So Kate’s amazing blog got you thinking about snowshoeing, now what? Let’s talk about some of the basics of snowshoeing. To start, what is snowshoeing? It is a way to winter hike in snowy conditions. Snowshoes’ large footprint distributes the user’s weight out and allows them to travel, or float on top of the snow rather than through it. The ideal depth of snow is a minimum of six inches.
The great news is that snowshoeing is fairly easy to learn. It is a great social activity as it can be done by anyone at any age and ability. It also is fairly inexpensive in the realm of winter sports. The gear is simple, snowshoes and the appropriate attire. If you live in winter climates, you likely already have the attire. Poles are also recommended, but not required. You can often rent the snowshoes and poles to try them out and see if you like it prior to committing as well. Some outdoor stores rent them as well as some parks. You may also be able to borrow them from an outdoorsy friend to trial. Snowshoeing is also very beginner friendly. You don’t need to learn a new skill set to enjoy it. You may just need to widen your normal walking stance slightly.
There are a variety of snowshoes for different terrain, weight, and conditions. Again, renting is great as they will help pick out what is the best fit. Flat terrain snowshoes are a great entry point as they can be used on flat and rolling terrains. For the recommended load, you want your weight plus any gear weight you may be carrying. Fresh snow or powdery snow requires a wider shoe to keep you on top of it too. Many snowshoes come with fins or plastic add ons for this reason. Mountain terrain snowshoes come with a heel lift for climbing and often have more of a crampon style edge for traction. These added features come with increased price tags.
How to dress:
As with any winter activity, layers are your friend with snowshoeing. I get fairly warm while snowshoeing, so I tend to have fewer layers than when I am winter hiking. I avoid cotton as it can get too wet and actually cool me down further. I use a moisture wicking lightweight or midweight base layer depending on the forecast and projected activity level. A soft-shell jacket and pants make a great heat retaining mid-layer. A waterproof jacket and pants complete the outer layer. I like vents to allow extra airflow as needed. Hats and waterproof gloves are needed too. Snowshoes adjust to just about any winter boot or shoe, so be sure to wear something that keeps your feet warm and dry. Moisture wicking socks are great too. An extra pair in case they get wet is a bonus. Something often forgotten is sunscreen. Sunglasses are also ideal to help prevent snow blindness. Gaiters can also help prevent snow from getting into your boots.
Where to go:
There are so many options of where to go it can be tough to choose. Just know that you don’t need to travel outside your town or city to have a great time.
A few thoughts
- State and national parks
- City natural areas and trails
- Snow-covered golf courses or recreational parks
- Open or backcountry space
- Your backyard or city streets
- Nordic centers, which are typically in or around a ski resort
- Mountain lodges & resorts
- Anywhere you hike in the summer
A quick note about etiquette – you don’t have to stick to the trails when snowshoeing. However, if you are sharing a trail with skiers, don’t step on their ski tracks. Try to stick to the outer edge of the trail.
How to put on snowshoes:
1. Some snowshoes are universal and can go on either foot. Others will have the right and left foot labeled on the snowshoe.
2. Place the ball of your foot in the center of the binding. Your foot shouldn’t be too far forward or too far back of the snowshoe.
3. Tighten all straps or bindings (toe, heel, in-step). Make sure it’s not too tight or too loose.
4. If any excess from straps, make sure you tuck them in so you don’t step on them while snowshoeing.
5. Head out and have fun.
6. After snowshoeing, brush off any snow or ice balls from your snowshoes. Make sure they are dry before storing them.
How to snowshoe:
Walk as you usually would with a more purposeful step. It may feel awkward at first, but it will soon feel normal.
As you ascend hills, you use your toe or instep crampons for traction. Always place your feet firmly on snow, poles in front of you (if you have them). In powdery snow, use the kick-step technique. Pick up your foot and literally kick into the snow with the toe of your boot to create a step. It will likely take more than one try to build a surface solid enough to stand on. Your snowshoes will be on the angle of the slope, with the backs hanging downhill behind you and the toes above your boots. This plants the crampons or cleats of the snowshoe into the snow, directly under the balls of your feet. If conditions are such that a kick-step ends up just creating a deep hole in the snow, then look for a different route.
On crusty, hardpack snow, you probably won’t be able to kick-step. Instead, you’ll be relying on the traction of your snowshoe crampons or cleats, and your poles (if you have them.) Walk up the slope, but if it’s too steep, try to find an easier traversing route.
On moderate to steep slopes, flip up the heel lift feature (also known as a climbing bar or televator) found under the heel on many snowshoes. This puts your foot in a neutral position when moving uphill and makes it easier to sustain a long ascent.
On descents, keep your poles planted in front of you (if you have them), knees bent and relaxed, and your body weight slightly back. Walk smoothly and plant your heel first when you walk. (On some slopes you might never rotate to your toe after planting your heel, because that risks having your leg slip downhill.)
Poles provide additional balance and control as you descend—just make sure you adjust them to be a little longer for your descent.
Avoid over-swinging your leg as this can cause the back of your snowshoe to catch and throw you off balance. If the slope steepens, be sure to keep your weight back. If you start to slip, just sit down.
Traversing or “side-hilling” is a common method of travel and can be used to avoid overly steep or difficult terrain. Keeping your balance is key.
Push the uphill side of each snowshoe into the slope to create a shelf as you move along. Keep your weight on the uphill snowshoe.
If possible, walk in the steps made by the person in front of you.
Use your poles (if you have them). Extend the downhill pole and shorten the uphill pole until their tops are even when their tips touch the snow.
Walking in a circle is the easiest way of turning around, but not always the most effective.
This movement involves lifting one snowshoe and placing it at a 90-degree angle in front of the other shoe (forming a “T” with your snowshoes). Then shifting your body, bring the other snowshoe alongside it, making a half-turn. Do it again to make the complete turn.
In this technique, you make a complete 180-degree turn by placing one snowshoe in the opposite direction to the other and having your body make a complete turnaround. This step works well in tight spaces when a quick movement is needed to make a complete turnaround. It does require some flexibility.
Plan ahead for the weather and the time it will take. Snowshoeing takes longer than summer hiking. It also gets dark earlier in winter. So plan ahead.
Understand your limits. By starting slowly and planning for short routes, you can build up your adventure level once you gain confidence and ability.
Hydration isn’t just for summer sports. Just because you don’t feel thirsty when the weather is cold doesn’t mean your body isn’t using and losing water. Cold, dry air will work to dehydrate you more quickly, and you will still sweat under your layers, even if you don’t feel hot.
Stay nourished too. If your body is working hard, it is not only using water but also burning fuel.
Remember the dangers of winter sports, hypothermia and frostbite. More information will be coming on these topics. Share your trail plans in case of an emergency. So now you have the basics down. All that is left is to get out there and do it. Please share your adventures with us!