(The Gear Loop) - Whether you're a skier or a snowboarder or someone who's never set foot in a ski resort before, there's never been a better time to explore beyond the ski slopes. We've taken a closer look at five very different winter sports, ranging from ice diving to barrel stave ski racing. And yes, the latter is as weird (and fun) as it sounds…
Fed up of listening to your friends boast about scuba diving trips to exotic destinations? Diving trips in the Maldives will look rather boring compared to this next activity - an ice diving session beneath the frozen surface of an Alpine lake. Ice diving can be carried out in a number of places, but our favourite spot is the French ski resort of Tignes. You don't need to be a qualified scuba diver (you'll be with an instructor the whole time) and the dry suit you'll wear guarantees you'll stay warm and dry.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no coral reefs or tropical fish, but the dancing bubbles, shifting light patterns created by the shafts of sunlight poking through cracks in the ice and the absolute silence (the result of the ice's insulating qualities) make this one of the world's coolest (excuse the pun) diving locations.
This year, the Oxygène ski school in the French ski resort of La Plagne will offer Moonbike sessions for the first time. These electric bikes are three times lighter than a snowmobile, and the combination of a low centre of gravity and a front-mounted ski makes them incredibly stable.
Their powerful headlights means they're ideal for mountain explorations in snowy conditions or in the early evening, and if you sign up for a session in La Plagne (one of several resorts to offer guided Moonbike tours) you don't need to worry about accidentally taking out a skier or snowboarder - you'll explore the slopes after the lifts have closed, so you'll have the entire mountain to yourself.
Barrel stave ski racing
For something a little more traditional, consider barrel stave racing, available in a handful of Swiss and Austrian ski resorts. You'll fly down the mountain on barrel staves - curved sections of beer barrels which are attached to the feet with leather straps.
Years ago in the Tyrol region, barrel staves were used as skis by locals who couldn't afford the latest kit, and the ski poles (or should that be pole) are equally basic - you'll steer using a long, straight wooden stick. We suggest trying it at Galtür in Austria's Paznaun region, where there are floodlit barrel stave sessions every Wednesday evening. Trust us - you'll never look at a beer cask in the same way again.
Ever fancied clipping into a pair of skis then being dragged along behind a galloping horse? We realise the answer is almost certainly no, but bear with us here. Skijoring has its roots in Nordic countries (its name is derived from skikjøring, which means ski driving in Norwegian), where it was once used as a way of transporting heavy loads from A to B.
A horse, reindeer or team of dogs would pull a loaded sled, while the driver would hold onto a rope and fly across the snow on skis. We recommend trying it at Swiss resort of St. Moritz, where horse races have been taking place since 1907, and where visitors can now try the sport for themselves. Neiiiigh bother.
Via ferrata (which means iron path in Italian) is a sport that involves climbing mountains by attaching yourself - using carabiners - to a steel cable attached to the mountainside. Typically, via ferrata routes include iron rungs, flights of steps, bridges and rope ladders, and although it's now widely available in the UK (the first via ferrata route was unveiled in the Lake District in 2006), the best place to try it is the Alps, where it was first practised in the 1900s.
One of the most spectacular via ferrata routes is in the Austrian ski resort of St. Anton am Arlberg, atop Mount Rendl. Attempt this 850-metre-long route and you'll enjoy breath-taking views over the Verwallgruppe Mountain Range, and if you're brave enough, you can do it with your snowboard or skis on your back, and top your expedition off with a hair-raising descent from the finishing point - the Rossfallscharte Ridge.
Now get the gear
Burton Touchscreen Glove Liners
Way too jazzy to be worn underneath waterproof gloves (like they really should), these sweet gloveliners from Burton Snowboards allow for easy interaction with smartphones, without having to expose your digits to the biting cold.
Columbia Labyrinth Loop Jacket
This stylish and highly technical jacket from Columbia is wind-proof and comes with the brand's excellent thermal-reflective technology, which clever bounces body heat back towards the, erm, body.
Burton Performance Midweight Sock
Extremities are the most likely thing to feel the cold when out enjoying winter sports, so cover up with these super soft Merino wool numbers from Burton Snowboards.
Stretchy, breathable, quick-drying and with abrasion-resistant properties, they are the perfect partner to snow boots and look pretty funky, too.
Bollé Mammoth Goggles
With a brilliant wide view and scratch-resistant lenses, these snug-fitting goggles from optical specialists Bollé are a top choice for any winter sport, especially if you expect to do a bit of tumbling.
To get properly scientific, the lenses pack a molecular photochromic filter that adapts to any light condition and a semi-polarised film to reduce glare and enhance contrast in whiteout conditions.
The North Face Dragline Jacket
Struggle to stand out on the mountain? Struggle no more, because The North Face Dragline Jacket comes in a variety of retina-burning hues.
That's not its only redeeming feature though, because it is waterproof, highly windproof, breathable and everything you want in a ski or snowboarding outer layer. Oh, and it comes in mens' and womens' versions too.