In the era of canceled plans and lockdowns, one avenue for activity always remains open: the great outdoors. However, for beginners, there can be something a little daunting about braving the cold to strap on a pair of skis or rent a snowmobile for the first time. But since getting outside is one of the best ways to enjoy the chilly months, here are five local businesses that offer snowshoe, cross-country ski, and snowmobile rentals, as well as some tips for first-timers heading out this winter.
Cross-county skiing and snowshoeing
Located just off Highway 61 in Tofte, Sawtooth Outfitters has cross-country skis and snowshoes available for rent for half days or full days throughout the winter. Sawtooth has classic cross-country skis, backcountry skis, and skate skis available for rent, and the rental packages include poles and ski boots, (which are needed for classic and skate skis).
Owner Sarah Lynch said that the staff at Sawtooth Outfitters often works with people who are completely new to skiing and snowshoeing. They help each person find the right size equipment and show them how to properly attach the snowshoes or skis before setting out.
For cross-country skiers, the nearby Sugarbush Trail System offers a huge network of trails for trying cross-country skis, including trails for beginners (look for the green trails, such as the Onion River Road Trail). Before setting out, all cross-country skiers 16 and older need to have a Minnesota Ski Pass, which can be purchased at Sawtooth Outfitters or at the Holiday Station Store in Tofte. Proceeds from the ski passes go toward supporting the trails.
The advantage of snowshoes is that snowshoers aren’t limited to using groomed trails, and snowshoeing is easier to learn. “If you can hike, you can snowshoe,” Lynch said. Snowshoes are fit based on the size of the person and fit right over your regular pair of winter boots. Sawtooth Outfitters has Tubbs snowshoes available for rent, which give users extra float atop the snow while still being small enough to maneuver easily and take on forested trails like nearby sections of the Superior Hiking Trail. No passes are needed for snowshoeing.
“Whatever you choose to do, it’s so important to get outside and get moving,” Lynch said. “There’s a lot of fun stuff to do outdoors and we can help you get started.”
Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply
Farther up the Shore, Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais offers ski and snowshoe rentals—including classic cross-country skis, skate skis and backcountry skis—which can be used at nearby destinations such as the Pincushion Mountain Trail System and the George Washington Pines trail.
Beth Poliquin of Stone Harbor said that a popular option this year has been backcountry skis, which are wider than traditional cross-country skis and are designed to be used where there is no groomed trail such as frozen lakes or unplowed roads. Backcountry skis are designed to go over the user’s typical winter boots and are equipped with a skin on the bottom of the skis that helps with friction going downhill and traction going uphill. Poles are optional depending on what the skier wants.
“I’ve never had someone who loves classic cross-county skiing try backcountry skiing and consider it a replacement for classic skiing,” Poloquin said, “but I have had people try backcountry skis and say they’re never choosing snowshoes again. If you’re talking about breaking trail, snowshoeing is a lot of work, but with backcountry skis you get the skiing motion and can break trail to new places like you can with snowshoes.”
Another cross-country ski option is skate skis, which work much like the name would suggest, by using a skating motion to propel yourself forward. Many cross-country ski trails have a skate ski track right beside the classic ski track. For beginners, the staff at Stone Harbor said to always check the maps before heading out, and to keep in mind that most cross-country ski trails are one-directional so as to avoid collisions. Follow the signage posted, and if there are no arrows on signs or on the maps, the classic ski tracks are usually on the right side of the skate ski deck.
Another tip for first-timers is to dress in layers: beginners often underestimate the amount of heat they will generate when exercising outdoors, and dressing in easily removable layers is the key to staying comfortable throughout the whole excursion.
Poloquin recommends calling ahead for reserving equipment on the weekends, especially the busy holiday weekends. Ski passes can be purchased at Buck’s Hardware, Mike’s Holiday Station Store and Marathon in Grand Marais.
Midway up the Gunflint Trail, Bearskin Lodge is renowned for being a cross-country skiing destination. The Central Gunflint Trail System is shared between Bearskin and Golden Eagle lodge, and its over 70 km of cross-country ski trails gives users the chance to try their hand at skiing in a wilderness setting.
Quinn McCloughan of Bearskin Lodge said that Bearskin has ski and snowshoe rentals available, and while visitors can expect the main lodge to be closed, people can call ahead to reserve rental equipment and the trails will be open for use. One thing to keep in mind is that the Central Gunflint Trail System is privately owned, and users need a separate pass which can be purchased through Bearskin lodge either in person or over the phone. But once you have your pass and your gear, skiers can expect a quiet and beautiful ski experience.
In addition to the Central Gunflint Trail System, cross-country skiers on the Gunflint Trail can also visit the Upper Gunflint Nordic Ski Trails, which has a few trails suitable for beginners, or the Banadad Trail, the longest ski trail through the Boundary Waters which has a few loops at the eastern end. (The Banadad Trail requires a Minnesota Ski Pass and the Upper Gunflint system requires a local pass, which can be obtained through the lodges along the Gunflint Trail.)
For beginners, McCloughan said that it is helpful to go with people who are at your same level, and to not be afraid to stop and take breaks.
“The best way to learn is to go slow,” he said. “It might seem hard at first when you don’t know how, but there’s no substitute for time on the skis. What I’ve seen is that most people have a breakthrough when it suddenly feels natural and gets a lot easier.”
One of the best ways to explore large swaths of backcountry in the winter is by snowmobile. Minnesota has over 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, so learning to snowmobile opens up many new places to be explored. In Grand Marais, Steve’s Sports & Auto offers snowmobile rentals for those who want to hit the trails this winter.
Owner Steven Lashinski said that before planning a snowmobile outing, the first step for new snowmobilers in Minnesota is to complete a snowmobile safety course (if born after December 31, 1976). Courses can be completed online through the Minnesota DNR, and riders need to bring proof of course completion along with them. From there, those interested in renting a snowmobile can call Steve’s Sports and set up a time. Full-day rentals are from 10 am-9 am the next morning, with some 4-hour deals available as well. Those interested can call ahead to reserve a rental (recommended especially for weekends). All snowmobile renters are given a safety talk and maps, and Steve’s also has helmets available for rent for those who do not have their own.
Steve’s Sports has easy access to the C. J. Ramstad/North Shore State Trail, a nearly 150-mile-long trail that runs from Grand Marais all the way to Duluth. While first-timers may not want to make such an ambitious trip, the trail connects to several other smaller loops between Lutsen and Schroeder that can make for a good day outing, or to the Gunflint Snowmobile Trail. No matter which trails you pick, all riders should stay on the trails and stick to the right-hand side of the trail, just like one would while driving. As for other advice for beginners?
“Go slow,” Lashinski said. “And be sure to dress warm and have good boots since getting cold is no fun.”
Hungry Jack Lodge
Farther up the Gunflint Trail is Hungry Jack Lodge, a wilderness lodge on Hungry Jack Lake that is also a desination for snowmobilers. Situated right on one of the trails in the Gunflint area trail system, Hungry Jack also offers rentals for visitors and people who do not have their own sleds. With a long winter season and beautiful lakes and forest, the Gunflint region is a premiere destination for snowmobilers.
The Gunflint Snowmobile Trail runs from north of Grand Marais all the way to Saganaga Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. The trail is groomed several times a week, and riders can get views of nearby lakes and sometimes even spot wildlife. The Gunflint Snowmobile Trail also connects to the Swamper Trail, which runs east of the Gunflint Trail and is shared with sled dog teams, and to the Expressway Trail, a shortcut to the North Shore State Trail that passes by the west end of Devil Track Lake.
While traveling through such remote country, it is especially important for riders to be mindful of safety, including packing maps, water, snacks, and plenty of layers of clothing. A GPS or map and compass are also a good idea in case riders find they took a wrong turn. Hungry Jack Lodge has fuel available, and riders can also find fuel at other lodges along the Gunflint Trail.
For those who discover they love snowmobiling and want to get more involved, Cook County has a snowmobile club, the Cook County Ridge Riders, that distributes maps, helps maintain trails, and sponsors events throughout the winter.