By Sarah Faith, senior values writer at Responsible Travel
‘Tis almost the season when millions of snow lovers start their annual pilgrimage to Europe’s ski resorts. But with Alpine resorts set to lose up to 70 per cent of their snow cover by the end of the century, will climate change put an end to the traditional winter ski holiday?
For skiers, natural snow is becoming harder and harder to find. More reliance on artificial snowmaking - which draws intensively on local water resources and releases chemicals - means increasing pressure on environments already struggling to cope with large numbers of visitors over a concentrated period.
Squeezing the ski season causes problems for the local economy too: jobs in Alpine destinations are sparse when the skiers aren’t there.
Here are four ways to have a more sustainable winter holiday.
Give multi-activities a go in the French Alps
Sally Guillaume runs Undiscovered Mountains, a tour operator on a mission to carve out a more sustainable winter sports industry in the French Alps. Her holidays are run in the Champsaur Valley of the Ecrins National Park, with accommodation in hamlets away from the ski resorts.
“Reducing the concentrated impact of skiing on the environment and developing year-round sustainable tourism is a path to more secure employment and preservation of the Alpine environment,” she says.
Her multi-activity holidays aren’t snow dependent so don’t need to be cancelled if the white stuff doesn’t show - meaning they can support active mountain adventures in all seasons. Ice climbing can be swapped out for rock climbing, ski touring for mountain biking, and snowshoeing excursions take place at higher altitudes where there is snow.
“We walk where the snow is rather than expecting the snow to be made for us!” says Guillaume.
A six-night multi-activity trip with Undiscovered Mountains costs from €698 per person, excluding flights. For an even more climate-friendly escape, take the overnight train from Paris to Briançon and Gap, which runs all year round.
Go snowshoe hiking in Austria
“What becomes memorable for me while hiking in winter time are the moments when you become aware of the life around you - the tracks of an Ibex or the noise of a smaller mountain goat as it traverses a trail above you,” says Xania Wear.
She runs winter walking holidays from MoaAlm Mountain Retreat in one of the most snow-sure corners of the Alps, the Austrian East Tyrol. For Xania, slowing down in the mountains is about amplifying the senses that might otherwise be dulled in the hustle and bustle - and blaring Europop - of resort skiing.
“I love how the same route can become a completely different experience. Every step gives you time to look around and admire the mountains as they should be admired, with time and under your own steam.”
Snowshoe hikes and cross-country skiing from MoaAlm feature the same spectacular peaks as downhill skiing trips in the neighbouring Grossglockner resort, but with a sustainable twist. Guests enjoy home-cooked, plant-based cuisine, and the chalet draws its energy from solar panels and sustainable wood pellets.
A six-night, full board stay, with guided hikes and daily yoga costs from €1,190 per person, excluding flights.
Try husky sledding in Finnish Lapland
If it’s adrenaline you’re after during your winter break, then head north to Finnish Lapland. Husky sledding here is a stalwart of traditional Sami culture - and the heady rush of driving your own team of exuberant dogs makes it the perfect way to get your winter thrills.
“We go through snowy crisp forests and pass over frozen lakes and swamps - places that are out of reach during summer,” says Marianne de Batist, who guides guests on husky safaris in Harriniva, Finland. On a week-long trip you’ll race between remote wilderness huts where traditional saunas and a chance to spot the Northern Lights welcome you each evening.
“We cook traditional Lappish lunches over open fire,” continues Marianne. “The group also helps us take care of the dogs: feeding, giving them hay for their beds, cleaning up, and of course cuddling them.”
Local guides and returning travellers are keen to stress that the dogs want to run. But, that doesn’t mean every husky safari is made equally responsible. Asking questions before you travel can help you find a husky experience that puts dog welfare first: what happens when the dogs are too old to run? How are dogs kept stimulated and healthy outside the winter season?
Combine husky safaris with reindeer sleigh rides, Sami cultural experiences, and a visit to a traditionally-styled Santa’s village for the ultimate family Christmas or New Year escape. A seven-night husky safari with The Aurora Zone costs from £2,495 per person including UK flights.
Spot winter wildlife in Sweden
You’re unlikely to come across much wildlife at the top of a red run. But in the snow-covered valleys around Jokkmokk, northern Sweden, it abounds. Watch out for Europe’s largest moose, reindeer, red squirrels and a host of winter birds.
This is the ultimate winter wilderness experience - including campfire lunches, chances to spot the Northern Lights, and nights spent in a tented camp in the remote Unna Tjerusj Sámi community, part of the Laponia Unesco World Heritage region.
The remote landscapes in this part of Swedish Lapland may feel pristine, but the rivers, mountains and forests are under constant pressure from mining exploration, logging and dams. Holidays like this one - which work with traditional Sami communities and help make the case for preserving nature in its wild state - can help save this fragile place.
A seven-night wildlife and winter activity holiday in northern Sweden costs from €2,875 per person, excluding flights. Choose the overnight train from Stockholm to Luleå and you won’t need to take an internal flight, either.