Snowshoeing—How to Get Started
Considering they’ve been helping people conquer dangerous winter landscapes for as many as 6000 years, it’s no surprise that snowshoes have become one of the most versatile pieces of cold-weather equipment. Willing to brave the elements and fulfill your running regiment, but the ground is too icy? Strap on a pair of Atlas running snowshoes, and hit the trail. Or throw on some recreational snowshoes, and have a day hike through the bank that’s just a little too deep for everyone else.
Snowshoes are an applicable accessory for nearly every winter activity. For skiers and riders, snowshoes are the key to ascending those steep slopes holding the most coveted backcountry lines. With a pair of thick insulated boots such as Sorels, and a set of burly snowshoes, an ambitious adventurer could even tackle something as imposing as Europe’s infamous Tour du Mont Blanc.
Anyone Can Snowshoe
Snowshoeing is one of the fastest-growing winter sports. Men, women, children, and people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders are getting in on the fun, and the reason is simple: it’s not hard to learn. If the name isn’t indicative enough, having a good time in snowshoes is as easy as walking. That’s what makes it the perfect family outing. So fight cabin fever and break the threshold into the great white beyond. While your kids trudge through snow piles and explore the inevitable crisscross of bunny and deer tracks, you can venture out to enjoy the pristine blankets of untouched snow.
Selecting the Right Size of Snowshoe
Most snowshoes come in multiple sizes. The men’s Tubbs Wilderness snowshoes, for example, comes in 25, 30, and 36 in. lengths. The longer the snowshoe, the more surface area of the deck, and hence, the greater the flotation of the snowshoe. Larger snowshoes keep heavier people from sinking too deeply into the snow. The size you should select depends on how much you weigh.
Each snowshoe size lists a recommended user weight range. Note that the ranges for some sizes overlap. For example, the recommended weight for the Wilderness 30 is 170 to 250 lb., while for the larger Wilderness 36 it’s 220 to 300 lb.
If you usually carry a backpack, the pack’s weight should be added to your body’s weight when determining the correct weight range.
Take into account the snow conditions you’re most likely to encounter. Fresh, dry snow isn’t very supportive, so it requires a larger snowshoe. Heavy or packed snow can be supportive enough for a smaller snowshoe.
Selecting the Right Style of Snowshoe
A snowshoe style and model is generally affected by your activity or sport as well as snow conditions. Eastern Mountain Sports sells several types of shoes by activity:
Recreational: If you’re planning to get out in the yard, on the road, or on a flat trail, recreational models are the best value and require no maintenance.
Backpacking/Mountaineering: Access the backcountry, or tackle steep and icy summits and unmarked trails. These snowshoes have aggressive crampons and are ultratough
Fitness/Racing: Get an aerobic low-impact workout that burns fat and builds strength. Runners, give pavement-pounding a rest. Cyclists, develop biking-specific muscles on hill workouts.
Also check out the product features, especially the bindings, which secure your boot to the snowshoe. A fixed binding excels at crossing steep terrain or backing up, yet can kick snow onto the back of your legs. A pivot binding sheds snow more easily and reduces leg fatigue when walking, but can be awkward when climbing or backing up.
Similar to cross-country skiing, if you’ve dressed too warmly when snowshoeing, you’ll overheat. On the other hand, once you’ve stopped to take a break, your body will quickly cool. Here are some tips to handle different conditions:
Dress in layers. This will allow you too shed insulating and outer layers if you get too warm. Insulating and outer layers should have full-length zippers, allowing you to vent without removing the garments. The outer layer should have pit zips for venting. Take along a backpack to stow any layers not in use. It’s okay to be a little cold when you first start out. The exertion of snowshoeing will warm you up soon enough. Include a compressible down or PrimaLoft jacket in your backpack. Even if you don’t use it, it’s good to have one on hand for emergencies. If you wear shell pants, choose a pair that has side zipper vents. If you’re out all day, take along an extra hat and gloves.
The Right Boots
Snowshoe bindings are so versatile that most boots will fit. The question is, will they keep you warm and dry in the snow? Here are a few things to consider when selecting snowshoe boots:
Choose boots that are waterproof. They should have a Gore-Tex or similar waterproof, breathable membrane, and be made of treated leather or a combination of rubber and leather. Choose boots that are insulated. Many options are out there, from tall snow boots with removable felt linings to hiking boots insulated with Thinsulate.
Consider the height of the boot. Taller boots will keep out deeper snow. If you go with shorter boots, consider wearing ankle gaiters to keep out snow. Consider the fit of the boot. Big bulky snow boots with removable linings are okay for short walks, but if you’re snowshoeing for any appreciable mileage, you’ll find that the loose fit can cause blisters. For longer treks, wear insulated hiking boots. Their fit is much more precise.
You can use either trekking poles or ski poles. They’ll help you keep your balance as you’re snowshoeing along uneven ground. Make sure the baskets on the ends of the poles are large enough to keep the poles from sinking deeply. It helps (though it’s not mandatory) if the poles are of adjustable length, allowing you to lengthen them when descending a steep downhill or shorten them as you climb.
A water bottle or hydration pack. Because of the colder temperatures, people don’t always realize when they become dehydrated. Hydration in winter is as important as it is in summer. Food. Energy bars or gels work. So does trail mix. Take something that you can easily consume on the go. Headlamp. They fit easily in the pocket, and you never know when the hike will go longer than planned.
Test Your Bindings
If you haven’t worn your snowshoes before, practice tightening the bindings to your boots and become accustomed to how the binding works. You can even do this in the comfort of your own home when you and your fingertips are warm and toasty.
Once outside, ideally on a flat surface or even your lawn, get used to walking. To attain a good stride, or walk on snowshoes with a smooth gait, walk as you normally would, but consider the width of you particular shoes. To keep your snowshoes from rubbing or hitting each other—or your shins—you’ll need to walk with a wider gait. If you’re lucky enough to be the first person on the trail, or any place, after freshly fallen snow, remember that you’ll have to exert a little more force if it’s deep. Be sure to take slower, higher, and more deliberate steps if this is the case.
The first few tight turns you make can be challenging, but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough. The best way to go about turning while in snowshoes is to simply make a half circle. Because of the awkwardness of the shoes, the easiest turn will be a wide one. Unfortunately, not every trail is so kind to its travelers. Some turns will inevitably be sharp, and in that moment you’ll be glad you practiced in your backyard for a few minutes before leaving. Once you feel confident that you’re not going to take a tumble, you’re ready to take on an actual hike with your snowshoes.
Snowshoeing is not a difficult sport to learn, but when you’re first starting out, there are three hurdles you need to get past. The first is walking. Check. The second, turning. Check. And the third, which is perhaps the most challenging, is conquering hills.
Starting with only a slight incline, try using the stepping up technique. This is where you face the hill, drive your toes into the snow, and then apply weight to create an almost stair step. If you have poles, you can use them to ease the load on your knees. As you get into steeper terrain, say a moderate hill, you can switch to the herringbone technique to continue your ascent. In this style, you’ll want to keep your toes turned out at 45-degree angles with your body turned toward the hill. While keeping your weight balanced on the outside edges, you’ll move up the hill in a waddling motion—just imitate a duck. The shift in weight will give you the traction you need to keep going.
As you start ascending hills, you’ll want to use the toe of your boots to dig into the snow. Your snowshoe has crampons underneath your bindings that will grip the hill. When you descend, plant your feet firmly and avoid leaning back, so your toe crampons get traction (unless you have mountaineering snowshoes which also have heel crampons). Don’t forget that if you’re making your descent and you begin to slip, sit down to avoid a possibly dangerous fall.
Once you’re feeling more comfortable with your equipment, you may want to challenge yourself and choose an even steeper terrain. By using a sidestepping technique in which you turn your body perpendicular to the climb, you can move by lifting your uphill foot first, bringing it down to create a shelf in the snow and then moving your downhill foot to rest in the area previously occupied by the other.
Sometimes, though, hills are simply too vertical to climb in a straight line with only snowshoes and trekking poles. In these instances, you can do something called traversing, where you move toward the summit at an angle. You can also ascend via a series of zigzag maneuvers known as switchbacking.
Remember, these techniques can be just as useful for getting down the hill as they can be for getting up.
Pick Your Trail—or Create One
Snowshoeing isn’t confined to established trails. Try the local golf course. Snowmobile trails are great, but don’t assume the snowmobile drivers can see you, especially at night. If you want to try racing, visit some snowshoe company websites, such as Tubbs or Atlas. If you see cross-country ski tracks, be considerate and don’t walk over them. Unfamiliar with the area in which you want to snowshoe? Find a local outdoor shop, and ask the staff.
Stay Safe, Hydrated, and Energized
Take plenty of high-energy food and water because snowshoeing burns through both quickly. It’s a cross-training activity that uses every major muscle group. Instead of stopping for a half hour to eat and getting cold, try stopping several times for shorter periods. Take along a small thermos with hot liquid, not only to warm your lips, but also your body as you carry it.
If the snow is deep, take turns breaking trail, kind of like drafting on a bike. If you’re in the backcountry, get avalanche training; people usually trigger avalanches themselves. Be sure to never leave without telling someone where you are and checking the weather forecast. While your equipment is sturdy and designed to withstand colder elements, you should still remember to take a small emergency kit. Build it to include duct tape for patching holes and wire or tie-wraps to secure any broken straps. If you’re using poles to help you on your excursion, you can easily tape the small kit to the bottom of one. Otherwise you can store it in a pack or protected pocket.
Now go have fun!