The Basics of Snowshoeing
Since the introduction of the modern decked snowshoe, snowshoeing has grown immensely in popularity among winter sports enthusiasts and amateurs alike. For people looking for a physically demanding and soul soothing fitness activity to start the New Year off right, they should try strapping on a pair of snowshoes.
I worked in outdoor retail for years and each year people would would walk up to the snowshoe display and stare with an inquisitive yet dumfounded glare at the myriad shapes and sizes of snowhsoes. As I greeted them, awakening them from their snowshoe stupor, they usually asked, "How do you go snowshoeing?"
Though the physical mechanism of snowshoeing is simple, just place one foot in front of the other, there are a few things you need to know before getting started for a fun and safe snowshoeing experience.
Snowshoes are varied and as bountiful as the stars and it is overwhelming when you start to shop for them. To make things easier remember the following rules:
- The larger the snowshoe the more floatation you have (ie - the more weight is displaces). The more floatation you have, the less you sink in the snow.
- The larger the snowshoe the heavier the weight on your feet. The more weight on your feet the more energy you expend and the harder it is to walk.
When shopping for snowshoes, you'll need to know two things:
- How much weight, including gear and yourself, will you be carrying?
- Each manufacturer lists a recommended size (in inches) for the amount of weight to be carried. This however is not gospel: I range from 25-inch to 36-inch models myself based on the conditions in which I am hiking.
- How and where do you plan on using your snowshoes?
- Besides length based on weight, snowshoes are also sold according to usage. If you plan on sticking to the local park, you can get away with a pair of recreational models. However, if you plan on venturing into the backcountry, you will need a model designed for hard use with stronger materials and more aggressive crampons.
I have several models of snowshoes based on the conditions I plan on hiking in. In deep unbroken powder when I'm wearing a heavy pack, I'll wear my monster Tubbs 36-inch Mountaineers. In moderate conditions, with heavy trail breaking I'll wear the 30-inch Atlas 1030 model. With broken out trails and with lots of climbing I'll wear a 25-inch like the Tubbs Mountaineer 25, the Atlas 1025, or the Tubbs Alp Pro 25.
Some snowshoes like the MSR Denali (below) have adjustable length tails available so you can modify the shoe for any condition.
Check out the modular snowshoe system from MSR
Though many people associate poles with skiing, they aid greatly in snowshoeing as well. Why do they help? Well, why gliding over slick surfaces and over uneven terrain, four legs are always better than two. Besides the obvious benefit to balance, you also gain additional propulsion by using your arms to push you forward.
Still not convinced about poles? Walk over to a chair and step up onto it - notice the amount of stress placed on your knee. Now grab a couple of brooms, hold them perpendicular to the floor and repeat the stair stepping exercise. Notice how much easier it was to climb with the addition of the poles.
Characteristics of a good snowshoeing pole:
- Sturdy construction
- Reputable Brand: Leki, Komperdell, Black Diamond
- Wide powder/snowflake baskets
- Adjustable length for varying conditions
To use poles why snowshoeing, adjust the length so with elbows bent at a 90-degree angle you lower arms are parallel to the ground. As you walk, swing the pole opposite of the foot moving forward and plant into snow. Alternate pole plants as stride increases.
Though some manufacturers have marketed binding specific boots that clip into snowshoes like skis, the majority of snowshoes don't require a specific type of boot. I've worn snowshoes with gore-tex trail runners and I've worn them with stiff mountaineering boots. The beauty of the universal bindings is that you can wear the type of footwear you need for the conditions you are facing.
Generally, for most people, the best boot for snowshoeing is a winter hiking boot. A winter hiking boot that you plan on using for snowshoeing should have the following features:
- Made of waterproof /breathable materials
- Light insulation like 200-400 grams of thinsulate or equivalent -if the boots are too warm, your feet will sweat too much.
- A snowshoe binding heel - many winter hiking boots have plastic ridges along the back of the heel to grab the binding better.
- Gaiter hooks - Most people wear gaiters while snowshoeing and these hooks below the laces will help keep your gaiters in place.
- I, and many other snowshoers, prefer a boot which is a mid or ankle-high cut. Even when the snow is deep, you don't need a high boot. Augment your lower boots with gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots.
Clothing for Snowshoeing
When I take people snowshoeing for the first time, there is usually one problem with their clothing - they are wearing far too much. After trudging through the snow for fifteen minutes I turn to them, as the sweat soaks their clothing and pours off their brow, and ask them, "I bet you wish you weren't wearing that heavy parka now."
However, given the potential danger of winter weather, you can't venture out in just your skivvies either. The trick is to utilize a technical clothing system.
Remember the following pointers:
- Synthetics or Wool:
Wet clothing, either from snow or sweat, makes you colder; therefore, wear clothing made from synthetic materials or wool which retain thermal properties even when wet. Make sure you take care of synthetics according to their care label and clean them regularly to enhance performance.
Several light layers will keep you warmer than one thick layer. When dressed in layers it is easy to trap air (which is easier to warm) in between the layers.
Also as your level of energy increases and decreases, it is easy to peel off or add a layer to maintain thermal regulation in your body.
Remember your system should contain a wicking layer, an insulation layer, and a weather layer.
- Hats, Gloves, Mittens, and Balaclavas:
Grandma use to always yell at you when you didn't wear a hat - and for good reason. Your head is a collection of blood vessels and acts as a major radiation point for your body.
In order to regulate heat, you'll probably find in necessary to carry a couple hats and facemasks of varying weight. As energy output increases put on a lighter hat then if you stop to take a break - put your heavier hat back on.
Hands also rapidly change temperature. My favorite system is to wear a pair of lightweight water-resistant/breathable liner gloves with an overmitt. Use removable wool or synthetic liners in the mitts when conditions get colder.
Always ask yourself before leaving the trailhead, "Am I prepared to spend the night, in case I get hurt?"
The things you should always carry on any outdoor activity are called the "Ten Essentials" and you can read a full article on these items HERE.
At the least, carry the following items in your backpack:
- Water in an insulated holder and high-energy food
- Extra clothing - layers
- Sun Protection - yes, even in winter
- First aid kit
- Fire starter
- Emergency blanket though I prefer a space-type bivy for winter
The Outbound Dan Human Critical Four:
- Fire Starting System
For winter backpackers, you may want to check out my complete Winter Packing List.
Where to go Snowshoeing
So you have snowshoes, the proper clothing, and safety equipment - now you just need a place to go. The great things about snowshoeing, unlike cross country skiing, is that you can pretty much do it anywhere you can walk when there isn't snow on the ground.
As a reminder, watch your local trail heads for "ski-only" trails. Though snowshoes are nowhere near as destructive as not wearing snowshoes to the local trail snowpack, it is still difficult to ski through the depressions that snowshoes make. So if the trail says, "ski only" and you are not wearing skis - please stay off.
As a cross country skier and a snowshoer myself, I have a dream that someday snowshoers and skiers will live in harmony.
This page © Copyright 2011, Dan Human
A Snowshoeing Adventure
- Crossing the Gully: An Adirondack Winter Adventure.
Outbound Dan Human recounts the true story of a dangerous adventure in the Adirondack backcountry. Though it started off as a simple solo snowshoeing trip, a momentary lack of safety protocol pits him against potential death.