Snowshoeing: First Steps
Snowshoe technology has greatly improved in the last decade, making today’s models much more
manageable and easy to use. Snowshoes are lightweight and durable, strap securely to practically any boots, and allow you to hike on deep snow or climb steep slopes. What started thousands of years ago as a mode of transportation has evolved into an increasingly popular form of winter recreation.
Snowshoeing is a fun, inexpensive and easy-to-learn winter sport that the whole family can enjoy. Choose snowshoes based on the type of snow and terrain you’ll be on most often plus your weight with gear. There’s a snowshoe model for everyone, from casual hikers to winter mountaineers. You don’t need special footwear or clothing to go snowshoeing –cold-weather hiking gear works great.
Types of Snowshoes
Will you be taking a casual walk at the local golf course or a hike on an up and down mountain trail? Perhaps your interests include several days in the backcountry or taking your snowboard to ungroomed slopes? Or are you a dedicated runner who wants to train during the winter? To meet all of these needs, The Great Outdoors divides snowshoes into 3 activity categories:
Recreational These shoes are “all around” models for the snowshoe who wants to get out and hike on trails or stroll around a nearby park or golf course. They include entry-level models and offer good value. They have easy-to-adjust bindings and their traction systems or crampons are designed for gentle to rolling terrain. Running specific models also fall into this category.
Adventure Designed with a little more aggressive crampons and beefier bindings, these styles are a step up from entry level and do sell when taken off the beaten track. They can handle all but very steep or icy conditions.
Backcountry These snowshoes are made with highly durable materials that can withstand harsh conditions and terrain. They are aimed at the more serious snowshoe who wants to blaze trails for day hiking, winter summits, backpacking or backcountry snowboarding. Often outfitted with snowboard-type bindings or climbing crampons, these styles are intended for steep ascents and uneven or icy ground.
What to Wear
You don’t need specific gear for snowshoeing. If you hike, you probably have almost everything you need. Here are some suggestions:
Choose footwear that matches your snowshoeing style, whether it’s walking, backpacking, climbing or running.
Leather hiking boots work well, especially if they are waterproofed. Insulated boots are fine, although some don’t offer the support that hiking boots do for long periods.
Some people use plastic mountaineering boots, that work fine, but they certainly aren’t necessary for hiking.
Trail-running snowshoes are designed to be worn with lighter-weight running shoes or cross-trainers.
Wool or synthetic socks with liners promote warm, dry feet.
Gaiters keep snow out of your boots and keep your feet dry – choose from coated nylon or more technical Gore-Tex models.
Wear layers that can be adjusted to your activity level and the weather.
Synthetics or wool offer heat retention when wet. Underwear is a good base layer. Whatever long underwear you choose should wick moisture, insulate well and dry quickly. A zippered top lets you regulate body heat as you stop and go.
Polyester fleece, such as Polartec 200, makes a good insulating mid-layer since it too retains heat when wet and breathes as you exercise.
Waterproof, breathable shell jacket and pants made of Gore-Tex keep you dry and fend of wind.
Keep your head and hands covered to prevent loss of body heat.
A wood or synthetic hat, headband or balaclava retains heat; a ball cap can shade your eyes on sunny days.
Waterproof ski gloves or mittens are a must to keep your hands dry and warm. On cold days, combine shells with fleece mittens or gloves. In milder conditions, glove liners may be all you need.
Tips & Techniques
Getting Started As we said before, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. That’s what makes snowshoeing so attractive to beginners. Most snowshoes have easy-to-use “strap and go” bindings that fit a wide range of boots and styles and sizes. Your stance will be wider than normal when you’re on snowshoes (in order to keep from stepping on the insides of the frames), so you may feel your hips ache after the first few times out.
Using Poles for Balance Snowshoeing can certainly be done without the use of poles, but on steep or uneven terrain, they’re really handy. Adjustable poles can be shortened for uphill travel, lengthened for descending. And when crossing slopes, one can be extended for the downhill side and the other shortened for the uphill side. Not only do poles give you better balance, they also give your upper body a workout.
Ascending/Step Kicking Walking on flat or rolling ground is fairly intuitive when you first start out. As you go uphill, you will start to use your toe or instep crampons for traction. On steep slopes, kick the tow of your boot, rather than the snowshoe, into the slope to create a step. Your snowshoes will be on the angle of the slop, with the tails hanging downhill behind you and the toes above your boots. This plants the crampons or cleats into the snow, directly under the balls of your feet.
Descending On the descent, your instinct might be to lean Back on the snowshoe tails. This reaction works well on models with angled crampons built in to the heel, designed to dig in as you descend. When wearing snowshoes without heel crampons, you’ll need to keep your weight over your feet, so your tow crampons will be planted firmly. Poles can provide a great deal more balance and control as you descend.
Traversing Traversing or “side-hilling” is a matter of balance. It helps to walk in the steps made by the person in front of you and to use poles. Extend the downhill pole and shorten the uphill pole until they’re even. Push the uphill side of each snowshoe into the slope to create a shelf as you move along.
Using an Ice Axe (Self-Belay, Self-Arrest) For steep, mountainous terrain, an ice axe is an essential piece of snowshoeing gear. Self-belay involves planting the shaft of the axe into the snow to guard against falling in the first place. If you should slip and fall, the self-arrest is used to stop you before you slide too far. Proper instruction and practice are necessary to learn effective self-arrest techniques.
The key to safe snowshoeing is staying within the limits set by your physical abilities, the environment and your equipment. If you’re new to snowshoeing, try sticking to established trails at first. Many ski areas have cross-country ski trails that those snowshoeing can share. (Just be sure to follow trail etiquette and stay of the ski tracks!) That way, you’re never too far from other people, and you’re not likely to encounter avalanche hazards, In any case, make sure you come prepared with the appropriate gear (see our checklist), including plenty of warm clothing, food, water and the 10 essentials.
If you plan to venture out away from a patrolled ski area, be sure you and your companions are prepared. Carry a topographic map of the area, a compass and possibly an altimeter or a GPS to help you navigate. Know how to use them, because the backcountry in winter is not the best place to learn. The Great Outdoors also has lots of helpful navigation books. Before leaving, be sure to leave your trip plans with a responsible person and let them know whom to contact in case you don’t return on time.
Staying Warm and Dry
Be sure to carry extra layers for warmth and an extra long-underwear top in case the one you’re wearing gets wet from exertion or the weather. Know the signs of hypothermia so you can recognize them in member of your party.
Staying Hydrated It’s as important to drink during cold-weather exercise as it it in the summer. Not only does water keep you muscles functioning, it also helps your body fend off hypothermia. Keep your water from freezing by using an insulating cover for your bottle or sport tank. A vacuum bottle with hot drinks will keep you hydrated and warm. And you’ll make friends on the trail if you share.
If you plan to go into the backcountry, make sure every member of your party carries an avalanche beacon and shovel. Check snow conditions before you head out and plan your trip to avoid avalanche-prone slopes. Pay attention to signs of unstable snow and either reroute your trip or turn back if necessary. Many areas offer courses in winter travel and avalanche safety.
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