Want to get outside more this winter? Give snowshoeing a try. It’s so easy to learn that you could literally be doing it an hour from now! In this post, we’ll talk about everything beginners need to know, including the benefits of snowshoeing, snowshoeing gear, where and how to snowshoe, and safety tips.
When it comes to hitting the trails, snowshoeing has many benefits over hiking or ski touring:
- Snowshoes make it easy to enjoy your favorite hiking trails when they are at their most beautiful and least crowded.
- Snowshoeing is very easy to learn and can be enjoyed with the whole family, including young kids. As the saying goes, if you can walk, you can snowshoe!
- The teeth of the snowshoes provide traction on hard snow and packed trails. This allows you to walk more easily and prevents falls and injuries.
- Because snowshoes are wider than your feet, they allow you to “float” to some degree on soft snow without sinking in. This allows you to hike less-traveled trails and even off trail when the snow is deep.
- Snowshoeing is great exercise. The weight of the snowshoe and the snow add resistance. This means snowshoeing burns way more calories than hiking alone!
- It won’t cost much to get started with snowshoeing, especially if you already hike.
To get started with snowshoeing, you’ll need a pair of snowshoes and adjustable hiking poles with snow baskets. As we’ll discuss in a minute, it’s best to rent this gear if you’re new to the sport.
Like all day hikers, snowshoers should carry essential survival gear on all backcountry trips. For more info on what to carry, check out the following blog posts:
What to wear snowshoeing
For winter sports, it’s always a good idea to wear layered clothing rather than one heavy jacket and pants. Layers allow you to remove clothing when you are working hard and sweating and add clothing when you are taking a break. You can also use layers to adapt to changing temperatures throughout the day.
For detailed advice on layering, check out my post on winter hiking clothes.
Hiking boots for snowshoeing
Many people find that they can wear their regular hiking boots snowshoeing. Before your hit the winter trails, treat your boots with a waterproofing spray like Nikwax Fabric and Leather Proof. You can also wear two pairs of socks (or mountaineering-weight socks) for extra insulation.
If your feet get cold easily, you might be a good candidate for insulated winter hiking boots. They’re a bit of an investment, but they’re probably worth it if you plan to do a lot of winter hiking.
Knee-length gaiters keep snow out of your boots and are essential if you expect to head off-trail or walk in new or soft snow. Remember, just because the beginning of the trail is packed down doesn’t mean the end will be!
How to choose snowshoes
Modern snowshoes come in many shapes, sizes, and designs. Here are some tips to keep in mind when picking out your first pair.
As we’ll see, snowshoes come with a wide range of features, and no shoe is right for everyone. Renting snowshoes for your first few trips allows you to try different models and find out exactly what you like. Most REI stores and local mountain shops rent snowshoes at affordable prices.
Snowshoe lengths range from about 20 to 36 inches. The best length for you depends on your weight. Longer shoes create more resistance against the snow (flotation). Therefore, heavier people need longer snowshoes. Larger-size showshoes can accommodate hikers up to about 300 pounds.
Each snowshoe brand and model has a different binding system. Some are much easier to put on and adjust than others. Many newer snowshoes have ratchet systems that easily tightens the shoes around your boot. Try a few different models to see which binding system works best for you.
These are the pointy teeth on the bottom of the snowshoe that give it traction. Basic snowshoes may just have small crampons under the toe and heel. By contrast, snowshoes designed for off-trail hiking and mountaineering will often have more and larger crampons, but will also be heavier. Try different snowshoe models to decide just how many crampons you need.
A heel lift is a small, horizontal bar you can raise that sits just an inch or two off the deck of the snowshoe. The heel lift changes the angle of your foot slightly, giving you an advantage while walking uphill.
Where to go snowshoeing
You don’t have to live in Alaska, Siberia, or the Rocky Mountains to enjoy snowshoeing. A good trick for finding good snowshoe trails is to search for ski resorts. They’re usually built in areas that get decent snowfall, and the surrounding hiking trails are often ideal for snowshoeing.
If you’ll be snowshoeing in Colorado, you can read about some of my favorite winter trails in these posts:
The best way to learn snowshoeing is to put on your shoes and go! You will naturally adjust your stride to the snow and the shoe. A few helpful tips to keep in mind:
Walk with a natural stride on flat, snowy trails. When you need extra traction on hard snow, bend your knees and flatten your foot to engage all of the crampons. Spread your feet slightly wider than normal to avoid knocking your shoes together.
Adjust your poles so that the tips reach the ground when your elbow is bent at a right able. Use the poles to push behind you when walking or climbing. When descending, you can lengthen your poles slightly and use them to absorb some of your weight as you step down. Poles are especially useful when you fall or must make a big step over an object.
Always engage your heel lifts before a steep climb. They will give you a huge mechanical advantage!
In soft snow, you may be able to kick horizontal steps directly into the snow with the front of your shoe. On harder snow, bend your knees and flex your feet to engage all of your crampons as you climb.
When walking sideways on a hill, try to keep your weight on your uphill snowshoe. If the snow is soft, kick sideways steps into the slope. You can also lengthen your downhill pole for extra stability on long traverses.
Before walking downhill, check that your heel lifts are down. Then descend standing upright, “nose over toes” and avoiding the urge to lean back. In soft snow, step down deliberately, heel first (plunge stepping). On harder snow, keep all of your crampons engaged and take small steps.
Falls happen! If you find yourself on your butt or upside down, roll or scoot so that your feet are downhill. Still having a hard time standing? Hold your poles together and use them to push up.
Health and safety tips
While snowshoeing is generally safe, it can expose you to cold, wind, and other hazards. Here are some tips for a safe snowshoe trip:
Snowshoeing uses different muscles than hiking. It’s especially common for snowshoers to get fatigued or sore in the hip flexors, which are the muscles in the front of the hip and upper thigh. Start with shorter trips early in the season, and don’t push yourself too hard, especially through deep snow.
Budget extra hiking time
If you normally hike a trail in 2 hours, plan on 2.5 or 3 when snowshoeing. Also, keep in mind that days are shorter in winter. You don’t want to get caught in the dark.
While you may not feel thirsty, your body needs the same fluid replacement during winter hiking that it does in summer. Stop at least once an hour to drink a few ounces of water.
To prevent freezing, carry your water in a bottle and slip it inside an insulated bottle cover. (Here’s one for Nalgene widemouth bottles.)
During cold weather, you’ll need to consume extra calories to maintain your body temperature. When snowshoeing, always bring along plenty of carb-rich snacks. For more tips, check out my post on hiking food.
Your body loses heat through four processes:
- Radiation (general heat loss)
- Conduction (touching a cold object)
- Convection (being exposed to wind)
- Evaporation (of your sweat)
Losing too much heat can result in hypothermia, a dangerous drop in body temperature. Early signs of hypothermia include shivering, feeling tired, irritability, and difficulty making decisions. If anyone in your party shows these symptoms, warm them with extra clothing layers and head for shelter immediately.
For more tips on preventing hypothermia, check out my blog post, how to stay warm in snow.
Extreme cold, dampness, and wind can all cause parts of the body to freeze, resulting in frost nip or frostbite. The face, ears, fingers and toes are the body parts most often affected. People with impaired circulation are especially at risk for these cold-related injuries.
Frost nip occurs when the top layer of skin starts to freeze, causing redness, stinging, and numbness. Frost nip doesn’t cause permanent damage to the skin and can be treated by gently warming the area.
Frostbite is a more serious condition that involves the underlying tissues. Skin will typically be discolored, hard, and waxy looking. Seek medical attention immediately if you have suspect frostbite.
You can prevent frostbite by staying home during periods of extreme weather and protecting your face and extremities from wind, precipitation, and cold.
Avalanches have killed winter hikers and snowshoers in several U.S. states, with Colorado being the most dangerous. Before hitting the trail in winter, find out if avalanches are an issue in your area. Many mountainous regions have avalanche information centers that offer avalanche forecasts and warnings. For more tips, check out my posts on avalanche safety for hikers and understanding the avalanche forecast.
So there you have it. Everything you need to learn how to snowshoe and hit the trail today.
Got snowshoeing tips of your own? Comment below to share.
Originally published Dec. 21, 2018.