For years now, snowshoeing, an activity once pretty much confined to trappers in the North Woods, has been the fastest-growing winter sport in America. Today, there are an estimated 6 million active snowshoers in the country, a sizable percentage of them older former downhill or cross-country skiers.
''Snowshoeing is a low-impact and joint-friendly exercise," said Kathy Murphy of Tubbs Snowshoe Company of Stowe, Vt., the nation's largest snowshoe manufacturer, which has seen its market increase by more than 90 percent in the last five years.
Besides being kind to older knees, modern aluminum-framed snowshoes are a lot lighter and handier to use than the clumsy wood and rawhide models favored by Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (of radio and TV fame) that many of us encountered -- and spurned -- in our youth.
Winter resort areas, which once ignored snowshoers, now eagerly court them with discount packages and special programs and events. For example, Bethel in western Maine, the state's Nordic ski capital, offers a ''Golden Glides, Silver Strides" midweek vacation package aimed at snowshoers as well as cross-country skiers. Available to adults 55 or older, the $199 per person package, based on double occupancy, includes three nights' accommodation with breakfast at a choice of inns, B&Bs, suites, or cabins. Also included are rental snowshoes and a lesson or guided tour.
Bethel's three cross-country skiing centers have snowshoeing trails, too. The Bethel Inn trail network offers superb views of the surrounding mountains, Carter's XC Center has trails along the Androscoggin River, and Sunday River trails meander through the woods to a covered bridge. At this writing, the foot or more of snow on the ground provides ideal snowshoe conditions.
The ''Golden Glides, Silver Strides" package is offered Sundays through Thursday nights. For more information, call Crocker Pont House, 207-836-2027; Sudbury Inn, 207-26-2174; Rivendell House, 207-824-0508; Suite On the Common, 207-824-0888; Bethel Inn and Country Club, 207-824-2175; Sunday River Inn and Country Ski Center, 207-824-2410; or Carter's Cross Country Ski Center, 207-539-4848.
Mad River Glen in Waitsfield, Vt., (802-496-3551, maddriverglen.com) is famous for its demanding expert downhill ski runs. (''Mad River Glen. Ski It If You Can!" is its bumper sticker boast.) Less well known is its extensive network of snowshoeing trails, from easy to difficult, and a prizewinning naturalist program that includes guided snowshoe treks focusing on the ecology, geology, and wildlife of Stark Mountain.
The naturalist-guided treks leave from the Nature Center at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and daily during school vacation weeks. The charge for a two-hour trek is $20 adult, $15 junior, $50 family. For four hours, it costs $30, $20, and $75, respectively.
Daily snowshoe trail passes at Mad River Glen are $5. Snowshoe rentals are $19 for a full day, $12 half day.
The Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club (617-523-0636; www.outdoors.org) offers snowshoeing workshops and guided tours, many in the White Mountains and elsewhere in New England, for beginners to experts.
This Saturday, there will be a one-day natural history workshop for beginning snowshoers titled ''Curious Naturalists: Weeds, Seeds, and Trees" at the AMC's Pinkham Notch (N.H.) Visitors Center. Naturalist and interpretive specialist Nicky Pizzo will lead the group through forests and fields to discover what happens to plants in winter and how to identify plants by their twigs and bark. The fee is $61 for non-AMC member adults and includes snowshoeing instruction and lunch.
The weekend of March 6-7, Pinkham Notch hosts a beginner snowshoeing workshop, including two days of instruction by AMC staff with practice snowshoeing on a variety of terrains, along with instruction in the basics of winter route finding, safety, nutrition, and clothing.
Participants should be in good condition and able to hike a few miles on snowshoes with some climbing. The cost of the workshop is $243 for non-AMC members, which includes meals and one night's lodging.
Forty Plus (amcboston.org/forty) is a committee of the AMC's Boston chapter that organizes events aimed at active people over 40. The next event (Feb. 6-8) is a weekend of backcountry snowshoeing and skiing on White Mountain trails from the AMC's Cardigan Lodge. Instruction will be available at all skill levels.
The weekend runs Friday evening through Sunday lunch. The price is $115 for lodging and all meals. Visit the committee website or e-mail FortyPlus@amcboston.org.
Tubbs, meanwhile, has an elaborate website (www.tubbssnowshoes.com) with information about clothing and equipment and listings of races, workshops, and tour packages around North America. It also has a particularly useful link called ''Finding a Trail" with a database of snowshoe trails around the world, graded by length and degree of difficulty. It lists 126 trails in Massachusetts alone, almost all beginner to intermediate skill level and ranging from 1 to 10 miles long.
William A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com. Going Strong, his column on senior travel, appears the first Sunday of the month.