By Trent Jonas
Winter means your favorite hiking trail is buried beneath inches of white powder. And it’s cold outside. Time to hang up the boots until spring rolls around, right? Wrong. Snowshoeing is an awesome way to get out and enjoy your favorite things about hiking, get some exercise, and see what happens during the other half of the year. With a little preparation, you’ll be out the door and on the trail in no time.
Think about the places where you’ll be snowshoeing most often. What kind of terrain will you cover? Will you be on packed, groomed trails, or are you planning on laying your own tracks? Are you out for a leisurely stroll, maybe doing some winter birdwatching, or are you hoping to really get the heart pumping? All these, along with your height and weight need to be considered when choosing snowshoes.
Snowshoes are typically categorized by the type of terrain you plan to cover: flat, rolling, or mountain. Most beginners start with flat terrain snowshoes and then step up to rolling or mountain—or even running or climbing—models once they develop some skills.
Snowshoe sizing can also be an important consideration. If you’re thinking of snowshoes with an aluminum frame, you should choose a bigger size if you’re a heftier person or live in an area where snow tends to be light and dry. The greater surface area prevents the shoes from sinking in soft snow. Because smaller snowshoes are easier to manage, don’t get a pair that’s bigger than you need. Pick the smallest appropriate size for your body type and the terrain you plan to use them on.
Composite models tend to come in one size, but you can add tails to the back of the snowshoes to help increase the surface area on lighter and drier snow.
Bindings are another thing to keep in mind when picking a pair of snowshoes. There are two basic types of bindings: fixed and floating.
Fixed bindings attach your snowshoes to your boots with heavy-duty bands. Because they lift the snowshoe’s tail with each step, the stride is smooth and comfortable, enabling you to navigate obstacles and back up easily. But they also kick snow up onto the backs of your legs.
Floating bindings (often called “rotating” bindings) pivot under the balls of your feet, which enables a more natural stride. This can be especially useful for rolling terrain where you’re walking up and down hills. They’re not so good for backing up, but you won’t have as much snow on your behind, either.
Before buying snowshoes, talk to a specialty retailer that knows how to help you pick a pair. Some retailers even offer classes to help you learn more about the sport and how to choose snowshoes. If you’re near a park or outfitter that rents snowshoes, try out a couple different models and bindings to help you decide what’s most comfortable for you and your needs.
If you’re planning to snowshoe in a park, make sure they allow it. Some parks that groom cross-country trails don’t allow snowshoeing on the groomed trails and may not offer other trails for folks who want to snowshoe. Other parks and forests groom trails specifically for snowshoeing. So, before you go, call or check out the Internet to make sure that you’re heading to a snowshoe-friendly place.
On the other hand, if you’re hoping to blaze your own trail, you need to head to a place that’s fine with you venturing off-path. State and national forests are often good spots for this type of adventuring, as are frozen lakes and rivers. If you’re venturing out on ice, though, be sure to check conditions before you step off the shore.
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Start with synthetic sock liners to wick away moisture and keep your feet dry. Then put on a pair of synthetic or wool socks to hold in warmth and keep out the wet.
The boots or shoes that you wear will depend largely on where and how you plan to snowshoe. Waterproof or water-treated trainers or running shoes will work just fine if you’re setting out on trails that are groomed or have already packed down. But, if you’re breaking your own trail, you’ll need a pair of flexible (your ankles have to move) waterproof boots. In deeper snow, gaiters are also a good idea.
If you do plan to go off trail, a pair of trekking poles is recommended for testing snow depth and staying upright.
Snowshoeing can take a little more effort than hiking, so despite cold weather, you must be prepared to sweat. Begin with a synthetic—no cotton—base layer. A long-sleeved top that you can vent with a zipper and long, stretch bottoms work well in most weather. For a mid-layer, a zip-up fleece or fleece vest (in warmer temps) works well. You may not need a mid-layer on the bottom if the weather is in the 20s or warmer, otherwise fleece or merino is a good bet.
On the outside, wear flexible, wind and waterproof pants (not rigid ski pants), a wind and waterproof shell, and waterproof gloves. Wear a ski hat with ear protection (or balaclava if it’s windy or especially cold) and sunglasses or ski goggles. For more guidance on how to dress, give our Layering 101 article a read.
Then put one foot in front of the other… and off you go!