When winter arrives and we start to get snow, I like to get outdoors and go snowshoeing on the local trails near my house. In just a few hours, I can get a great workout and enjoy the solitude of the winter woods.
If you’ve never been snowshoeing, I suggest you give it a try. It’s considerably more strenuous than hiking, so you should start out slowly on easy, level trails and build up your endurance over time. Buying a pair of snowshoes and poles can be a bit pricey, so it’s best to rent the gear you need at an REI or ski area that has groomed trails until you are certain you want to invest in snowshoes for the long-term.
You don’t really need any special clothing to go snowshoeing except for a pair of waterproof boots. Leather hiking boots can also be used for a few hours if they’ve been waterproofed. High gaiters or can also be helpful for keeping snow from getting into your boots and keeping your socks dry. Other than that, you can get by with wearing a wicking layer under your normal rain pants and rain jacket, light gloves, and a winter hat. Your body will generate plenty of heat while snowshoeing and you’ll stay warm as long as you are moving.
Most modern snowshoes have straps or a simple step-in binding system that keep your boots securely fastened to them. The binding is fastened to lightweight plastic decking that floats on top of snow when you walk and prevents you from sinking, called postholing, in deep snow. If you’ve ever stepped into a snow drift or a pile of snow along the road and sink in it up the top of your leg or waist, that’s what postholing is. It can be quite exhausting if you have to walk any distance this way, which is why people use snowshoes.
Once you’ve put on your snowshoes and you have a pair of trekking or ski poles with snow baskets, you should pick an easy trail to snowshoe on. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to have a more experienced snowshoer walk in front of you to break trail if it hasn’t been packed down already by other snowshoers or cross-country skiers. Snowshoeing on fresh snow is fun, but requires a lot more energy.
Initially, walking in snowshoes will feel a lot like walking on sand at the beach, since the snow gives a little underneath you and you need to raise your legs a little higher when you walk. You’ll also need to widen and lengthen your stride to keep the snowshoes from hitting each other. Use your hiking poles to maintain balance and try to maintain an easy pace. If you start to heat up too much and sweat, just slow down your pace. Practice this walking motion on level terrain until you get the hang of it.
Next, you’ll want to get used to walking uphill and downhill in snowshoes, and over rocks and uneven terrain. Many snowshoes have metal teeth called crampons on their bottoms that dig into snow or ice and give you better traction when going uphill and downhill. When snowshoeing uphill, you want to press down on the front of your boots and snowshoes to help the crampons under your toes grip the snow ahead of you. When you do this, the back of your snowshoes may be suspended in air. Bend your knees and take smaller strides to walk up the hill.
When going downhill, you’ll want to lean slightly back on your snowshoes and gradually slide down the hill while maintaining control of your descent. Again, bend your knees and take short steps. You’ll feel the snow give way underneath you. If you start to descend to quickly, just fall on your butt to stop yourself from sliding.
Walking on uneven ground and over rocks and other obstacles is a little trickier and you’ll want to use your poles for this to maintain your balance. Remember that you can’t walk backwards easily on snowshoes and that the surface area of your foot is considerably longer and wider than normal.
To get over an obstacle like a log, you can walk around it or step sideways over it. Stepping over rocks takes a bit more practice, but keep in mind that snow cushions rocks and that snowshoes spread your weight over a larger surface area. This can actually increase your stability if you’re walking across many smaller rocks because the snowshoe will span the gaps between them and the snow will cushion them.
If you’re at the stage where you’ve been snowshoeing a few times and feel you ready to buy a pair snowshoes, the most important factor in determining your selection will be the your combined body weight + the weight of your gear. This determines the amount of surface area and the size of the snowshoes that you need to float on top of snow, and should narrow your selection immediately.
If you are already a serious hiker, I suggest you go and try on snowshoes manufactured by MSR at an REI or another outfitter before you make a purchase. I’ve been using them for years and they are bomber (with an excellent lifetime guarantee). If your intended uses are more recreational, check out snowshoes from Tubbs, which are also well made, but less expensive.
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