Can Winter Sports Be Sustainable?

Earlier this year, a group in Nepal resolved to pick up more than 200,000 pounds of trash off Mt. Everest. Climbers from around the world had littered the peak with empty oxygen bottles and abandoned equipment, leaving the iconic mountain in need of rapid attention.

Destruction by careless mountaineers on Mt. Everest is just one example of the harm that winter sports can cause the environment. Ski mountains destroy vegetation, erode soil and disturb wildlife — not to mention consuming large amounts of water if they make artificial snow. Meanwhile, ice rinks gobble energy to keep the ice cool and the arena comfortable, well-lighted and running smoothly.

These negative impacts can make even the biggest enthusiasts think twice about pursuing their passion. As a lifelong ice hockey player and downhill skier, I certainly have. However, a handful of leaders in the winter sports world are pushing more sustainable practices.

Skiers, snowboarders and other athletes are rallying against climate change with the nonprofit Protect Our Winters.

Ski resorts nationwide are adopting greener practices, as well. Some are offsetting their carbon emissions by buying renewable energy credits, while others are using solar and wind power. And ski outfitters are working on creating more sustainable equipment, too.

Skiers and other backcountry sports enthusiasts are jumping into action, too. While some resort to more energy-intensive methods like snowmobiles, snowcats and occasionally helicopters to speed uphill, others still trek up mountains on human power. They use specialized backcountry gear like skins, split boards or snowshoes.

In Vermont, the Rochester Area Sports Alliance encourages sustainable practices like working with forestr conservation experts when cutting glades – open spaces among the trees — to ski through. The groups is also encouraging private landowners to open up their land to low-impact public recreation.

“We strike a balance between what’s good for the forest–from an investment standpoint and a wildlife ecology standpoint–and what’s good to ski,” Zac Freeman told Teton Gravity Research a few years back. “We’re not just crushing the fall line.”

Beyond the mountains, others in winter sports are also rethinking their practices. As someone who often writes about the ice rink industry, for one, I’ve seen a number of new arenas incorporating more sustainable features into their designs.

These facilities are striving to earn silver- and gold-LEED certifications for green building practices like using recycled water and employing efficient ways of cooling and maintaining the ice. Teams are waking up to climate change, as well. In 2014, the National Hockey League started a partnership to cut down on its emissions and waste.

Of course, even initiatives with the best intentions aren’t always enough. For example, Arizona Snowbowl made headlines when it became the first U.S. ski resort to make all of its artificial snow with treated wastewater a few years back. But experts noted to Outside that this approach still didn’t make a dent in the amount of coal and energy still needed for snowmaking — and it could potentially taint natural bodies of water nearby.

So, What Can You Do?

As a winter sports enthusiast, you have a number of options to lessen your impact. First, be thoughtful about where you go. Hold recreational businesses accountable for their environmental stewardship. Vote with your dollars.

For one, the Ski Area Citizens Coalition used to release a report card on how well individual resorts use alternative energy. While the group’s website hasn’t been updated in a while, it’s a good way to start thinking about the efforts of your local hill. If you can’t find information on your favorite spot online, ask.

If you opt to enjoy the outdoors on your own, make sure you know what you’re doing. That way you won’t need an energy-intensive rescue team to save you. Resolve to follow the same Leave No Trace ethics as in summertime. And always check snow conditions prior to going out.

As the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics suggests, take special care to avoid wildlife — many species are particularly vulnerable this time of year. Snowmobilers, especially, would do well to watch out for the solitary wolverine.

Also, keep in mind that some sports consume less resources than others.

In general, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing — as long as you hike up — and pond skating are relatively kind to the environment. No matter what you do, remain aware of your impact.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


Mely Lu
Mely Lu3 months ago


Michael F
Michael Friedmann3 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

Alea C
Alea C3 months ago

I'm almost to the point where I don't think anything is sustainable except veganism.

Jan K
Jan S3 months ago


Marija Mohoric
Marija M3 months ago

tks for sharing

HEIKKI R3 months ago

thank you

Heather B
Heather B3 months ago

If you love physical activity in the winter feel free to shovel your neighbors driveways and steps.

hELEN h3 months ago


Clare O
Clare O3 months ago

good thoughts

Clare O
Clare O3 months ago