Snowshoes and Brews with REI Experiences in New Hampshire
By Bart Beeson
On a snowy January morning I set out to meet with a group of folks on a guided snowshoe tour hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, just off the famous Kancamagus highway. Six of us arrived at a freshly plowed trailhead and met our two guides, who provided us with our gear for the day: snowshoes, gators, hiking poles and warm mittens. After getting geared up and strapped in, we crossed a bucolic wooden bridge over the ice-covered Swift River and set out single-file on our mini-expedition: the three-and-a-half mile Boulder Loop trail.
I had come to New Hampshire to participate in “Snowshoe Stomp and Brews,” one of many outdoor adventures that REI Experiences is offering through its store in the town of North Conway. The store, the first REI Co-op in New Hampshire, opened in September of 2019 and is the only REI in the country that’s using a model that mainly emphasizes experiences, classes and rentals rather than retail. Some of the other winter experiences offered include an introduction to backcountry skiing and splitboarding, a full moon snowshoe tour, a White Mountain winter hiking series, and an ice climbing class. In addition, the new store has an extensive rental department for customers to take out gear to use on their own, and Co-op members get significant discounts on rentals (members also get discounts on the experiences). Summer offerings will include a kayaking class, introduction to outdoor rock climbing, mountain bike tours, and a White Mountain hiking series. Depending on the activity, REI will provide participants with some or all of the required gear.
According to Senior Instructor Dhane Knakkergaard, who has been helping to develop many of the experiences since May of 2019, most of them are geared toward those who are looking to try out a new sport or activity without necessarily buying all of the required gear. He says that ideally, after going out once with the REI guides, the participants will be ready to try the activity on their own. “If we do our job well, there’s a good chance they’ll be one-time customers,” he says.
And while most of the classes may be designed for newbies, even seasoned outdoors people will probably learn a thing or two, whether it be tips about the activity or knowledge of the local environment. On my trip, as we hiked at a leisurely pace through the woods, our extremely engaging guides shared tips about the correct way to put your hand through your hiking pull straps; how to adjust your hiking poles correctly depending on whether you’re ascending or descending; and why you should keep your water bottle upside down in your pack on particularly cold days (to keep the mouth from freezing first). They also pointed out features about the surrounding landscape, noting the various holes made by different species of woodpeckers, and discussed the impact of elevation gain on the temperature and the different species of trees found in the forest.
Anyone familiar with outdoor winter activities will tell you that having the right gear and clothes is essential to having a good experience and that wearing layers of clothes is key for more active outings. Prior to the trip, REI Co-op had provided me with a few pieces of high-quality winter apparel to try out. Having a good wicking base layer is important to draw sweat off your body, and REI Co-op’s lightweight base layer long-sleeve crew top and bottoms are a great breathable first layer that do just that. You’re also going to want to make sure your feet are happy if you’re going to be traipsing around in the snow for a couple hours, and REI Co-op’s merino wool mid-weight crew socks are extremely comfortable and warm without being too bulky (and your friends will appreciate the odor-resistant merino when you pull off your boots after a long day of hiking).
For an outer layer, the REI Co-op Activator softshell jacket is perfect for winter activities. It’s big enough to wear over a mid-layer, but still slim-fitting enough to be an attractive jacket. I’ve found it to be great for cross country skiing as well, as its stretchiness allows for a wide range of movement, its breathability keeps you from overheating, and its water-resistance keeps you dry under snow or light rain.
The After Party
While these outdoor experiences are all learning opportunities, REI also emphasizes that they are also great opportunities to socialize and meet like-minded people. The ‘Stomps and Brews’ activity is particularly well-suited for this, as after the snowshoe the group heads to a local brewpub for a pint and an appetizer (both included in the activity price). After spending four hours tromping around in the snow, we were all looking forward to a warm pub and a cold beer, so we headed to the nearby Tuckerman Brewing Company in Conway. Pulling in, we were surprised to find an extremely crowded parking lot, and realized that our post-hike beer gathering just happened to coincide with a Bernie Sanders rally (our guides swore they had no hidden political agenda). So we found a place amongst Bernie’s rapt supporters with their “Feel the Bern” signs, enjoyed our well-earned beer, chatted with our fellow hikers, and listened to the dulcet tones of Bernie giving his campaign speech over the loudspeakers.
For more information about REI Experiences, visit https://www.rei.com/events.
Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.