When you ski or ride fast enough down a mountain, wind in your face and nothing slowing you down, it can feel a bit like flying.
And when you strap into your skis or snowboard and harness yourself to a 15-foot-wide kite, flying is exactly what you’ll do. The practice, aptly called snowkiting, takes winter sports to smoother terrain and, of course, to new heights.
“What drives me the most is the ability to jump and I’m flying,” said Eddy Petranek, a Boisean who started snowkiting in 2004. “Some of these jumps have a ridiculous amount of hangtime.”
Will Hise, also of Boise, compared it to paragliding, sometimes 60 feet from the ground. It’s possible to get serious air, but Hise said most local kiters stay closer to the ground. Terrain is a crucial aspect of snowkiting, and Idaho has some of the most desirable terrain around for a sport that’s growing in popularity.
The ideal spot is 101 miles east of Boise — the open expanse of the Camas Prairie. It’s a vast, obstacle-free plain with optimal wind speeds and an ideal altitude. The hour-and-a-half trek to get there from the Treasure Valley may seem time-consuming, but 42-year-old Hise doesn’t see it that way.
“Camas feels far when you drive out there every weekend, but it’s really not,” Hise said. “To have that kind of terrain this close to Boise is awesome.”
How snowkiting works
There are three elements that make for good snowkiting: wind, snow and visibility, Hise said.
Snowkiting requires less intense wind speeds than sister sports like kiteboarding, which are practiced on water. Wind speeds between 8 and 30 miles per hour are enough to get a kite up and going, Hise said.
Snow quality affects the experience, too. According to Hise, hard-packed snow is easiest to snowkite on.
“Snow conditions change how you ride,” he said. “When it’s deep powder, I’ll do stupid things because it’s more fun.”
But snow and blustery winds can make for poor visibility, and at 5,000 feet, other obstacles can arise.
“It’s really scary to be stuck (on the prairie) when the clouds come down,” Hise said. “My kite is 24 meters away from me and I can’t see it.”
When ideal conditions combine, Hise said many snowkiters will “mow the lawn” — letting the wind pull them from side to side as they meander across the prairie. It’s why the geography of the Camas is so conducive to the sport, Petranek said.
“The Camas Prairie is really a gem,” Petranek said. “The fact that there are no trees makes it this incredible playground.”
Because the sport plays off of skiing and snowboarding, a bit of experience in those activities can be a great starting point. Hise said he was never much into winter recreation, but knowing how to work skis or boards comes in handy.
“For snowkiting, you can do either,” Hise said. “I usually have people do whatever they already know. It’s one less thing to think about.”
Controlling the kite is often the hardest part, he said. Hise introduces friends to the sport, and he all but guarantees success.
“If you have a nice day on the snow, I can teach just about anyone to get a feel for the kite,” he said. “Someone who knows how to ski or snowboard, you can have them going back and forth in a day or two.”
Boisean Tony Williams advises finding beat-up secondhand skis or snowboards, since hidden rocks can wear on equipment. Beginner kites start around $250 to $350 online (though high-end kites can run in the thousands of dollars) and control bars are similarly priced.
Despite the added equipment, some snowkiters say the sport is easier than traditional skiing or snowboarding.
Hise said he can snowkite down a slope the way a skier or snowboarder would. When he reaches the bottom, he’ll turn and ride the wind back uphill.
“I can’t believe people put that much work in (to hike uphill),” Hise joked.
The kite can be toggled to catch the wind in either direction, allowing kiters to choose where they want to head. Snowkiting is like the thrill of cruising downhill no matter which way you’re going, Hise explained. Others agree.
“It’s like the difference between cross country and downhill skiing — you can ski in one direction for six, seven miles,” said Williams, who’s been snowkiting for about 11 years.
“I get passes to Bogus each year, but I always end up snowkiting,” Williams said. “I prefer to snowkite if I can, but it depends on Mother Nature. I guess that’s why there’s fewer people doing it.”
Forums, events help Idaho snowkiting grow
Compared to massively popular winter sports like skiing or snowboarding, snowkiting is certainly a small community. Hise estimates there are about 30 people from the Treasure Valley who take part. A handful of others come from places like Ketchum and Twin Falls to snowkite on the Camas Prairie.
Unlike Hise, who moved to Boise from San Diego seven years ago, Petranek has witnessed Idaho’s snowkite community from the start. Petranek was a fan of other kite sports — kite buggying on land and kitesurfing on water — when he first heard of snowkiting online.
“It was a no-brainer,” Petranek said. “Having driven through (the prairie), I realized I knew a great spot to go try it. (My friend and I) were some of the first people I know of that played up there.”
Petranek started offering lessons and selling gear, though he’s since scaled back operations. More and more people began joining.
“It seems like every year since then, (our numbers) double,” Petranek said.
At the same time, snowkiting was becoming more popular across the country. A yearly event called Snowkite Soldier popped up near Fairfield in 2006, drawing more interest until it went on hiatus in 2013. (The event’s former organizers told the Statesman via Facebook message that they hope to revive Snowkite Soldier in 2020.)
Local snowkiters said Camas has come to be considered one of the top spots in the U.S. for the sport, even drawing some tourists.
“I knew about Idaho for snowkiting before I moved here, and I didn’t know much about Idaho,” Hise said.
In recent years, things have slowed a bit. For a few winters, the snow on the Camas Prairie wasn’t conducive to the sport.
“It was growing pretty big,” Williams said, “but 2013, ‘14, ‘15 were bad snow years.”
This year, ideal conditions have brought snowkiters back.
“When you go out and you’ve got 20 square miles ... you can have powder for days on end,” Williams said.