Snowshoeing is a great way to get outdoors in the winter. It doesn’t require a ton of equipment or years of practice. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. That being said, there are a few things to consider to make your first snowshoe outing an enjoyable and successful one.
There are two important pieces of equipment you’ll need to go snowshoeing: snowshoes and poles. Snowshoes provide traction and flotation so you can walk more easily in the snow. In order to choose the right snowshoes, you’ll need to know two things: what kinds of terrain you want to cover and your weight. The type of terrain (flat, mountainous) will determine the specific model of snowshoe to buy to provide adequate traction. Your weight will determine the size of snowshoe to buy to provide adequate flotation.
If you’re a beginner and you plan on covering beginner terrain you can get away with using any kind of snowshoe. Choose a basic, budget model for casual snowshoe trips. Costco carries snowshoes that cost about $60. Basic snowshoes have simple binding systems and just enough traction to help you walk across flat, icy snow and gentle rolling hills.
If you intend to go on more advanced outings, such as climbing mountains, going into rugged backcountry areas or managing icy hills, you’ll need a beefier snowshoe. Look for keywords like “aggressive crampons” and “durability” so you can select a model that will withstand a range of challenging conditions. Mountain snowshoes also have a built in heel-lift that will help your calves ascend steep slopes. These snowshoes will be more expensive than Costco’s budget version but you’ll have the flexibility to tackle steeper and icier terrain with confidence.
Lastly, consider your weight. “Weight” means your bodyweight plus your pack weight. If you’re planning on overnight snowshoe adventures, this is a real consideration. Most snowshoes come in a “men’s” and “women’s” version that have various weight ranges. Some models are compatible with an add-on tail that provides more flotation on the days you’ll be traveling in deep powder or carrying more weight than usual.
Pro tip: Choose snowshoes with bindings that are easy to use and secure on your boots. Imagine if you were out in the cold, blowing snow. Could you put your snowshoes on and take them off with heavy gloves on?
In addition to your snowshoes, you’ll probably need some trekking poles. While you can snowshoe without them, it’s useful to have a set of poles to help stabilize your body while walking through the snow. Adjustable trekking poles come in a wide range of price points and styles. Buy the lightest, most comfortable pole you can afford. And make sure to put snow baskets on your poles; your poles will sink through the snow without them.
When I talk to people about snowshoeing, most reply with “Brrr! I don’t like being out in the cold!” I don’t think they realize just how much heat you generate while walking in the snow. Wearing multiple layers of clothing is key to manage your body temperature and comfort in cold weather. Here’s a general system:
Top: short-sleeve baselayer (non-cotton) or a long-sleeve baselayer (non-cotton), insulating vest or jacket (like fleece, down or wool), and a rain shell.
Bottom: lightweight nylon pants, lightly lined winter hiking pants, winter running tights OR thin fleece pants.
Extremities: thin liner-socks (non-cotton) and wool socks, thin liner gloves and warm, insulating gloves, headband and/or wool hat
Optional: neck gaiter or balaclava for very windy days and shell pants for very deep snow, extreme cold or wind.
With this layering system in place, you can add or remove layers as your temperature changes throughout the day. My recommendation: start cold. If you’re warm and cozy standing around in the parking lot, you’re going to be sweaty and overheating in less than 15 minutes. Start at least a little chilly and you’ll warm up to a good temperature before you know it. My only exception: hands. My hands get extremely cold and take a long time to heat up to temperature. If you have Raynaud’s Syndrome or deal with cold hands like I do, start with warm hands and de-layer as you get too warm.
Keeping your feet comfortable is one of the most important factors in having a good day. The good news about snowshoeing is that you probably won’t have to go out and buy a new pair of boots. A good pair of leather hiking boots works just fine for snowshoeing. Just be sure they are waterproof. If you’ll be on firm snow, a pair of Gore-tex trail runners can even do the trick! Try out the footwear you already own first before investing in a new pair of shoes.
To beef up the "waterproof-ness" of your shoes and pant legs, wear a pair of waterproof gaiters like these. You could probably get away with a cheaper model but I have a mantra when it comes to footwear: spend money here first. If you take good care of your feet, the rest of your body will feel good and you’ll have a good day. If you skimp on foot care, the rest of your body will suffer and you will suffer as well.
Ready, set…walk! There’s not much to snowshoeing as you’re getting started. Walk as you normally would, just adopt a slightly wider stance to accommodate for the wide things on your feet. Take short steps to improve your efficiency; a long stride is a sure way to waste energy. Use your poles to help propel you forward as well as provide balance.
As you advance from groomed, beginner trails to powdery, hilly terrain you’ll begin to discover new strategies to help you walk efficiently. Know that snowshoeing, especially if you are breaking trail (there are no tracks to follow) sucks up way more energy than taking a walk. Take this into consideration when planning how much time you’ll need to snowshoe a particular distance. If it normally takes you 2 hours to walk a 5-mile trail, budget 3-4 hours to walk that same trail in fresh snow!
FITNESS AND TRAINING
There are snowshoe trails that meet the needs of beginner, intermediate and advanced snowshoe travelers. If you don’t feel like you’re in your best shape and you just want to get started, don’t wait! Strap on your snowshoes and get started. You’ll learn about your strengths and weaknesses and that will help guide your training sessions off the trail.
That being said, here are some basic movements that will help you stay in your best snowshoeing-shape:
Snowshoeing is an excellent way to build cardiovascular fitness, leg endurance, leg strength, core stability and balance. It’s also a great excuse to get outside in the winter. Once you get your layering system down and practice snowshoeing a few times, you’ll be hooked! As with any outdoor physical activity, be sure you carry the ten essentials and know how to use them. Leave your itinerary with someone and let them know when you are planning to be back. Snowshoeing is more than just “exercise,” it is an outdoor skill. Start small and build your experience over time. Before you know it, you’ll be striking off on your own trails and exploring every corner of the beautiful winter landscape near you.
Remember to bring plenty of food and water. You’ll be working harder to travel in the cold and snow, plus your body has to work harder to maintain your internal temperature. That takes calories! So bring more snacks than you usually would for a similar distance hike. In addition, to bringing enough water, think about how you’ll keep that water from freezing if the temperatures are below 32 degrees F. Use wide mouth-water bottles and bury them in your pack, or carry an insulated Thermos. There are ways to keep your hydration hose from freezing, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Always know your physical limits and plan trips that are appropriate for your fitness and skill level. Have fun!
By: JESS BEAUCHEMIN
Personal trainer, student of movement, and outdoor explorer in the Pacific Northwest www.jessbfit.com