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Where to Find the World’s Weirdest Winter Sports

For many, typical cold weather adventures — snowboarding, skiing, ice fishing — are good enough. However, if you’re after something a little outside the box, you’re in luck. Here are the world’s weirdest winter sports worth traveling for this season.

Shovel Racing in Angel Fire, New Mexico

If you spent any winter in the northern United States as a child, you’ve no doubt experienced impromptu sledding in a cardboard box or atop a metal trash can lid. That childlike ingenuity (or “stupidity,” depending on your worldview) is what spawned shovel racing. The “sport” — make no mistake, the athletes take this vocation seriously — arose in New Mexico in the 1970s as a way for lift operators to expedite the trip back down the mountain at the end of a long workday. Fast-forward a few decades, and it’s grown into a full-fledged annual championship event. The only requirements are, of course, a shovel, a bit of ski wax, and an athletic cup. Lest you think this is a silly redneck event, hardcore shovel racers in the Rockies have topped 70 miles per hour.

Best time to go: The World Championship Shovel Races at Angel Fire Resort every February.

Skijoring in Whitefish, Montana

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ask any Montana local, and they’re likely to agree their state is a beautiful and (proudly) strange place. So, it’s a fitting home for one of the more curious winter sports in the United States: skijoring (from the Norwegian skikjøring meaning “ski driving”). The concept is simple: competitors strap on a pair of skis, harness themselves to a horse, a sled dog, or even a car, then race around a timed track. Various events are held throughout the country. However, Montana may be the sport’s unofficial U.S. home. Its roots there date back to the ‘60s and, since 2009, the town of Whitefish has held the World Skijoring Championships. Today, the competition focuses on equestrian skijoring. If you’ve never seen a man pulled by a mule off of a ski jump, it’s truly a sight to behold.

Best time to go: During the annual Whitefish Winter Carnival in early February.

North Pole Marathon at the Top of the World

North Pole Marathon 2015

It’s a marathon. At the North Pole. Need we say more? The annual event is among the most grueling marathons on earth for obvious reasons. The 42-kilometer race pits contenders from all over the world who compete by running across the (mostly) frozen Arctic Ocean, meaning it’s the world’s only official marathon run on water. The ever-changing terrain means runners must contend with icy, uneven ground that often requires they run in snowshoes. Doctor-staffed medical tents at various checkpoints help keep frostbite at bay.

Best time to go: The sole event takes place every year in April. Contenders must register well in advance and pay a €15,000 (approximately USD $18,000) entry fee.

Wok Racing Wherever You Want

Some people really love cooking with a wok; then there are those who really love riding in a wok. Wok racing is like a sideways version of shovel racing, but without the pesky, and potentially ball-breaking handle. The sport started on German television as a joke in 2003 but was quickly popularized and ultimately professionalized. Wok racers don hardcore protective gear (similar to hockey players) before barreling down traditional bobsled tracks at up to 75 miles per hour. Athletes can compete individually, but team wok racing provides a more exciting option in which four woks are affixed together with a wooden frame forming a “woksled.”

Best time to go: The World Wok Racing Championships officially wrapped in 2015. However, amateurs need only a wok, a snow-covered hill, and a dream to join in the fun.

Snow Kayaking

Snow Kayaking by Warren Miller

Snow kayaking (a.k.a. “snow boating”) is every bit as awesome, extreme, and terrifying as it sounds. Imagine sledding down a steep, snow-covered slope in a traditional kayak, paddle and all. While paddles are required gear for water-based kayaking, they’re more of a novelty in snow kayaking. They exist merely as a last resort to avoid crashing into trees, rocks, and bears — at least in theory. While the majority of us will never bother to try, let alone master, snow kayaking, this video almost makes it look easy:

Best time to go: There’s no official, governing body for snow kayaking. Every few years, it’s briefly resurrected by the likes of Red Bull. For the most part, however, you’ll need to be content with carving the slopes in your own boat.

Downhill Ice Cross

Big Crashes and Close Finishes - Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015

If there were an official sport for “dudebros,” it would be downhill ice cross. Every round involves four competitors in full hockey pads hurdling down a steep, walled ice track with sharp turns, big jumps, and brutal drops. Although it’s not quite as full contact as ice hockey, there’s no shortage of crashes and wipeouts. The sport has gained steam in recent years with former hockey players and fans hoping it might be legitimized with acceptance into the Winter Olympics.

Best time to go: Since 2010, Red Bull (who else?) has hosted its official Crashed Ice ice cross events throughout the world, including North America, Asia, and Europe.

Yukigassen

Yukigassen Showa-Shinzan 2014.e

We appreciate that the Japanese have an uncanny knack for turning anything into a spectator sport. Yukigassen — essentially an organized snowball fighting competition — itself isn’t especially “weird.” The fact that an entire country would elevate the lowly snowball fight to a full contact sport is. The modern version involves two teams of seven players who square off in a “capture the flag” style competition. There’s now even an officially recognized governing body of the sport.

Best time to go: Yukigassen has been popular in Japan for decades. In recent years, however, it’s taken off throughout Asia, North America, Europe, and even Australia.

Ski Ballet

Ski ballet - Rune Kristiansen - Ballet event from the 1993 World Cup

The strangest sports are borne of the bizarre melding of two completely unrelated activities. Ski ballet, for example, is exactly what it sounds like: a ballet performed on snow skis. We can only guess why anyone thought this was a good idea or something the world needed. The Olympic Committee attempted to legitimize it in the late 1980s with its debut as a “demonstration sport.” However, it wasn’t meant to be. After a series of disappointing events in the Olympics of the 1990s, it was ultimately scrapped in 2000.

Best time to go: Unfortunately, the official world of ski ballet fizzled fast. That doesn’t, however, mean that you can’t take part. The only thing you need to join the party is to dust off your old ski gear and rekindle your pretty ballerina dreams, and you’re in business.

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Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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