm to experience them. So, if you want some outdoor fun in the winter but are living on a depression budget, maybe X-C is the way to go.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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