Our winter sport expert shares five easy tips for choosing snowshoes, winter gear, and destinations to get your whole family snowshoeing this season.
By Amy Whitley
Bummed that the summer hiking trails will soon be covered in white? That’s okay…it’s snowshoeing season! Snowshoeing is a great family activity, and it's a relatively easy and affordable sport to get into. Almost any hiking trail can become a snowshoeing trail in winter, making the options for enjoying the sport nearly endless.
For families getting into the sport, snowshoes are easy to store and pack in the car. And once the initial purchase of gear is made, a day’s excursion is often free, since enthusiasts can snowshoe on most public lands and backcountry trails. Here are five easy-to-follow steps to get your whole family snowshoeing this winter.
When it comes to selecting a specific snowshoe model, however, keep in mind that most major snowshoe brands will offer an advanced backcountry exploration model and a touring or recreational model. The latter works best for almost all beginners. Here are your basic options along with some gear and technique tips to have your whole family enjoying a snowshoeing adventure in no time.
Flat Terrain Snowshoes
As their name implies, flat-terrain snowshoes are designed for easy walking on flat terrain. They’re the easiest snowshoe models to manage, and usually feature easy-to-adjust bindings and less serious traction systems, so you don’t trip yourself up.
Best For: Beginners.
Rolling Terrain Snowshoes
These snowshoes are designed for hiking on rolling-to-steep terrain, off the trail or on steep trails and are suitable for all but very steep or icy conditions. If you think your hike will start out with flat terrain and then advance to hillier trails more quickly, opt for a rolling-terrain snowshoe.
Best For: Hikers and backpackers.
Quick tip: Be sure to go into a brick-and-mortar store to try on snowshoes instead of buying online. You’ll want to see how easy (or not!) various bindings are for your children to use themselves.
Mountain Terrain Snowshoes
Families getting into the sport are unlikely to need mountain-terrain snowshoes, which are designed for icy, steep terrain. They feature climbing-style crampons and aggressive bindings that can be difficult for first-timers.
Best For: Mountaineers and advanced snowshoe enthusiasts
Okay, but how do I size my family’s snowshoes, you might ask? Snowshoe size is all about getting the right amount of surface space, or floatation. Two key factors are at play: the weight of the person, and the type of snow (light and dry or heavy) you’ll be traveling on.
Start the sizing process the obvious way, by gender and age. Men’s snowshoes will have a larger surface area, to accommodate larger boot sizes and heavier loads. Women’s snowshoes tend to have a narrower frame, with smaller bindings to fit smaller boots. Children’s snowshoes, of course, are ‘shrunk’ even further to be sized accordingly.
After gender and age, you’ll want to select your snowshoes by terrain and snow conditions. See above to identify the type of terrain your family will most likely to navigate, then consider the snow pack you’re most likely to encounter in your area.
Quick tip: Bring a pair of gloves so everyone can practice getting into and out of their snowshoes with mittened hands!
Will you be on packed trails? If so, opt for a more compact snowshoe, with a more aggressive tread to bite into ice and packed snow. Will you mostly hike through powder? Choose rotating (floating) bindings, that can turn more easily and give you more flexibility. Young kids may do best with ‘fixed’ bindings, where the heels stays put, making the shoe easier to walk in (but you’ll get snow kicked up behind).
Once you have your snowshoes, you’ll need to consider a few other gear options before heading out. Quality, weatherproof clothing is a must and you’ll need poles to make your time outdoors on snowshoes more enjoyable. Here’s your shopping list:
Wool base layer and socks: choose a dedicated snow sport sock to ensure it will wick away moisture and cover your calf for best protection. Wool tights and a long-sleeved base layer shirt protect you from wind chill while still allowing your body to breathe.
Waterproof outer layers: choose a ski pant designed for backcountry skiing or snowshoeing. It will have more flexibility in the joints than a standard downhill ski pant. It will also be lighter and thinner yet still remain waterproof. Select a jacket that can be used as a shell, with a sweater or mid-layer underneath. This allows you to shed layers as you work out.
Hat and gloves: Gloves should be waterproof. Consider a glove with a liner, so the outer gloves can be taken off if you heat up during your workout.
Gaiters: Consider investing in gaiters to cover your ankles and calves. They provide more protection from snow exposure than ski pants alone and are especially useful in heavy powder.
Boots: You have your pick here: any well-made, waterproof snow boot will work, provided it has enough traction and covers the ankle.
Poles: While not essential, I think snowshoeing with poles is vastly easier, and makes for a more enjoyable time. If you already own ski poles, use those. If not, any trekking or hiking pole will work, once they’re outfitted with a snow basket (they usually come as an optional add-on to trekking poles).
Now that you’re outfitted, it’s time to learn a bit of technique. Don’t worry, snowshoeing is essentially just walking! It really is that easy. The difference is that snowshoeing requires a wider stance and a need to lift and place a wider surface area than your foot (that is, your snowshoe instead of your sneaker). Therefore, new snowshoers will definitely feel some previously underworked muscles. To ease this transition, hike with wider steps and keep your toes pointing slightly outward when ascending hills, and keep your knees bent when descending.
Quick tip: Many trails at snow parks and Nordic centers rate snowshoe trails by the downhill ski system: green means beginner, blue means intermediate, and black means advanced. Expect advanced trails to include steep grades and tight turns.
Finally, time for the fun part! Now that you’re outfitted, you’ve practiced a bit, and your family is enthusiastic, you can easily find a great place to snowshoe, at low or no cost. Here are our favorite options:
Snow parks: Most counties in snowy areas have public snow parks where winter sport enthusiasts gather. Expect to see motorized snow sports as well, and some dedicated ski trails. Look at signage to see where you’re allowed to snowshoe, as some trails will be ski only (to avoid snowshoe tracks messing up their lines). Snow parks usually come with a low annual (seasonal) fee that varies by state and allows access to all parks.
Nordic centers at ski resorts: With ready-made, often groomed Nordic trails, cushy warming huts, and services such as rentals and a pro shop, Nordic centers at ski resorts can be among the easiest and most enjoyable snowshoe destinations. Be sure to ask ahead of time where snowshoes are permitted, and expect to pay a daily pass fee.
Meadows or pastures: Flat, open spaces, like meadows and pastures, are great places to learn to snowshoe or ski, and can often be found locally. Remember to get permission if the pasture is on private land.
Hut-to-hut systems: For the advanced snowshoer, hut-to-hut organizations offer trail systems that connect backcountry huts or cabins where skiers can overnight. Most come with food and water provided in the huts, freeing you up to carry only personal essentials on your back.
Guided Snowshoe Trips: Taking a guided snowshoe day trip can be a great way to try out the sport (and rentals are provided) and this option is available at many ski resort destinations and mountain towns. Kids can get playful on the best of these trips, with guides making time to stop to build snow forts, have snowball fights, and the like. Our favorite is Wanderlust Tours in Bend, Oregon.
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About the Author: Amy Whitley specializes in outdoor travel writing for families with children. She is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids, a family travel site dedicated to resort, attraction, and outdoor activity reviews for kids. Amy writes regularly for U.S. News Travel and Southern Oregon Magazine as is an editor for OutdoorsNW Magazine and Twist Travel Magazine.