1) Easy to learn
2) Relatively inexpensive (compared to other winter sports),
3) Not very risky (again, compared to other winter sports)
4) A great way to exercise during winter (you can burn up to 45% more calories than just walking, up to 600 per hour)
5) A great activity for families to enjoy together (there are youth sizes)
When are snowshoes the right equipment to use?
Snowshoes are designed to provide the user with enhanced flotation in deep snow, thus making travel across snow covered terrain “easier.” Since walking with snowshoes is harder than walking without them you should only use them when you actually need the flotation – e.g. snow depths of greater than 8”.
Walking on a hard packed trail with snowshoes is overkill. If you can walk on the trail without breaking through, leave your snowshoes off or better yet, venture off-trail to discover their true usefulness.
1) Traditional vs. Modern:
Benefits of modern – binding systems are generally superior, crampons allow for expanded use, lightweight, require little or no maintenance
Benefits of traditional – quieter in use, the frames don’t freeze up with snow as easily, provide greater flotation for the weight, tradition
2) Intended use: Generally, there are three types or categories of snowshoes. You should definitely pick the right one for what you plan to use them for.
- Backcountry / winter camping use – the largest, meant for serious hill-climbing, long-distance trips and off-trail use
- Front country / light hiking – meant for use in gentle-to moderate walks of 3–5 miles
- Running / fitness – small and light; not intended for backcountry use
3) User size: A common formula is that for every pound of body weight, there should be one square inch of snowshoe surface (14.5 cm²/kg) per snowshoe to adequately support the wearer. Users should also consider the weight of any gear they will be packing, especially if they expect to break trail. Those planning to travel into deep powder should look for even larger shoes.
4) The importance of bindings – Since you’ll be operating the bindings in the snow and cold when you’re tired, ease of use is very important. Binding systems have improved greatly but there are still differences between the major manufacturers. Check them out to find the one that you like best.
Now that I’ve got the snowshoes, what other equipment do I need?
- Trekking or XC/downhill ski poles are handy when snowshoeing
- Good, insulated winter boots are a must
- Gaitors to keep the snow out of your boots and off your pants are also helpful
- Proper clothing – preferably a good layering system, preferably with a highly-breathable shell
OK, so how do I snowshoe? If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s just that simple. Snowshoeing does require some slight adjustments to walking…lift one shoe slightly and slide the inner edge over the other being sure to not put it down on top of the other shoe. You need to avoid the “straddle-gait” that is fatiguing.
Some modern snowshoes have lift bars that can be flipped up for ascending steep slopes. The wearer’s heel can rest on the bar thus easing the strain on calf muscles during long climbs.
Just like with crampons, you should use “kick steps,” e.g. kicking the toes of the shoes into the snow – to get good traction when climbing up a hill.
If necessary, snowshoers can also use two skiing techniques when climbing up a hill – the herringbone and the sidestep. You can also pull yourself up if you use poles.
Going downhill is a bit trickier on snowshoes than compared to crampons…especially on very hard-packed snow or ice. Step sliding involves running downhill in exaggerated steps while sliding slightly. On super technical stuff, you’ll want poles planted out in front of you on every step.
If you like to go alone or venture off trail, you’ll often experience the joy of breaking trail. This is tiring (it may require up to 50% more energy than simply following behind) even on level terrain, and frequently in groups this work is shared among all participants.
A trail breaker can improve the quality of the ensuing route by using a technique, similar to the hiking rest step, called “stamping”: pausing momentarily after each step before putting full weight on the foot. This helps smooth the snow underneath and compacts it even better for the next user.
A well-broken trail is usually a rut in the snow about 6–8 inches deep and 2 feet wide.
Outdoor ethics for snowshoeing
Just like with any outdoor activity, you should make sure you’re doing it in a way that will not cause negative impacts to those coming after you. Here are some things to consider.
1) Make sure you have the landowners’ permission to use their lands / trails
2) Avoid snowshoeing on groomed XC ski trails and for your safety, avoid snowmobile trails and waterbodies with questionable ice thickness
3) Follow Leave No Trace principles for winter travel
For more info…
Check out the selection of snowshoes at your local outfitter store and talk with their sales staff. You can also go directly to snowshoe manufacturers’ websites. Here are some of the leading companies…
Trailspace.com also has a good online guide to snowshoes. Check out Snowshoe Magazine for a variety of snowshoe related content. In particular, they feature a Guide for beginners and an introductory video. Backpacker offers a great field fixit list for snowshoeing and a Snowshoeing Gear List.