7 of the weirdest winter sports—ever

February 18, 2015                 5m read time
Marika Tabilio

Something about the snow brings out the strange in sports. Curlers frantically sweep the ice. Skeleton sledders fly head first down frozen tracks. And biathletes mix target practice with cross-country skiing. But frankly, those competitions aren’t nearly as bizarre or dangerous as it gets. For centuries, bored arctic-dwellers have been alleviating their cabin fever with weird (and sometimes wonderful) winter games. Here are a few of the craziest ways to score in the cold.

Woman on skis being pulled by two dogs. PhotoBobil

Woman on skis being pulled by two dogs.



1.  Skijoring

For those who think cross-country skiing looks like drudgery, annotation we give you skijoring, the sport that attaches skiers to dogs or horses. annotation When a dog (or dogs) is in the lead, skijorers use ski poles and wear a belt that’s tethered to the pooch’s harness. Sort of like dog sledding sans sled. When horses are doing the pulling, participants ditch the poles and grip tow lines attached to the galloping beast. Sort of like waterskiing… on snow… behind a horse.

Competitions often involve racing through slalom gates and sailing off of ramps. Jumps are more common in the horse variant of the sport, as speeds are higher. Dogs tend to prove their mettle in impressively long skijoring races, such as the Kalevala, a 270-mile Russian course, and the River Runner 120 in Canada, which covers 120 miles.


2.  Shovel racing

Step one: Take a scoop shovel to a snow-covered slope.
Step two: Sit on said shovel.
Step three: With the handle between your legs, point your feet downhill and push off.
Step four: Hurtle towards the finish line at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

In the 1970s, ski lift workers in New Mexico invented shovel racing as an after-hours competition. Soon it was embraced by a larger audience, and the state’s Angel Fire Resort began holding an annual Shovel Racing World Championship. The sport reached its peak in 1997 when it made its first and only appearance at the Winter X Games. When competitors started going a little overboard with shovel modifications—including roll cages, hydraulic brake systems, and tweaks to increase speed (and, consequently, danger)—Angel Fire shut down the championship for several years because of liability concerns. But not to worry, aspiring shovel racers! The games reemerged in 2010 with a new caveat: old school, non-tricked-out shovels only.

Two men on horses playing snow polo. Castelfalfi

Two men on horses playing snow polo.



3.  Snow polo

Galloping horses, riders competing to hit a ball with a mallet—polo doesn’t seem like the safest of sports even in summer. But that didn’t stop devotees from staging a tournament on the icy surface of Lake St. Moritz in Switzerland 30 years ago. Unlike its warm-weather forebearer, snow polo can be played on any frozen lake or flat area covered with compacted snow. Not the most natural environment for horseback riding, but the ponies do get fitted with special cleats to prevent slippage. Otherwise the game is nearly identical to regular polo, with the additional exception of a larger, bright red ball for maximum visibility against all that white.

The first match in St. Moritz drew a small crowd, but the town continued to hold the Snow Polo World Cup St. each year. Over the last several decades, popularity for the oddball sport has grown, and it has since melted the hearts (ahem) of athletes across the globe. Italy, Austria, France, Argentina, Russia, Spain, the U.S. annotation have all adopted it, and it’s becoming popular in parts of Asia.

Hand sticking out of the water from a hole in the ice. Janne Hellsten

Hand sticking out of the water from a hole in the ice.

Janne Hellsten


4.  Ice diving

While the thought of falling through a frozen lake gives most of chills, ice divers aggressively seek out the opportunity. To explore underneath the surface, intrepid enthusiasts carve a hole in the ice, strap on scuba gear, and jump in. A team remains above to monitor the situation. The on-ice team (i.e. the not-crazy ones) sends messages below by tugging on a line attached to the diver. The daring divers are rewarded with spectacular views of ice formations and the chance to commune with sea butterflies (small swimming sea snails), jellyfish, penguins, and other sea creatures that dig the cold.

Though the sport is largely just for the thrill of it, the world’s first under-ice freediving competition took place in Norway in 2009. The goal? Reach the deepest depth—up to 170 feet down. Mind you, as this was freediving, contestants didn’t have the benefit of cushy oxygen tanks. These divers had to hold their breath for three to five minutes while plunging through sub-zero waters.

Person speed-flying—sailing through the air with skis and a parachute. Ludovic Péron

Person speed-flying—sailing through the air with skis and a parachute.

Ludovic Péron


5.  Speed-flying

Like something out of a Bond film, speed-flying combines downhill skiing and paragliding. Or, as Speed-Flying.com puts it, “Speed-flying is to paragliding as BASE jumping is to skydiving.” If the terrain gets too rocky—or if skiers just feel like it—they can deploy a wing similar to a paraglider and soar off a slope. Sounds like a dream, but the super high speeds (up to 90 miles per hour) and low altitudes (sometimes just a few feet above the ground) can make for a tricky journey. The extremity of the sport means that it is definitely not for everyone, or rather, not for most. But those who do it, love it for the serious adrenaline rush.

Check out some tip drags, two-and-half thumpers, and back tuck somersaults in this video.

6. Ski ballet

You know how hard triple axels look when done on perfectly smooth ice in dainty skates? Imagine that on snow and in full ski gear, poles and all. Ski ballet, or acrosking, is a weird and wonderful combination of acrobatics, figure skating, skiing, and serious style (check out the puffy gold lamé sleeves in the video above). Competitors perform a series of dramatic twists and turns using their poles as leverage, all while trying not to get tangled in their own skis. The sport enjoyed some mild popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, and was even tossed into the Olympics as a demonstration sport in the ’88 and ’92 games. The sport was not renewed for the Olympics in 1996, and all formal competition stopped in 2000. Farewell, ski ballet. You were too good for this world.

Person in kayak catching air as they launch off the snow and into cold water. Alex Kerney

Person in kayak catching air as they launch off the snow and into cold water.

Alex Kerney


7. Snow kayaking

Snow kayaking takes the boat out of the water and raises it to terrifying new heights. Although athletes still have their paddles to attempt some steering, only the most experienced kayakers (like, actual water-based kayakers) can plunge down frozen mountains and live to tell about it. Trust us, waxed kayaks shoot down icy slopes at rather alarming speeds.

The sport was created in 2002 by some Austrian kayakers with an apparent death wish, and there was even a world championship of sorts in 2007. The bravest of the brave still race occasionally. But not surprisingly, most resorts don’t allow the sport on their properties.


Skijoring originated in 19th-century Norway as a way to quickly disseminate army dispatches.

The Slate story, "Horse-Drawn Ski Racing Was Almost an Olympic Sport," provides the following insight into 19th century skijoring from the book "The Culture and Sport of Skiing": "Horsemanship was one of the aristocracy’s remaining differences from the urban masses, so the appeal of skijoring was a natural one ... Children were pulled by dog and pony, British officers in India tried it behind a yak, Sami behind reindeer, and men from the industrial world behind motorcycle, car, and even airplane."

Aspen, Colorado hosts the annual Snow Polo World Championship.

Marika Tabilio

Marika is a for-fun writer, aspiring singer, and begrudging runner. She loves traveling, reading, and eating her way through San Francisco.

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