If you're looking for some ski slope excitement without the alpine risks, expenses or equipment — then strap on a snow tube and get your thrills on.
Snow tubing is the latest nontraditional "sport" that's all the rage at ski resorts. The reason: Virtually anyone can do it, no lessons, training or expensive equipment is required, and it's a relatively cheap day-trip adventure for the entire family.
"There's no intimidation factor — except for maybe a very young child — so it's a great experience for families," said Anne Weimer of Liberty Mountain Resort near Gettysburg, Pa., just a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C. "You don't have to worry about the differences in people's skill levels, etc. It's great for all ages. We have lots of teenagers along with their grandmothers."
Unlike skiing or snowboarding, a snow tuber does little work but reaps all the rewards. You just plop down into or on top of the vinyl tube. And unlike a sled, a tube can spin in both directions, instead of just shredding straight down the hill.
Because there's so little resistance between the packed snow and the tube, the rides are fast and furious.
Resorts like Liberty (http://www.skiliberty.com/lmr/index.aspx">www.skiliberty.com) have dedicated facilities for tubing. Liberty boasts up to 15 groomed tubing lanes and a moving carpet lift for a fast ride back up the hill.
It also has a traditional ski lodge with food and observation decks, and a gentler tubing hill for kids age 2 to 4.
"It's a great half-day experience," Weimer said. "You get all the trappings of the resort — the lodge and snow. It's a great place to hang out."
Most resorts require adults to accompany younger children on the bigger slopes. Age and height restrictions are common. The rides at Liberty were unlimited during a two-hour block of time. Be sure to check individual locations for specific rules and restrictions. Most resorts post snow conditions — including the speed of the runs — on their Web sites.
Depending on the resort and the conditions, riders can double up on tubes or even link multiple tubes together for a group run.
While most tubers get a running start and slam themselves down onto the tubes, resort employees gladly give more timid riders a push start. For thrill-seekers, employees will also gleefully give spinning starts, letting riders rush down the slope like a whirling top. Speeds average between 15 and 20 mph, Weimer said, with lanes running faster in the morning and evening hours.
Just like riding a roller coaster, however, the lane lines on top of the mountain — not to mention the time it takes to "ride" back to the top — can seem frustrating given the eight-second experience, especially on a busy Saturday. Still, the low-maintenance appeal of family-friendly sport far outweighs the downside.
Where to do it: Wherever you find a ski resort. (See sidebar)
What to wear: Layers are important, as with any snow sport. It's colder on a mountain than on your snow-covered backyard hill. Long underwear, gloves, a hat and jackets are recommended. Try to avoid wearing cotton clothes next to your skin, as the material will soak up the sweat. Snow pants are ideal, but not essential. Hiking boots are preferred.
When to do it: Imagine a day at the amusement park. Midweek is always better. Lines are shorter early in the day and later in the evening. One plus: Most resorts have night-lighted sessions.
What it costs: Prices vary. At Liberty, prices were $13 and $17 for one- and two-hour tickets during midweek/nonpeak hours and $18 to $22 during weekend and peak periods. The kiddie tube ticket was $9. Liberty offers $1 military discounts per ticket midweek.
Local packages: If you're staying overnight, check with local hotels to see whether they offer package deals. The Wyndham Hotel in Gettysburg offered a one-night stay in a double room, four two-hour tubing tickets at nearby Liberty, four movie passes at their theater and a 20 percent discount at the hotel restaurant — all for $189. A two-room suite package went for $239. The heated pool and hot tub were a welcome sight after an afternoon on the cold Liberty slopes.
Where to go
Check out these other destinations across the country, located just a few hours from military installations.
Big Bear Snow Play, Calif. Located in Big Bear, Calif., about 2˝ hours from San Diego, Snow Play offers all-day tubing on seven fast runs and one children's run for $25 per person (kids are free). Lifts assist you up the longest runs in Southern California.
Address: 42825 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., November through Easter
Phone: (909) 585-0075
The Summit at Snoqualmie, Wash. Located off Interstate 90 less than two hours from Bremerton, The Summit boasts two hills with a dozen lanes for tubing. Some military discounts are offered, and cost ranges from $5 for children to $20 for adults.
Address: P.O. Box 1068, Snoqualmie Pass, WA 98068
Hours: Open weekends December through April; times vary so call ahead.
Phone: (425) 434-7669
Massanutten Resort, Va. Three hours from Norfolk and two hours from the Washington, D.C., area is Massanutten Resort, a full-service winter-sports resort that has a 900-foot-long hill that has a lift to the top for snow tubers. Sessions are two hours long and range from $18 to $22, depending on the day.
Address: 1822 Resort Drive, McGaheysville, VA 22840
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, weather permitting
Phone: (800) 207-6277
Hunter Mountain, N.Y. One of several snow-tubing resorts in the Catskills, Hunter Mountain features nine chutes that are about 1,000 feet long with two lifts. Cost is $18 and includes the tube; there is a minimum height requirement of 42 inches.
Address: P.O. Box 295, Hunter, NY 12442 (located off Route 23A)
Hours: Open on weekends but hours vary; call ahead for times and conditions.
Phone: (800) 486-8376
Great Lakes region
Boyne Mountain, Mich. Tube near the shores of Lake Michigan at Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands, both offering 700- to 800-foot runs with rope lifts for children and adults. Cost ranges from $10 to $20, including tubes.
Address: 1 Boyne Mountain Road, Boyne Falls, MI 49713; and 600 Highlands Drive, Harbor Springs, MI 49740.
Hours: Open daily. Hours vary depending on weather and season.
Phone: (231) 549-6000 and (231) 526-3000
Ruidoso Winter Park, N.M. Situated in the Rockies near Fort Bliss, Texas, and Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Winter Park features family-friendly tubing runs and oversize tubes — and it boasts "the largest snowmaking system in the Rockies." Cost for three hours is $9 to $20, depending on age.
Address: P.O. Box 369, Alto, NM 88312 (located off Highway 48)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (9 p.m. some nights)
Phone: (575) 336-7079
For a list of snow-tubing locales in the Midwest and Great Lakes region, visit http://www.snowplaces.com/">http://www.snowplaces.com/. For ski reports and snow conditions across the country, visit http://www.snocountry.com/">http://www.snocountry.com/.