The Basics of Snowshoeing
There are many reasons to take up snowshoeing. It is a fun alternative activity for those on a ski vacation who are less than thrilled by the prospect of going fast down a mountain. A much mellower sport, snowshoeing is also more peaceful. For those who live in mountainous, snowy areas, it can be a wonderful way to explore one’s home during the winter months. Runners have also been taking to snowshoeing as an alternative form of cardio fitness, and anyone who enjoys climbing tall mountains in any season besides summer should use snowshoes to aid their descent and ascent.
When snowshoes were first invented over 4,000 years ago their purpose was utilitarian in nature. Like the original cross-country ski, ancient snowshoes were designed to help individuals move across terrain covered in deep powdery snow. The first models were based on the paw and body shapes of animals, and although versions were created all over the world, Native Americans were the ones who truly perfected early snowshoe technology.
During the early 1900s, snowshoeing began to be taken up as a recreational activity. Since then the technology has developed greatly. Modern snowshoes resemble their predecessors abstractly, but are much smaller, are made from different materials, and come with bells and whistles the original creators would only have been able to dream of.
The type of snowshoes available on the modern market fall into three main categories, separated by the kind of terrain they are best suited for and by how quickly you want to move across that terrain.
- Recreational/Hiking Snowshoes – These are your most basic snowshoes. They are perfect for walking on flat terrain, and the wide base many of them have makes them floaty, meaning they’re also great for venturing off trail. These simple snowshoes are also often available at cheaper prices than the more advanced styles.
- Aerobic Snowshoes – Also called running snowshoes, these are designed to allow the wearer to move quickly over flat or hilly snow covered terrain. They are usually shorter and narrower, which is conducive to an even gait but means these snowshoes won’t perform well off trail or in virgin snow. They are best suited for speedily covering distance on packed down trails.
- Backcountry Snowshoes – These are the snowshoes that you want if you will be venturing off trail or climbing steep snow-covered mountains. The aggressive crampons found on this type of snowshoe also allow your feet to grip on icy terrain. They also tend to have studier binding systems that can accommodate sleek leather boots and snowboarding boots alike.
Categorizing snowshoes can also be done using the FACTs of an individual product. This acronym stands for Flotation, Articulation, Control, and Traction. These four factors combine to tell you where your snowshoes will perform best. They break down like this:
- Flotation – How wide and long your snowshoes are, or how much surface area they cover. Greater surface area will allow you to walk more easily through deep snow.
Articulation – How the binding attaches to the snowshoe. The more movement you have, the easier it will be to move quickly in your snowshoes.
- Control – This is how the binding fits around your foot.
- Traction – This refers to the crampons. For backcountry snowshoeing, the more aggressive your crampons the better, while on recreational snowshoes you barely need any traction at all.
Other Features of Snowshoes
When buying a pair of snowshoes, you will also want to pay attention to a few other features that go into their design. The type of material the frame and decking are made from, as well as the shape of both components, will influence weight, sturdiness, price, and traction. A snowshoe’s binding system should also be considered carefully before purchasing a pair. These bindings are meant to be worn over waterproof boots. Bring the boats you plan to wear with you when you try snowshoes on, that way you can be sure that a sturdy connection will be made. If you plan to use your snowshoes with hiking boots and snowboard boots alike, also make sure the binding is adaptable enough that is can accommodate these very differently sized shoes.
If you are planning on hiking steep terrain in your snowshoes, another feature you should look for is a heel lift. These wire bails are built into the snowshoe and can be flipped up while you ascend a hill to give your heel some extra leverage.
Snowshoes are available in three main sizes. Which size you choose is primarily determined by weight:
- [25in] 120-200lb (54-91kg)
- [30in] 170-250lb (77-113kg)
- [36in] 220-300lb (100-136kg)
Lightweight snowshoes, which are 20 inches in length, are also sometimes available. These are meant for people who weigh between 80 and 150 pounds, and want to go fast over hard packed snow.
Where to Go Snowshoeing
Now that you know enough to pick out the snowshoes that are perfect for your needs, you’ll want to figure out where you are actually going to take them. If you are looking for a more controlled environment, where you know the trails will already be packed down, look for a Nordic Center. These areas have designated trails that see heavy traffic, making them perfect for beginners. Do be aware that cross-country skiers also use the trails at Nordic Centers. Skiers, who lose momentum when they stop and can’t move off the trail as quickly, always have the right of way. Besides politely letting skiers pass, also try to avoid walking over their tracks, which take time to set.
If you are looking for a bit more adventure, you may want to try exploring state or federal forest. Any trail that is doable in the warmer months can be snowshoed in the winter. Do be aware that these trails will not be maintained to the same degree, and you may find yourself moving through untouched snow. Breaking snow is much more difficult than walking over snow that has already been packed down.
Finally, if you are going to be venturing deeper into the backcountry, make sure you are aware of the avalanche danger. Always be prepared with a shovel, beacon, and probe, and never head into avalanche territory without a partner who also knows what they are doing.