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Last month’s blog looked at a range of different smartphone apps for navigation, fitness and performance logging that can help you track activities and monitor your training progress. Most of us these days have smartphones and they can be a handy entry point into discovering the utility of digital devices in the outdoors. The utility of smartphones is such that they travel with us almost everywhere: as such, taking them on a run or a hike hardly appears a burden. Indeed, for safety’s sake it’s a good idea to have a phone with you in case of an emergency, or simply to contact others to let them know of your progress or changes to an itinerary. While many great apps indeed exist to aid your exploration and discovery of the mountains, once you’ve discovered their advantages you may find yourself looking to upgrade to a dedicated device designed for the backcountry.

Those new to the delights of mountain sports such as trail running, cross country skiing and trekking often find that feedback can prove a crucial motivating factor in spurring their development and progression in their chosen sport. Important then is both the frequency and quality of the information you can collect to provide that all important guidance; this is where dedicated fitness trackers and GPS-enabled smartwatches come to the fore. A crucial benefit of these specially developed devices is their reliability and durability when it comes to performing in the challenging outdoor environment: those who’ve struggled with the irritation of retrieving data from a waterlogged iPhone will testify to the limitations of a tracking tool that wasn’t conceived with Mother Nature and the mountains in mind!

If you’re serious about keeping a record of your outdoor exploits and gauging your performance, you’ll want to keep your smartphone firmly sealed in a Ziplock and instead rely upon one of the many new custom gadgets developed for fitness enthusiasts. But, with the plethora of choices choosing the right one for your needs can seem just a little daunting! Fret not, as we’ll guide you through the process of selecting the most suitable device, based upon an assessment of their different functionalities and the actual usefulness of the seemingly endless array of bells and whistles these little technological miracles now possess.

Of course one consideration when choosing a tracker is style. Don’t worry — you’re not alone in thinking that looks matter! After all, if you’re to faithfully wear your new acquisition 24/7 you’ll want it to look the part. Fashion is, of course, a very individual affair. Many devices have replaceable straps, which offers the opportunity to change appearance depending on your mood — or the colour of whichever of the many pairs of running shoes you’ve chosen to step out in for your daily dose of exercise! While many of the devices have a fairly standard sporty/utilitarian look, some of the newer models definitely exhibit a more nuanced, sophisticated look. Some devices, such as the Apple Watch Series 3, have been designed with finesse; and as a result have sleeker, more refined bodies. These higher end watches feature swappable bands (including leather options) that increase their versatility, meaning that they won’t look out of place when the occasion calls for more a little more polish and elegance.

Rather than attempt an overview of every single device out on the market — there are simply dozens! — we thought to make the process for our blog readers a little simpler by focusing on the two main categories of tracking tools that have evolved to date: fitness trackers and GPS/smartwatches. It’s important to note that beyond monitoring your outdoor exploits, most of the devices that fall into these two groups increasingly incorporate other useful health-related capabilities such as sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring, etc. Before you make a purchase, then, take time to think about all the different functions you might wish to make use of. You’ll probably be surprised by just how many are not just intriguing, but really rather helpful — providing insight into aspects of your lifestyle that can help identify how best to improve your wellness.

Fitness Trackers

The basic features that a runner should look for in a tracker are the ability to accurately track total running time, heart rate, distance and pace.

Fitbit Charge 2

The Fitbit Charge 2 is a basic exercise tracker with built-in heart rate monitoring. It’s an improvement on the original model with more stylish looks and the option of replaceable bands. The Fitbit Charge 2 features multi-sport modes and guided breathing sessions. Whilst it does’t have its own dedicated GPS, the device does have the capability to connect to your smartphone, which allows you to see real-time stats such as pace and distance and record a map of your route. The price tag of £140 (cheaper if you shop around!) it’s good value and provides just about the right quantity of information without overloading you with data. Price: £140

Garmin Vivofit 3

The Garmin Vivofit 3 is a simple device that, well, won’t win any design awards! However, if you’re looking for a tracker that’s simple to use and is fuss-free, this could be the one for you. The Vivofit 3 has all the features you’ll need to start out monitoring your fitness level, and has the added bonus of being charger-free (it sports a 1-year battery life). The backlit display is easy to read and shows steps taken, calories consumed, distance travelled and also monitors sleep. The Garmin software that supports this device isn’t as intuitive as might be hoped for, but once you’ve learnt its foibles it’s easy enough to use. At a pretty good price point for an entry-level model, the Garmin Vivofit 3 is well worth considering for those looking to start monitoring their fitness level regularly and benefit from a more structured approach to their training programme. Price: £90

GPS-Enabled Trackers/Watches

Initially it was only the much higher end devices that incorporated GPS tracking, which works on the basis of determining your position via the triangulation of satellite signals. However, competition between device manufacturers is fierce and even the cheaper models now feature this functionality built in. With GPS your watch can determine your location and calculate the speed of your movement with much more accuracy than a basic fitness tracker, and also allows for the provision of location-specific information such as altitude: very handy of course for trail runners and hikers! Having GPS is also useful for post-activity analysis: you can download the data and view the route of your run and share it with others.

Garmin Forerunner 735XT

This Garmin watch is a higher end tracker that features lots of nifty extras — reflected in the price! Garmin have developed additional functionality for triathletes that measures the contact time of your stride, stride length, and even the estimated recovery time after a workout. Coupled with Garmin’s dedicated chest strap it can even provide an estimate of your VO2 max and lactate threshold. This watch is obviously aimed at the most serious of athletes and provides a great deal of very advanced information — before splurging check whether one of the simpler devices might not be a better solution, based on the value of the core data that the more basic trackers all provide. Price: £400

Polar M400

The Polar M400 is a great mid-range option for trail runners and hikers looking for a GPS-enabled fitness tracker. The watch is well designed, built to withstand shocks and waterproof to boot. The M400 also boast great battery life (easily charged via a standard micro USB cable) and can be synched with both Android and iPhones to allow for push notifications. Being a cheaper GPS watch it doesn’t feature a built-in heart rate monitor and its display is standard monochrome. If fashion matters as much as form, you’ll have to decide whether the tracker’s chunkiness is a badge of honour as a dedicated runner — or whether you need search for something a little more charm in the looks department! Price: £200

Apple Watch Series 3 GPS

The Apple Watch is now in its third iteration after some hefty design tweaks. The watch is certainly much more than a timepiece, or even a tracker, for that matter: whilst the Apple Watch is expensive, you’re buying into a whole ecosystem of apps and additional functionality that the device supports. From a design perspective it looks just the same as the last generation (and is still waterproof to a depth of 50 metres), but under the hood the clever folks at Cupertino have been hard at work. As a higher end device the watch features GPS, and its Retina display makes it easy to view details of your location even in challenging lighting conditions in the outdoors. The watch’s heart rate monitor, which monitors your pulse by analysing changes in your skin colour, has been significantly improved with greater accuracy. Where Apple’s offering differs from those of its competitors is in the health and wellness apps it features: the latest watchOS allows you to monitor many different kinds of workouts with smart coaching messages that encourage you to reach activity targets. A more advanced model, GPS + cellular, also allows phone calls to be routed to the tracker… but that’s not something we really feel’s essential to a running device! Still, you might wish to check out Apple’s comparison site to determine which model is best for you: as the watch is a considerable purchase, it’s worth figuring out which represents the best investment for your longer term needs. Price: from £329

It’s important, however, to remember that while digital devices are great facilitative tools and can provide a source of motivation to get out and train (especially when challenging weather may attempt to persuade us otherwise!), the information they provide should be ingested with a healthy dose of appreciation for all that’s unmeasurable in the great outdoors!

There’s no device or tracking tool (as yet!) that can quantify just how much fun you’re having while trekking/trail running/skiing or snowshoeing: in the end, enjoyment of the experience is what it’s all about. There’s certainly a case for donning whatever footwear’s needed, throwing on a fleece (or whatever layers are required to stay warm) and then inadvertently ‘losing’ your fitness band or GPS watch… thus heading out carefree in the knowledge that every once in a while it’s good to forget about the metrics and take the opportunity to really marvel at the beauty that’s all around us as we venture through the wilderness. There’s not an app, device or tracker that scientists in a lab will ever quite devise to accurately capture that!

It’s only data - enjoy your exercise!

Remember the good old days of fumbling with an OS map in a howling wind, then trying to locate the compass in one of your jacket’s many pockets (only to realise its embedded firmly at the bottom of your rucksack…)? Remember too the early heart rate monitors that ate batteries, were clunky and didn’t seem to work reliably for more than a few weeks before they’d start to provide inaccurate readings that were off the charts? Fond memories, indeed! Whilst the growing adoption of digital technologies by those heading out to enjoy the outdoors does remain a little contentious in certain circles, the pitch made by purists that hiking and running should remain tech-free, uncomplicated pursuits is less and less persuasive. Times have changed. Using technology increasingly enhances the outdoor experience, providing opportunities to enhance safety, improve communication with others, analyse performance and share information with other enthusiasts.

Today hikers and runners can choose from a plethora of different gadgets that promise to make the task of navigation and tracking performance much easier, and with far greater accuracy than we could have ever imagined. Devices have evolved in leaps and bounds in recent years and, thankfully, they are generally much more easy to use. Gone are the days of assiduously studying manuals and pouring over FAQs and troubleshooting guides to have your new toy perform the simplest of tasks: today’s tracking tools are far more intuitive and designed to be put into action straight after you’ve downloaded them.

It’s understandable that many might be a little wary of buying a dedicated GPS tracker, altimeter watch or fitness band if they’re still unsure they’ll use it enough to justify the outlay. A good option therefore can be downloading one or more of the specialised apps available for smartphones and tablets and replicate much of the functionality you’d find on customised, sport-specific devices. If you then find the feedback the app provides insightful, this can then help inform your view if you decide to go ahead and purchase a dedicated device. Smartphones and tablets are likely to be devices with which you are already very familiar. The utility and ubiquity of these devices is such that they travel with us almost everywhere: as such, taking them on a run or a hike hardly appears a burden. Indeed, for safety’s sake it’s a good idea to have a phone with you in case of an emergency, or simply to contact others to let them know of your progress or changes to an itinerary.

With the range of different apps for navigation, fitness and performance logging expanding by the day, the oft-repeated cliché of ‘there’s an app for that!’ increasingly proves ever more an appropriate adage. Yet the huge selection can make finding the right one just a little daunting, as there’s nothing worse than a phone clogged full of useless, memory hogging apps that take an eternity to delete. Fret not, however! We’ve been busy testing the most promising apps to save you the torment and frustration of endless downloads that don’t quite cut the mustard!

Easily the most useful for those heading outdoors are the navigation apps on offer from a number of developers. For the UK and the rest of Europe ViewRanger is the best digital mapping guide to the outdoors, with powerful GPS navigation features and assistive tech to make route finding simpler. Ordnance Survey also offer an app on both the iOS and Android platforms, but it’s not quite as easy to use as ViewRanger’s offering on the different mobile platforms. Other apps that we’ve found useful include Hill Lists, Mountain Steps UK, Outdoors Great Britain and Peak Scanner.

Most of the most useful fitness apps available for phones and tablets are also tracking tools — they allow you to log exercise sessions, count calories and collect stats about your hikes, runs and bike rides: this is a great way to gauge how you’re improving over time. Strava is the most well-established of all the fitness trackers on iOS and Android and has a mind-boggling array of different features; in addition to GPS-related tracking there are also many great social network features that allow you to share your progress with friends (and workout rivals!). A handy feature is the record of different trail routes and typical times posted for circuits, which can prove very helpful when gauging the pace for your run, hike or ride. If you’re looking for a running-specific app to log your daily activity we’d also recommend Runkeeper — it’s a bit less daunting for newbies for whom Strava might seem overly complex, but has all of the functions you’ll need to start tracking and analysing your running regime. Other good apps for runners that we like are MapMyRun and Runtastic.

Whilst for runners and hikers weight is obviously an important consideration, one shouldn’t skimp on ensuring that your phone or tablet is adequately protected from knocks and scrapes and, just as importantly, from the elements. There are many different brands offering housings and protective cases to safeguard your device — amongst our favourites are those offered by Pelican and Otterbox: these two manufacturers have developed the most reliable protection in terms of anti-shock and waterproofing capabilities. Whilst a decent case isn’t cheap, a new phone is a lot more costly!

For those of you ready to make the leap, next month we’ll give our recommendations for the best value dedicated fitness, navigation and tracking devices, and explain how you can get the most out of using these pieces of equipment in the great outdoors.

A decade ago there were only a handful of off-road races around the world from which an endurance runner could choose to pit him or herself. Now, with the popularity of ultra marathons continuing to grow year by year, part of the challenge is just choosing which one to enter! Of course, one of the highlights of any mountain race is the spectacular scenery — so here’s our guide to four races that offer a sublime visual and sensory experience (and a really tough challenge to boot!):

Greek Spartathlon
The Spartathlon race has taken place each year since 1984 and is one of the toughest ultramarathons on the circuit and is founded on one of Greece’s most epic legends from the depths of history: the Spartathlon revives the footsteps of Pheidippides, an ancient long distance runner from Athens who, before the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, was sent to Sparta to seek help in the war with the Persians. The battle itself remains one of the most famous in world history, constituting a landmark and starting point in the history of civilization. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after his departure from Athens - a truly epic run of 250km!

Now runners can literally follow in his footsteps. The Spartathlon has been described as the world's most gruelling ultra marathon: the route runs over rough tracks, muddy paths (it often rains during the race), traverses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep slopes and, particularly challenging, takes the runners on the 1,200m/3,600ft ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the middle of the night! All those who make it to the final descent into Sparta have completed an incredible achievement! The Spartathlon takes place this September - more info here.

Gorge Waterfalls 50/100k, Oregon, USA
The Columbia River Gorge races, which take place in April each year, feature an amazing backdrop of old-growth forests, mossy rocks and feature technical and challenging root-covered trails. The Columbia River Gorge is a short drive from Portland, Oregon, and is the largest national scenic area in the United States. The area boasts the greatest concentration of waterfalls in the whole of North America. In fact, the Gorge Waterfalls 100k is unique for the sheer number of waterfalls the route takes you past - possibly more than you'll be able to count! One, the sublime Ponytail Falls, you'll actually run right underneath! Feeling inspired? There’s a great video from the Rainshadow Running series that features the highlight of the race — watch it here.

UTMB, Chamonix, France
If you’ve heard of one trail race — it’s the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). Now in its fourteenth year, the UTMB is justifiably a legend amongst trail runners the world over. Towards the end of August each year athletes from across the globe make a pilgrimage to test themselves in this epic race circling Mont Blanc that traverses three countries: first France, then Italy, and finally Switzerland. The 166km/approx 100 mile route has a total elevation gain of close to 9,400m/30,800ft route and begins in the Chamonix, then makes its way through picturesque valleys along forest paths, rising up through open meadows resplendent in the colours of alpine flora. Crossing into Italy the path becomes more formidable, flanked by jagged peaks and imposing cliffs.

The route then takes runners through the pastures of the Italian Val Ferret, up and over the Grand Col Ferret and into the Swiss Valais where, thankfully, the terrain is just a little sympathetic — but it’s all relative at this point!

Athletes still have a challenging journey home via Trient, Vallorcine and, back across the border, there’s a climb awaiting at the Col des Montets! Running the UTMB is as much an internal adventure as a voyage through the stunning landscape of the Mont Blanc massif, promising a truly unique experience for the dedicated trail runner. Kirsty Reade has written a great piece for The Guardian detailing her exploits in rising to the challenge of completing the UTMB - read it here.

Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon
The Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon is a classic race, and one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere, having been taking place each year since 1970. The race draws sporting enthusiasts from across the globe to the scenic cape for a unique and trying athletic experience, and is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful sporting events. The 56km Ultra Marathon takes you along a stunning coastal journey around the Cape Peninsula.

Florian Neuschwander, Germany’s best ultra runner, has called it “the most beautiful ultra in the world because you directly run along the ocean coast” and noted how refuelling during the race is just little different from other experiences “…the atmosphere on the course is amazing – instead of stodgy gels you get handed potatoes by the spectators. It's a funny run.” Find out more about South Africa’s Two Oceans Marathon here.

This summer and autumn we’ve expanded our programme to cover the best trail running adventures in the Alps, Dolomites and the Verdon Gorge.

We’ve also several dedicated week-long coaching and training camps taking place in Chamonix.

Find out more about all our running trips here — and do get in touch if we can help with any questions!

Julia

While many of us carry a smartphone wherever we go and can snap photos with ease, there’s still something to be said for having a dedicated camera to capture shots of your trip that you’ll really treasure. A slim, lightweight digital compact camera will, for a modest outlay, deliver great quality images from your hike or run.

What to look for in a camera
Whether you’re taking shots on a smartphone, a compact camera or a state-of-the-art digital SLR, you’ll need a wide angle lens. A wide angle is vital for landscapes and group shots that take in a wider view of the surroundings and provide for a nice backdrop to your photo, giving context. Try and find a camera that has a zoom lens that allows for wild angle shots and close-ups (such as for taking photos of wild flowers). If your camera is a little limited in terms of how wide a shot it can take, don’t fret — free software available for download online from all the major players such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus (not too mention Google’s Picasa software and Adobe Photoshop Elements) can be used to stitch together landscape images and create great panoramic shots.

Technology from high-end DSLRs (think big, heavy, somewhat unwieldy professional tools) has over time trickled down to more affordable compact cameras and even smartphones like the iPhone. Really handy technologies such as image stabilisation, high speed continuous shooting modes and minimal shutter lag operation make capturing the moment just that little bit easier.

Image stabilization helps ensure your photo is more sharp and less blurry by compensating for any camera shake if it's freezing cold and you can't quite keep that camera perfectly still in a buffeting wind. It’s also great if you simply can’t stop and need to capture a photo while on the fly — frequently the case when trail running in a group! Helpful too when trail running is high speed continuous shooting, which allows upwards of 3-4 shots per second (even the newer Android and iPhones feature this) and helps ensure you can capture that fleeting moment of action on your outdoor adventure. Continuous shooting is especially helpful when taking action shots where the subject is fast moving or a little unpredictable (great for wildlife photos where you never know the intentions of a marmot or chamois!). For the same reason, minimal shutter lag is also a handy benefit of newer cameras - it allows you to capture the exact composition you're expecting, not what follows half a second later!

Packing - a few thoughts on what you’ll need
As with any trip, think about what layers you'll be needing. This is particularly important if you think you might need to wait a little or experiment with the composition of your shots — avoid getting cold by having the right gear! This is especially the case where you combine high intensity exercise such as trail running or strenuous hiking with the inevitable standing around that outdoor photography involves. Wherever you are, even in summer it’s always important to have a compressible down or fleece jacket in your pack along with a lightweight waterproof in case the weather abruptly changes. Thin gloves (made from silk or microfibre) are very affordable and handy (excuse the pun!) — you’ll need warm hands to operate your camera with the minimum of delay!

Getting the best shot
Firstly, good outdoor and mountain photography starts and finishes with being aware of your immediate surroundings - and being sensible about the decisions your make. Trips into the mountains always require, among other considerations, being informed about the weather conditions. Getting good photos makes proper planning even more important. Changing weather conditions can have a real impact on the light, cloud formations and how you photograph landscapes. Nonetheless, foremost you must make sure you’re focused on staying as warm and dry as possible. There are times where it’s just not conducive to wait for the clouds to part: instead, finding shelter is the priority if a storm’s brewing!

Other considerations
Low weight is indeed crucial when considering what device to purchase. Lean, compact cameras or a smartphone are a must! If it's too bulky (awkward to fit into a jacket pocket and retrieve at the crucial moment) or heavy you'll find yourself leaving it back at the hotel or cursing every time you have to claw it out from the bottom of your rucksack. Your camera needs to be available at will so that you can capture those spontaneous moments (such as the ibex you chance upon as you turn the corner of a twisty alpine trail) that will remind you of the fun times on your summer trip.

A slimline device such as a compact camera or smartphone also ensures you aren't wasting time pulling out and stashing away your piece of kit every time you wish to capture an image… which otherwise wastes precious time on a route, and can start to wrangle the nerves of your trekking peers if you’re frequently faffing with kit!

Three affordable cameras we recommend:

1. Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ100
The DMC-TZ100 offers a large (one-inch) sensor and a very flexible 10x optical zoom, which makes it an ideal travel camera. Furthermore, it has full manual controls that allow you to improve your photo-taking skills as your gain experience. Images taken with the Panasonic are bright, sharp and well-exposed. The camera also works excellently in low-light conditions: great for dawn shots or pics huddled around the campfire! More details on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ100

2. Canon PowerShot SX730
The Canon PowerShot’s incredible 40x optical zoom range is perfect if nature photography is your passion. The SX730 offers the best available zoom currently on the market and will allow you to frame a great photo without disturbing the fauna in the wilds. The camera also features manual controls, a tilting screen (handy for viewing what in frame when you’re coached down to take close-up shots of alpine flowers). More info on the PowerShot SX730

3. Nikon Coolpix A900
Nikon’s A900 is a well-designed superzoom compact with many great features. It’s zoom range is a little shorter than that of the Canon, but a 35x optical zoom should prove more than adequate. The large size of the image sensor on the A900 model provides for good image quality in a variety of different shooting situations. Whilst the Nikon has quite a boxy look to it (think 80s Volvo…) it is, like the car, well-built and able to withstand knocks — an important consideration when out and about in the great outdoors! Get all the specs on the Nikon A900 here

In next month’s blog we’ll be giving a few more hints and tips on taking photos in the outdoors. Do get in touch if you’ve any requests on advice you’d like featured!

Spring is in the air and the warmer weather is definitely an added incentive to step outside and get more exercise. With busy lives it can be a little difficult, however, to manage schedules and make time for a lengthy workout… How, then, to maximise the ‘return on investment’ for those precious minutes you’re really able to be active each day? Lately sports scientists have been dedicating much of their research to discovering what’s the most time-effective way to improve one’s fitness level — much of the emphasis being placed on how efficient and effective overall our training actually is. Research has also identified the added benefits of sticking to a regular programme of fitness: focusing on regular workouts, however short, can deliver additional improvements in our athletic abilities and proves especially rewarding.

Now the good news — while spending lots of time on long runs is highly enjoyable, it’s not necessarily the best way to improve fitness when looked at purely from the perspective of efficiency: there are other ways to make gains that are quicker. Shorter efforts are ideal for those with little spare time to dedicate to a training regime. Personal trainers are increasingly guiding those of us lacking free time to exercise but looking to boost fitness levels to High-Intensity Interval Training. HIIT (also sometimes shortened to just ‘HIT’) refers to physical exercise that is characterised by short, intermittent bursts of energetic activity that encourages powerful muscular contractions, interspersed with periods of rest or lower-intensity exercises. HIIT is a recommended mode of training to increase your physical capability by increasing endurance, agility and strength — all while adding a little extra flexibility too.

HIIT is also a great way of working out for sports such as trail running, as the changes of intensity mimic your level of engagement, exercise level and movements in adapting to the challenges of different terrain types (or responding to others’ bursts of acceleration in trail races!) — one minute you’re on a more comfortable pace, the next minute running like a hare! High-intensity interval training can therefore help you prepare you for these kinds of manoeuvres. A further benefit of HIIT is that it has been shown to encourage weight loss: exercising vigorously burns more calories than what you would get on a regular exercise and leads to a higher level of fat burning. This way of training can be a better alternative for your cardio when you haven’t much time.

By pushing yourself a little harder you can train your body and adapt gradually to strain and harder workouts. It’s important though to remember that getting out and enjoying the outdoors should be a fun pursuit — any form of exercise is better than a total lack of it. We’re not always in the mood to really push ourselves after a hard day at the office or taking care of the kids. In that case, just getting a gentler work out that’s less intense still brings rewards, making our heart pump faster than usual and increasing the calories burnt. Exercising, especially in nature, has been shown to make us happier and bring a sense of wellbeing — reason enough!
Of course, as with any exercise regime, you should take the time to transition to a more demanding regime and take care to listen to your body — be careful and stop any activities immediately that cause pain or discomfort. Be kind to your body — and enjoy spring! Julia

Discover our range of summer activities, including trail running and hiking, in the French Alps, Jura, Corsica, the Dolomites and other destinations.

Lindsay's written a great blog article on showshoeing for the timeoutdoors.com website — featured below too. We've still a few spots on select trips this winter: join us and enjoy the experience the beauty of the Alps on snowshoes. Contact us for more information.

❄ 'Snowshoeing in the French Alps' - by Lindsay Cannon ❄

What better way to experience the winter mountains in the Alps than a six-day traverse of the stunning Chablais, a true winter journey in an area renowned for its marvellous snowshoeing country? Escape the crowds, climb over high passes and marvel at the winter landscape, sample delicious local food, and just generally have a brilliant time!

Traverse of the Chablais, France

The Chablais is simply a winter playground of high alpine pastures, forests, jagged ridges and peaks. Geographically it lies in the Pre-Alps between Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and the Mont Blanc range in France. And snowshoes are the best way to explore this wonderland. Forget the idea they look like tennis racquets — that was ‘back in the day’. They are a great high tech piece of gear that you strap your boots into, made of light materials, with spikes on the front and bottom which allow you to gamble your way through the snow. Not to mention they come in a dazzling array of colours to suit every wardrobe!

Snowshoeing — what’s it all about?

Well, for starters it is the fastest growing winter activity in Europe — according to the snowshoe manufacturers sales are increasing by 40 per cent each year. Clearly there are people who enjoy walking in the mountains in summer who are realising what a wonderful way it is to experience the winter mountain landscape!

Snowshoes today are a far cry from the original snowshoes, which were made of wood and leather and did indeed look like something which would come in handy for a game at Wimbledon. Their use can be traced back to Central Asia and today, some 6,000 years later, they continue to prove very effective for travel in a winter landscape. The idea is simple really: the greater the surface area you have attached to your walking boots, the less chance you have of sinking into deep snow. Some say watching hares travelling across the snow pack inspired early humans to copy them in so far as they provided an understanding that large hairy hind feet stopped them sinking. Okay, there aren’t hairs on snowshoes, but it does make sense. Rather, the typical modern snowshoe comes with six studs on the bottom, and a front claw for gripping on steeper uphill sections. Having pushed my fair share of different snowshoes to the limit I can vouch for their effectiveness.

How much previous experience do I need, if any?

Snowshoeing is open to anyone who likes to walk in the mountains. The great thing about snowshoeing is that you need no prior experience to do a trip like the Traverse of the Chablais, a fabulous six-day journey across the mountain range. You simply need to be able to walk in the mountains with a good level of fitness and be happy to be out for most of the day. Within half an hour of putting snowshoes on your feet you will be proficient, and will walk along quite happily. Typically we leave after a good breakfast at around 9 am, hike up to our highest point where we have our picnic lunch, and then spend the afternoon descending to the next valley, where we check into our cosy hotel.

Will I need to carry a heavy rucksack?

No – you’re spared the ordeal! A trip like this, a six-day journey totalling around 80 km over the week, is much more enjoyable with a light rucksack with just a few items for your use. Your main luggage will be picked up each morning from your hotel and taken to your next hotel by taxi. It makes life simpler, and the walk easier. You will need to carry a small day rucksack of about 25-30 litres in size with some items such as lunch, water, spare warm and waterproof layers, spare gloves, hat, and equipment such as a snow shovel, very useful for digging a seat in the snow for lunch! Your snowshoes, walking poles and all other equipment is supplied for you and included in the trip fee.

What is it like to ‘journey’ through the mountains in the snow in winter?

Quite simply it’s magical! It can also be an effort, as with all mountain journeys, but I’ve never met anyone yet who has done anything other than love the quiet satisfaction of a day well earned, and a summit won.
So it’s the morning of day one, and a few hours later we are into our stride and en route to our first summit the Pointe des Jottis at 1548m. A quick stop for views across the Chablais to the impressive limestone walls and jagged peaks, which in the days ahead we discover are a daily feature of this beautiful landscape and then it’s onwards to our first destination. By the time we reached the remote village of Bellevaux at the end of our first day you will be ready for a glass of wine or beer and fired up with enthusiasm for the journey ahead.
Next morning, as with each morning, it’s a steady climb through alpine summer pastures, often passing ancient chalets and farms on the way, before reaching the high point of the day, in this case Tré-le-Saix at 1486m. A little further on, a stunning plateau awaits us and it is common not to find a single person in sight. Where is everyone else on these perfect alpine days? Three cols later and we drop down into yet another gem of a hidden valley heading for the tiny village of Biot.
There are so many truly lovely little villages in the deep-sided valleys of the Chablais just waiting to be discovered. Most have beautiful squares with impressive stonework along with the inevitable elegant chapel, sunlight glinting off the jewel colours of the stained glass.
One of the great things of course about a multi-day journey is it provides such a wonderful opportunity to forget about the stresses and strains of everyday life. You get up in the morning, consume several mugs of coffee and several hot croissants with generous dollops of jam, pick up your rucksack and start walking, until eventually you arrive at another hostel and a further opportunity for eating and drinking. What could be better?

The standout experiences and sights of snowshoeing in the Alps.

1. Standing on a high pass in the winter, taking in a view of sparkling snow-covered mountains that stretch to the horizon.
2. Walking through a landscape that is silent in its winter cloak of snow and ice, hearing nothing but the soft crunch of the crystals under your feet.
3. Leaving the crowds behind, and feeling quietly satisfied that you have chosen a winter activity that means no lift queues, no noise, no terrors on the piste, or the need to hire downhill kit or buy expensive lift passes.
4. Seeing your tracks laid out behind you and realising that you were the first person to set foot on the snow since the last snow fall, a pristine environment there for your enjoyment, but knowing you will leave no trace of having been there when the snow and your footsteps melt away.
5. The food — sampling local cheese from the farms we pass in the mountains is a real treat. Not to mention the local Savoyarde dishes that our small family-run hotels prepare for us — wonderful comfort food to see us through a day in the mountains!
6. The accommodation is really characterful, located in remote valleys in cosy family run hotels where a warm welcome awaits us. So far we have always been the only non-French group staying at these lovely little hotels. A chance to really experience the local culture and way of life.

When to go

The Chablais mountain range in France is best explored from mid-January to the beginning of March. This is usually the best time for snow cover, offering a real winter wonderland experience. It is generally not too cold at this time, but cool enough that the high passes have a plenty of snow: all the better for taking those stunning photographs! Furthermore, the days are getting a little longer — allowing more time to make the journey and savour the ice crystals sparkling in the trees, the snow flying around your feet, and the spectacular mountain scenery.

Equipment

We supply all the equipment you will need for snowshoeing so you do not need to have the expense of hiring or buying before your trip. This includes snowshoes, walking poles, snow shovel, snow probe, and avalanche transceivers. Do not be alarmed at the mention of ‘avalanche’ – nowadays everyone who spends time off the beaten track in the winter mountains wears a transceiver. After all, we have the technology so why not use it? A transceiver is simply a device that gives out a signal that allows you to be located. It’s rather like buying a car with an airbag — you’re not planning to need it, but having it provides an extra level of security.

At first, to be quite honest, I could never quite appreciate the appeal of cross country skiing, having only briefly tuned in to see the epic exertions of Lycra-clad athletes on Eurosport one Saturday afternoon - from the comfort of my own armchair. I wondered whether a decade’s training might not be enough to get me to that level. Then I realised I was missing the point entirely!

As with any sport, cross country skiing can be enjoyed at many levels: just as many of us enjoy a gentle jog around the park on a crisp autumn morning, others choose the running track on weekday evenings to build stamina while following carefully crafted training regimes. We can all find our own initial level of ability, then set whatever objectives we wish to pursue while learning and developing the new skills our pastime requires. Cross country skiing is a rewarding activity where the initial learning curve allows us to quickly build confidence and enjoy the thrill of gliding through woodland and across snowy, serene landscapes.

Much of the appeal in learning the skills of cross country skiing undoubtedly stems from the discovery of a winter environment that stirs the senses, imparting memorable encounters within a natural setting that frees us from the everyday clutter and commotion of daily life. Often overlooked is the charm of Nordic skiing as a means simply to unwind and rediscover a gentler pace of life, and by which we become more attuned to appreciating the stunning beauty of the outdoors.

Complementing the sensations and thrills of learning to ski is the enjoyment of sharing the discovery with others on your holiday. Skiing in a group and learning together creates a great sense of camaraderie, support and friendship that enriches the experiences we share together in the mountains. The time we spend together exploring the trails on skis is but a part of the adventure. Enjoying the cuisine and hospitality; learning of the unique crafts, traditions and folklore of the region; capturing the amazing alpine light in our photos shared with others; exchanging stories of our exploits across the dinner table; getting to know our generous hosts at our evening retreats - all add to the blend of excitement and relaxation that you’ll experience on our winter trips.

At Tracks and Trails we have carefully selected and curated a choice of different cross country skiing trips to appeal to individual tastes. Each of the regions in which we run our ski weeks and weekends has its own distinctive appeal - our trip pages and itineraries provide all the necessary information to guide your selection.

If you’ve any questions or need more information on any aspect of our cross country skiing packages, please do get in touch - we’re happy to offer advice and help in choosing your trip. Should you wish to organise a private trip according to your own schedule and itinerary we shall gladly help with arrangements - pleased do phone (+44 (0)20 8144 6442) or get in touch by email. At Tracks and Trails we pride ourselves on providing a personalised, attentive service that best assures an unsurpassable experience for all our guests.

We look forward to spending time with you on the ski trails this winter!

Jon

This year I turned the ripe old age of 40. As an enthusiastic trail runner living in Chamonix, I have run many trails and taken part in a number of Ultra trail races. This year I wanted to make my 40th a little different: make it more of a challenge, push my boundaries and take me out of my comfort zone. I chose to do a triathlon, but not just any ordinary triathlon: this one was very different!!

I am not a great swimmer, and to be honest don’t really enjoy it that much; I tend to find long distance swimming quite uninteresting. I am also not much of a cyclist. I own a mountain and road bike but they both really had very little use (until I took on this challenge). I thought the run section would be easy….. ‘I can do that, I thought!’



The Challenge



So, having worked with the Branson family and been the Manager on Necker Island, their private retreat, some years ago, I knew that every 2 years a charity challenge organised by the Virgin supported charity, ‘Big Change’ took place. It so happened that 2016 had the perfect section for me to attempt. 

Starting from the fishing point of the Virgin Strive Challenge 2014, this year’s event was to see participants hiking into northern Italy from the base of the Matterhorn, cycling the entire length of the country, swimming from the Italian mainland to Sicily, mountain biking to the foothills of Mt Etna and trail-running to the summit of the active volcano. 

They hoped to raise over £1.5m for Big Change, a social impact accelerator that helps young people thrive in life, not just exams. 

The final stage was arguably the toughest - the triathlon was a completely new format for the STRIVE Challenge series. 



For the Core Team members (the 25 who were completing the entire Challenge in just 30 days) this meant swimming from Calabria to Sicily across the Straits of Messina, an infamous and treacherous stretch of water. Due to local regulations, Stage Strivers had instead to swim a coastal course of 3.3km off the northern coast of Sicily.

Day 2 and 3 took the ‘Strivers’ on mountain bikes up steep ascents and then onward following the Perloritani ridge line for 65km approaching the foothills of Mt Etna itself.

There are few words to describe the beauty of this trail: from crests to gorges, to crevices and stunning views that suddenly open onto the Ionian sea, Etna, and the Tyrrhenian Sea where we could glimpse the volcanic archipelago.

The final day of the entire challenge had all Strivers run a half marathon to within 10km of the volcano’s summit, where we meet volcanic guides and hiked the final 10km to the crater ridge, an incredible finale to a month of striving for the Core Team and a tough few days for the triathlon strivers.

The event was a greater challenge that we had expected. We found elements of it tougher than we could have imagined, and there were many times when we had to dig deep to keep going. All-in-all it was a pretty epic event to be part of and, indeed, complete.

I certainly got the ‘Challenge’ that I set out for, and was happy that to have completed the swim section, which I had been most nervous about. 

The whole event was completed for a very worthy charity that is working hard to find, fund and support extraordinary projects that have the real potential to drive positive change for young people in the UK. 



The fundraising continues, so if you’d like to support the Big Change charity you can sponsor me on the following link:
 http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/BexMcNeillie



Here's a great link to see the whole months' challenge in just 1 minute on YouTube

We are pleased have now confirmed our new cross country ski tour to Sweden.

Skiing entirely on groomed trails we will be leading a tour in the charming Dalarna region. Our itinerary offers a true taste of the region both on and off your skis. The trip starts with two warm up days around Sälen, exploring both the tracks and wilder mountain trails then progressing onto a fairly luxurious four-day point-to-point tour along the route of the historic Vasaloppet. All whilst travelling at a comfortable pace. There is also time to visit the capital of Stockholm.

Sälen is home to 250km of prepared ski tracks and start of the ‘Vasaloppet’ 90km considered to be the oldest, longest, and biggest cross-country ski races in the world.

Our Swedish Vasaloppet ski tour offers 120kms of relatively easy to moderate skiing over 6 days. We have graded this trip at 'Intermediate' level. This is the perfect introduction to classic ‘track touring’ as well as time to make improvements to your technique along the way. The four-day Vasaloppet tour also allows for a preview of the racecourse for a possible future challenge!

The trip at a glance:

  • 4 nights in an historic hotel in Sälen with spa facilities
  • 120km of reliable track skiing
  • Perfect introduction to track touring
  • Ski the Vasaloppet trail at a leisurely pace - 20kms per day
  • Luggage transferred while you ski
  • Qualified Nordic Ski Instructor
  • Single rooms available
  • Optional nights in Stockholm

For full trip details please visit our Scandinavian trip pages.

Please contact Julia on info@tracks-and-trails.com if you have any questions at all about this trip.

Why we should all be cross country skiing this winter: it’s the perfect boost for your running fitness.
Cross country skiing (a.k.a. Nordic skiing, or ski de fond) is currently enjoying a serious renaissance. Like the boom in road cycling and ultra trail running that’s taken the UK and US by storm in recent years, it’s no longer just nerdy endurance geeks and burly army boys who are hooked on this now-fashionable-again winter sports pursuit.
Unlike their Scandinavian forefathers, today’s Nordic newschoolers are decked out in on-trend, technical gear (from brands such as Oakley, Maloja and Salomon), while events such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden have attracted celebrity participants including Kate Middleton’s sister, Pippa. The Swiss Engadin Marathon – one of the biggest XC Ski events (even looks cool in writing!) has between 11,000 and 13,000 participants every year.
A US report from SIA (Snowsports Industries America) estimated that cross country skiing participation was up 29% from 2013 to 2014. Downhill skiing plummeted by a similar percentage. Possibly a reflection of a poor winter season? Or many defecting to join the free heel skinny ski crew? Probably a combination of both, and for good reason.
So, why is cross country skiing so perfect for runners (as well as for other endurance sports athletes)?
It goes without saying that cross country skiing is one of the best all body work outs around. Not only are you working both lower and upper body simultaneously, but the benefits to your heart and lungs are second to none.
Cardio vascular fitness
Professional cross country skiers consistently rate as having amongst the best cardio vascular fitness levels of all sportspeople. Skiers such as Espen Harald Bjerke have recorded V02 max recordings as high as 96, surpassing the cyclist Greg LeMond (92) and long distance runner Kilian Jornet (89.5). The combination of continual aerobic activity, endurance, bursts of power (when you hit a hill) and keeping warm at altitude make cross country skiing one of the best possible ways to improve your heart and lung capacity.
Strength
The kit (skinny skis with free heels, trainer-like boots with rigid soles and long carbon poles) might be lightweight, but it’s pretty clear from looking at the physiques of any serious cross country athlete that the skiing builds not just cardio endurance, but muscle power too. And the beauty is not just in building muscles, but also in that it builds the right muscles. Whether your main sport is running or cycling - or in fact any other endurance activity - the balanced muscle tone you earn from days on the cross country tracks will help you build the optimum base for your next endurance challenge.
Posture
The stance of a cross country skier – proudly upright with open chest and poles pushing behind you – is the perfect antidote to modern life’s postural disaster zone. Too many of us spend far too much time sitting slouched at desks, in cars, hunched over our handlebars, or running the same repetitive routes on tarmac. Our shoulders are rounded, our bellies are soft, our hip flexors and hamstrings are over-tight, our glutes don’t work properly, and we often have backache. Enter the cross country ski remedy. It is impossible to Nordic ski without engaging those lazy glutes and fire up your rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles and bring your shoulders back into line. Result: a long-term solution to improved posture.
Balance, proprioception and core strength
Not only does cross country skiing give all your major muscle groups a serious work out, you’re also challenging those little-used muscles that tend to get neglected. In particular, the muscles that keep your ankles and knees strong and safe from twists and sprains. While the uneven surface of trail running also has the same effect, the reality is that most of us switch to tarmac when the nights draw in. We end up in a routine of repetitive pounding without working on proprioception and balance. Core strength is absolutely critical for Nordic skiing too. You can’t ‘get away with it’ on cross country skis as your core is essential for holding form and keeping balanced, while you change weight from one ski to the other.
Joint protection and injury prevention
The smooth motion of cross country skiing is perfect for protecting your joints while you exercise. Although the sport is weight bearing, your skis are in constant contact with the snow, which means you avoid pounding. Any keen runner will know about the effects of impact, no matter how good your shoes and technique. Get into cross country skiing and your knees, hips and lower back will thank you, not just because you’re helping re-build muscle, but you’re also giving your body a well earned rest from being beaten up on winter tarmac. Taking the impact out while you build your fitness and strength helps protect your joints and prevent injuries.
Natural interval training
Most cross country skiing is relatively flat, especially when you’re starting out. But as you progress in the sport, the playground becomes a natural interval work out. Unlike running where you can slow to a walk or even stop, when the track starts to head uphill and you run out of puff you don’t have the same luxury on skis: slow down too much and you’ll start slipping backwards! Undulating terrain provides the perfect interval session as you’re forced to hit the accelerator to make it up each hill. And you’ll be so busy concentrating you’ll hardly even notice that extra effort. Plus of course, what goes up … which is a skill in itself (and a lot of fun, especially when you’re learning) on slightly wobbly cross country skis.
Altitude
Cross country ski tracks are usually on the lower slopes of ski resorts, ranging from an altitude of 1,000m to around 2,000m in the French Alps. Not high enough to cause a problem with acclimatisation, but definitely high enough to benefit from the effects of altitude training. Spend a few days working hard at around 1500m and you’ll notice your usual sea level run or bike ride feels a whole lot easier when you go home.
Thrills, spills and adrenaline rushes
It might not feel like it when you first start out, Bambi-like with too many arms, legs, skis and poles to coordinate, but you’ll be amazed how quickly you ‘get it’ and can start picking up speed on cross country skis. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the wind in your hair as you whizz through snowy forests, propelled completely under your own steam. It also goes without saying that anything involving balance and speed will also involve a little dose of adrenaline.
Challenge and fitness
Cross country skiing is simultaneously challenging and accessible for all abilities – from complete beginners to experts. To get going enough to enjoy it and feel the fitness benefit is relatively easy. To become technically expert is an ongoing investment. Learning something new is one of the best ways to improve your fitness, whatever your training goal. If you don’t keep challenging your body in different ways it will never need to change or improve. So, while you might still be doing your usual 10km or clocking up 100km per week on the turbo, you’re not actually getting any fitter or seeing results. Frustratingly, you’re just maintaining your fitness level. Learning a new sport and seeing your own progression and improvement is a fast track (and fun!) way out of that plateau.
Calorie burning
Whether or not you wear a heart rate monitor and clock your effort while you ski, your body will pretty quickly tell you it’s hungry! The combination of head to toe exertion, altitude and cold air temperatures make cross country skiing top of the list of fat-burning activities. A boost to your metabolism and absolutely no excuses needed to indulge.
And … Adventure
As a runner, cyclist or other endurance athlete – at whatever level – a large part of why you love your sport is about the journeys that you go on. Travelling, exploring, seeing new places, meeting people, participating in events, improving, spending time alone with your thoughts or connecting with friends. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned skater, cross country skiing also taps into that sense of journey and adventure. If getting away from it all is your goal, then with minimal kit and a small pack you can spend days travelling point to point under your own steam in some of the most stunning and remote winter environments that Europe has to offer.

Feeling inspired? Then take a look at our Nordic ski holidays.

 

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