Winter sports junkies are a strange, strange breed. If you live in a mountain town or anywhere remotely near snow, you've probably met more than your fair share. They're the same men and women who wake before dawn to uncover that perfect powder stash, hidden tree run or pristine lakeside trail; below zero air and wind chill be damned. I should know -- I'm one of them.
What, then, do you get the off-kilter loved one who's unfazed by frostbite? Sure, a less-mental sport is probably at the top of your list, but good luck convincing them to take up bowling. Whether they prefer snowboarding, alpine, Nordic skiing or snowshoeing, pow junkies can hardly agree on the ideal snow sports gear. Yet no matter their preference in style and steez, some essential equipment is coveted across the snow sports gamut and Christmas provides the perfect opportunity to update any winter warrior's closet.
The following are 15 of the most basic snow sports goods -- think of them as flour, sugar and salt -- with a sprinkling of specialized gifts. However, a quick word of warning: Be careful with serious buys like skis, snowboards, boots and bindings. Unless you can snag a previous year's model (or have the dough to drop on the newly-minted variety), save those purchases for summer and fall. Most outdoors shops rarely discount the big guns during the season but hold enormous sales after the snow melts. Now forgive me, but I have cliffs to fling myself over.
1. Performance Wool Socks
The gift that plagues nightmares of tiny tots everywhere is priceless to a winter junkie. Without warm, dry feet, a day on the snow might as well be catfish wrangling in a Louisiana bog. Worse yet, it can lead to hypothermia, sickness and gnarly prune toe.
Smartwool makes some of the best and most affordable performance socks, crafted with comfy Merino wool and nylon. No matter what brand, look for something knee-high and not too thick. When stuck inside boots, traditional chunky wool tends to clump and create pressure points. And please, whatever you do, no cotton. Save those for Father's Day.
2. Ski or Snowboard Multi-Tool
A pocket-sized screwdriver combo has saved my sanity countless times at the resort and in the backcountry. The more portable the better, so stay away from anything larger than palm-sized. Bakoda, Dakine and most major ski brands all make ratchet versions with several screwdriver heads, an Allen wrench and the occasional bottle opener.
3. Base Wax
Whether you're a novice or hardened enthusiast, waxing is an invaluable skill. Not only does it save serious moolah -- shop tune-ups can run over $35 -- it instills a sense of ownership and (sigh) love. One Ball Jay, Dakine, K2 and Swix make melt-on waxes in the $10 range for skis and boards. Most carry an all-temp blend good for any region.
While base wax is worlds apart from candle wax, the rest of a tuning arsenal can be pieced together for cheap. Forgo a specialized waxing iron for any model with a solid base and multiple heat settings. A household Scotchbrite pad works as a buffer, and although I prefer plastic scrappers, a metal-edged ruler works. If your giftee has never waxed at home, point them to these instructions. Specifics change based on snow type and climate but, in general, the same basics apply.
4. Wii Winter Sports: The Ultimate Challenge
This global warming thing isn't making life easy on city-bound snow bums. In Colorado, the mountains have seen the best snowfall in years, while Denver and the foothills remain bare. What's someone who works 40 hours a week to do? Play video games, of course.
Wii Winter Sports: The Ultimate Challenge makes good use of the system's motion-control, applying it liberally to virtual versions of downhill ski racing, luge, bobsled, ski jumping and more.
5. Hand Warmers
A tried-and-true winter lover will never admit it, but they do get cold. For those who forgo the lodge and take day-long trips through the backcountry, hand warmers are a welcome relief from frosty fingers. What's more, packs can be picked up at just about any sporting goods store for around a buck. Look for the air-activated type made specifically for use in gloves.
If a buck is breaking the bank (or you like to make your own gifts), try these instructions for DIY hand warmers and glove liners.
It ain't just for the beach. "Raccoon face" is a serious problem facing our nation's winter sports junkies. Quell it at the source with SPF 30 or higher.
Gifts for the Tree
Don't let a die-hard downhiller's noggin go unprotected; and you won't have to with reliable winter sports protective equipment sitting at a reasonable $75. Several brands make sweet military and baseball cap-inspired models for teens and 20-somethings, but get their opinion on a style first. RED (a division of Burton), Giro and Bern regularly rank among the safest brands.
Similar to socks, a stellar pair of winter gloves can elevate or shatter a day. The most versatile models are breathable, fully waterproof and come with a removable liner. Those liners are especially important for long days and weekends trips. Not only will the gloves dry faster, the liner can be removed during the heat of the day and replaced when the sun begins to wane.
Before buying, be sure you have the right hand size. Just about every major outerwear brand makes a fully-loaded winter glove, meaning your purchase largely comes down to price and style. Just don't spend more than $65: Above that and you're looking at an expedition to Mt. Everest.
9. Thermal Underwear
Although it's not essential, thermal underwear is invaluable to Nordic skiers, snowshoers and others who wander from the car or lodge. They likely know the value of layering, but it does little when the underwear is 10 years old and full of holes. Polypropylene blends are the most affordable, typically running about $25 for a full set. The fabric does an uncanny job of wicking wetness while trapping heat.
10. Car Rack
Racks come in a variety of styles to fit every car shape -- flat-top roof mounts, angled carriers, hitch-mounted racks -- and you need to know the make and model of your giftee's ride before you buy. Flat-top racks fit most standard cars and hatchbacks, while hitch-mounted versions are good for Jeeps or SUV's with soft tops. Expect to spend between $100 and $200, but also expect it to be your last rack purchase ever: Yakima and Thule, the most reliable brands, come with limited lifetime warranties. Sporting goods coupons regularly float around for such hefty buys; search carefully and you won't pay full price.
11. Avalanche Transceiver
Backcountry skiing, snowboarding or other sports are the most dangerous activities around. An avalanche transceiver is no replacement for good judgement or proper training but, in an emergency, it's literally a lifesaver. These bad boys are expensive at around $300 a piece for decent models but, for junkies who regularly drop chutes and cliffs, it can be the best gift they ever receive.
Speaking of proper training, many REI locations and community recreation centers hold basic avalanche safety courses throughout the winter. A class makes a great companion gift for those just learning to use their gear.
Unlike paltry school backpacks, winter-specific bags have something every sports enthusiast loves -- straps and pockets. Most come with a way to mount skis or a board, a special pocket for goggles, padded waist-belts, straps to attach a shovel, storage areas for injured woodland critters, pulleys to haul stranded mountain men to safety, and so much more. Some even come with MP3 controls and time-flux capacitors. Dakine is a stalwart in the performance backpack world, featuring a lifetime warranty on every bag.
Trek-minded types may prefer a hydration-compatible bag, but not all are made for winter. Look for ones with a bladder mounted close to the back and, if possible, an insulated hose. This keeps the water from freezing in all but the most frigid conditions. It'll run a bit more -- an insulated bladder alone is around $45 -- but carrying a block of ice in a backpack is pretty useless.
As I mentioned before, one reason it's difficult to buy for winter sports junkies is inherent pickiness. That's not to say every human being isn't a unique butterfly, but skiers, riders and other whitewashed prima donnas want the world to know how very, very special they are. The easiest way to do that sits on top of their collective noses.
Sure, Oakley touts their iconic A-Frame goggles as unbeatable, but are they worth $200? As with anything, low-end brands won't last as long or be as durable as high-end brands. When buying for someone else, however, the most important factor is appearance and fit. Know what style and brand they prefer, scope out a sale, and snatch them immediately. If not, give a discount gift card to a sporting goods store. The card amount will be the same, but you can buy it online for up to 40-percent off face value.
Snowshoes have come a long way since Nanook of the North. Even the most basic models are relatively high-tec and include crampons, adjustable bindings, an aluminum frame and free-moving heels. Before you buy, know what kind of terrain and conditions your snow junkie plans to tackle. Atlas, Yukon Charlie and Redfeather offer a huge variety for every pocketbook and skill level.
See rant in number 13 about style. Beanies are the same beast. Don't be wrangled into paying over $25 for a hat unless it will absolutely, positively make someone giddy. I'm talking Ralphie with a Red Ryder BB Gun giddy.