You may think watersports are a summertime-only thing, but that's not necessarily true. Every once in a while, you'll see pictures of guys in full wetsuits surfing after a February blizzard on one of the Great Lakes. But aside from these die-hards, most people wait for swimsuit weather before getting in the water.
However, there's one activity that changes the definition of "water sport." Kiteboarding requires water, but it doesn't matter if that water is in a liquid or solid form. In fact, in February, you could see dozens of these kites floating in the air in one of the unlikeliest places on Earth: snow-covered Siberia.
An alternative to traditional water sports
Photo: Bill Morrow/flickr
Kiting is windsurfing's younger, cooler sister. The sport relies on kites that are a cross between a paragliding chute and your standard recreational kite. Riders with boards strapped to their feet are connected to the kite with lines and a harness.
Kiteboarding has been growing in popularity despite a steep learning curve. Many people think it's worth learning, however, because kiting has some traits that other water sports lack.
Most of today's kites are given their structure by inflatable air chambers, not by any sort of rigid material. This means the kites are portable, unlike cumbersome windsurfing equipment. And unlike traditional wave surfing, kiters don't have to travel to a wave break and then spend 90 percent of their time paddling or waiting for their turn to catch a wave.
As long as you have a lake or river nearby, all you have to wait for is a stiff breeze. Wind speeds of at least 10 knots (11.5 mph) are usually seen as a minimum for all forms of kiteboarding.
Many kiteboarders use wakeboards instead of surfboards, but wakeboarding requires access to a powerful motorboat.
Another positive: kites fly regardless of temperature, so enthusiasts don't have to put their equipment away when it gets cold. They just have to trade their standard board for a snowboard or skis.
There is no off-season
Photo: Konstantin Zamkov/flickr
Snowkiting is popular in places where people are known for their lack of aversion to cold weather: Finland, Canada, Greenland, Russia and the northern United States.
Much like warm-weather kiting, different disciplines have emerged in snowkiting. In places like Sweden and Minnesota, people use kites to travel around frozen lakes, sometimes covering long distances. These same routes can be traveled with the same kite (and a board suitable for liquid) during the summertime.
Some people use kites to pull themselves over natural or artificial jumps so that they can perform tricks before floating back the ground parachute-style.
Actually, some of the first snowkiters had a very practical reason for learning the sport. A group of skiers in the French Alps realized that they could use kites to pull themselves back uphill after skiing down. Other early adopters used the kites to launch backcountry expeditions on skis.
Kiting is more than an extreme green sport. In a way, it is the ultimate form of wintertime transportation. Provided there is wind, one could hypothetically use a kite and skis or a snowboard to travel indefinitely without needing fuel or any kind.
Long distance riding is also a subset of the water-based kiting world. The current world record for distance kite surfing is over 300 miles (by a rider who traveled the coast of Portugal).
A steep learning curve
The problem with kiteboarding, in winter or summer, is that you can't learn it on your own. Training is pretty much required.
Making a mistake can have serious consequences. A misstep while turning might cause a rider to fall, or it might cause them to "fly." Changing the altitude and direction of a kite can literally lift you into the air, sometimes quite high. This can be dangerous in the water and, more obviously, on snow. (Experienced kiters "fly" on purpose so that they can perform tricks in the air).
This is a green sport. If you have the equipment, all you need is Mother Nature's motor. The learning curve will keep casual water sports enthusiasts away and help kiting retain its coolness factor (if that is important to you). At the same time, if you are prepared, investing in a kite can be practical. If you can get your hands on a snowboard and a wakeboard, you won’t be limited to a two or three month season. You'll be able to kite all through the year.
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