The Best Outdoor Cardio Workout You’ve Never Heard Of Before

But apparently uphilling is all the rage in Europe (especially in the Alps, where it’s not uncommon for people to plan uphill outings that end with a glass of wine in a cozy mountaintop hut). And it’s starting to take the U.S. mainstream skiing community by storm. 

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“With uphilling, it’s a much more fluid motion, you’re striding across the snow instead of striking, so it provides a nice low-impact sort of cardio fat-burning zone activity, like cycling,” says Jamie Starr, the North American marketing manager for Dynafit, a company that designs skis, boots, and gear specifically for uphillers. (Full discloser: Dynafit provided me with gear and a lesson free of charge at Aspen Highlands, in Aspen, Colorado.) 

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Sure enough, within a few minutes of beginning to ascend, I found myself picking up the rhythm of the motion and feeling a fierce cardio burn. But while my heart rate was elevated, and I was definitely breaking a sweat, uphilling wasn’t as tough on my knees or leg muscles as downhill skiing, which always delivers a thigh-quivering burn.

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Andia Winslow, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer and sports conditioning coach, says during downhill skiing, “gravity is an equal partner in your descent.” But she notes that “uphill skiing requires consistent motion to keep from stopping—[making it] a steady-state aerobic activity through and through.”

Plus, because you’re maintaining a consistent motion, as opposed to stopping and starting, you might be able to hold a steady pace for longer than you would on, say, a strenuous hike, Winslow notes. 

And the benefits don’t stop there: “Not only do you use your feet and legs to glide, maintaining ground contact throughout (unless turning or maneuvering around impediments), but you also use your arms to plant poles,” she says. “In this way you’re also getting a pretty great core workout!”

But before you strap on your old pair of downhill skis and attempt to give this a go, you should know that uphilling gear is very different from downhill skiing gear. 

The boots are far lighter and your heels aren’t attached to your skis, allowing you to glide in a similar motion to cross-country skiing. Most importantly: The bottoms of your skis are outfitted with a stick-on carpet-like material called “skins,” made of nylon, mohair, or a combination of the two, to ensure you don’t go careening backward down the mountain. (Phew.) 

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Taking Uphilling To Masses

While uphill skiing has been popular among backcountry skiers—those brave souls who ski largely in unmarked terrain—for years, it’s just now becoming more and more common to see people uphilling at ski resorts in places like Aspen, Colorado, where you’ll see clear paths delineated for those heading up the mountain instead of down.

Starr, an uphilling enthusiast, is hoping to continue to democratize the sport. “So many people look at it as something only really gnarly, extreme people do, but I want the average person who wants to get a good workout to think about it as a possibility,” he says. 

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And it was easy to see how a person who might avoid downhill skiing for fear of blowing out a knee might find uphilling to be a great alternative. Dynafit is even developing a whole line of gear designed for the casual uphill skier who’s in it for the exercise rather than the hardcore adrenaline rush. (The one catch: Unless there’s a gondola or lift at the top of your climb, you do have to strap your heels in at the top, remove your “skins,” and ski back down.)

Interested in giving it a go? Since uphilling is still catching on, make sure you call the resort first to find out where uphilling is allowed and where you can get gear. The United States Ski Mountaineering Associaton also offers a website listing uphilling policies at various resorts.