West Yellowstone, Montana: Your Biathlon Destination
West Yellowstone is one of the few places in the Western United States where visitors can experience biathlon in action—and even try it for themselves! Read on to find out more about biathlon and how you can encounter the sport on your next West Yellowstone adventure.
What is biathlon?
Biathlon is a unique combination of Nordic skiing and rifle shooting. The sport is rooted in Scandinavian countries, where hunters and soldiers alike would ski to cover long distances before shooting to hunt game or engage in military action. The combination of Nordic skiing and rifle shooting evolved recreationally during the 18th and 19th centuries and biathlon officially became a winter Olympic sport in 1955.
Biathlon begins with athletes skiing a loop, usually between 3 to 5 kilometers in length, until they arrive at a shooting range. Athletes have five bullets to shoot five targets at the range, either prone or standing, with a .22 caliber rifle. Following the shooting, athletes ski an additional 150 kilometer penalty lap for each target that they missed. After completing the penalty laps, competitors return to the loop and repeat the ski and shooting cycle three to four times, depending on the event type, before skiing a final loop to the finish line.
“There’s a lot of action from the penalty loop to the range,” said Kelli Hart, co-owner of Freeheel & Wheel in West Yellowstone. “The precision is really neat for people to watch. Athletes have to slow their breath when they come into the range to be able to shoot, and there’s always the wind factor as well.”
The combination of skiing and shooting can level the playing field between strong skiers and precision marksmen. A fast skier can quickly lose ground to slower competitors if they miss targets and have to ski multiple penalty loops. Likewise, an excellent marksman may struggle to keep pace with poorer shooters who are stronger skiers. The variation among individual strengths across the course can make biathlon exciting and unpredictable for athletes and spectators alike.
When can I check out biathlon?
West Yellowstone hosts several biathlon cups during the winter season. The following dates reflect the 2016-2017 winter season:
- December —Biathlon Cup #1
- January —Biathlon Cup #2
- February —Biathlon Cup #3
In February, the West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation, in conjunction with Freeheel & Wheel and Altius Handcrafted Firearms, host a Free Ski and Try Biathlon Day. Visitors can take advantage of free 2-hour equipment rentals and a free 1-hour ski lesson courtesy of Freewheel & Wheel. In addition, those interested in learning how to shoot can take part in a free demo courtesy of Altius Handcrafted Firearms. After learning the basics, visitors can ski the Rendezvous Trails, West Yellowstone’s premier trail system, free of charge for the full day.
Not into skiing? Don’t like winter? Not a problem! Each July, visitors can take part in the summer biathlon, which combines mountain biking with rifle shooting.
How can I get involved?
Visitors are welcome to watch an event, or volunteer to get an even closer look at the action.
“The best opportunity to try biathlon is on our event days or on our try it biathlon day,” said Marc Sheppard, owner of Altius Handcrafted Firearms. “We welcome novices at any event, so you don’t need to be experienced.”
Ski lessons and gear are available at Freewheel & Wheel, West Yellowstone’s local ski shop. Visitors can rent gear for $25 to $30 a day or $10 an hour. Group lessons range from $35 to $40 an hour and private lessons are available for $50 an hour. For those interested in the summer biathlon, the store offers mountain bike rentals for $35 to $40 a day or $10 an hour.
Biathlon shooting lessons are available through Altius Handcrafted Firearms, West Yellowstone’s local rifle supply and the world’s only biathlon specialty shop. Visitors can set up a 2-hour private lesson on the range or take part in the Summer Shooting Camp in August.
Whether you are an accomplished athlete, a novice, or a spectator, West Yellowstone offers a variety of opportunities to experience biathlon. For summer and winter visitors alike, biathlon makes an exciting addition to your next West Yellowstone adventure.
Author: Caitlin Styrsky