Snowshoeing

Winter has whipped into your area with a vengeance and your town is covered in some crazy white stuff they call snow. Never fear, don't get stuck inside your cabin, there is an all ages activity that's pretty easy to get into. Pile on the appropriate amount of layers for warmth, strap some tennis rackets to your feet and start walking. Well, probably not tennis rackets. Read on and I'll tell you all about the wonderful world of snowshoeing.

Crescent Moon Gold 17 Snowshoes are an expedition snowshoe for more advanced hikers.
Crescent Moon Gold 17 Snowshoes are an expedition snowshoe for more advanced hikers.

The Snowshoe

Not just a tennis racket

So what is it?

FRAME - The frame creates the outer shape of the snowshoe, also determining the size. The front bit is called the tip, while the back is called the tail.

DECK - The decking is the main part of the snowshoe, filling the center of the frame. It also connects the binding to the frame and works to spread your weight out evenly across the snow.

CRAMPON, CLAW, or CLEAT - Found at the underside of the snowshoe, you'll have a claw or cleat located at the underside of where your toe will be.

BINDING - Without the binding the snowshoes won't stay on your feet. This straps your foot onto the deck and when you move your foot, the rest of the snowshoe will follow suit. They can be made of leather, nylon straps, plastic, and more. I find the best ones are the ones that don't collect snow or freeze and are easy to adjust with gloves or mitts on.

HEEL LIFT - Not all snowshoes will have a heel lift, but most designed for strenuous uphill battles will. This gives your heel a higher place to rest as you ascend, giving your calves a much easier time. It can be locked in the up position for the uphill or locked in a lie-down or hidden position for flats or downhills.

Even with the best snowshoes, you will sink a bit into the snow. Like this chap.
Even with the best snowshoes, you will sink a bit into the snow. Like this chap. Photo © Atlas / Ian Coble
Make sure your snowshoes have the traction you'll need for the terrain and snow you'll be hiking.
Make sure your snowshoes have the traction you'll need for the terrain and snow you'll be hiking. Photo © Atlas / Ian Coble

Flotation + Traction

Floating: kinda.

Without traction you're going nowhere.

The whole point of snowshoes is to allow you to "float" over the snow, instead of sinking in too deep. Don't be alarmed if you sink into the snow a little bit, that's normal; you just don't want to sink down so low that you have to pull yourself out. The way this works is by distributing your weight over a wider surface area.

Secondly, you're gonna need some traction. With snow often comes ice and either one is a little hard to get past without something to dig in with. The main point of traction will be from the toe cleat. Depending on the type of snowshoe, there can even be traction rails running the length of the deck on either side of your foot for mega-traction. Cleats, traction rails, all that good stuff is often aluminum or steel and they resemble jagged teeth.

When it comes to snowshoes, before grabbing any old pair, you need to think about weight. The heavier the weight, the bigger/longer your snowshoe needs to be. Not just your own body weight, but don't forget to add in the weight of the gear you'll be carrying along with you. A pack that weighs 40lbs will certain tip the scales and you'll need to get a bigger snowshoe to accommodate.

Snowshoe Sizing Chart

Snowshoe Length Based on Body Weight

The chart below recommends an appropriate snowshoe length based on your body weight.

Weight in pounds
  < 80 100 120 140 160 180 200 220 240 260 280 300 +
20 - 22" Good BEST Good              
25 - 26"     Good BEST Good          
30"         Good BEST Good  
35 - 36"               Good BEST Good

All snowshoes are not designed for steep backcountry terrains.
Not all snowshoes are designed for steep backcountry terrains. Photo © Atlas / Ian Coble

Terrain + Snow Conditions

It's the earth you walk upon.

The physical features.

There is a whole lotta snow-covered earth out there and the type you choose to walk upon can dictate which snowshoes you need. In general there is flat, rolling, steep, and technical terrain. Recreational users and snowshoes are geared towards flat and rolling terrain. Backcountry snowshoes will work best when headed into steep or technical terrain. You'll need way more traction for steep and technical terrain than you will for flat and rolling terrain, so make sure to go for a pair that will suit the terrain and locations you'll be adventuring into the most. The snow varies within all of these, from hard packed to deep powder. Hard packed snow won't need as much float, but you may want a bit more traction. Deep powder requires larger snowshoes to keep you afloat.

The MSR Revo Explore Snowshoes are versatile backcountry shoes ideal for varying terrains, and long days of hiking.
The MSR Revo Explore Snowshoes are versatile backcountry shoes ideal for varying terrains, and long days of hiking.
Atlas Women's Elektra Treeline 27 Snowshoes feature a frame design that accommodates a woman's natural gait.
Atlas Women's Elektra Treeline 27 Snowshoes feature a frame design that accommodates a woman's natural gait.

Types of Snowshoes

Lotsa options out there, you guys.

Wide, long, short, narrow.

GENDER + KIDS - Snowshoes for the most part are gender neutral, but they definitely make Men's, Women's, and Kids' versions. Men's snowshoes tend to be wider and longer. Women's snowshoes tend to be narrower and shorter. The reason for the different lengths and widths is related to the general heavier weight of men verses women as well as the natural gait of each. Men have a wider stance than women when they walk. Kids are pretty small compared to adults and if they try to use too large of a snowshoe, they probably won't get far before falling face-first into the snow. Might be cool for a fail video though. If you're a male but have a narrow stride and lighter weight, don't hesitate to see if a women's pair of snowshoes will be better fit for you, and vice versa for women with a wider gait.

RECREATION - These types of snowshoes are simple and the most common. They get just about anybody outdoors and on the snowy trails for a little exercise. Best on flat and rolling terrain, they are also great for packed trails. The cleat underfoot won't be as aggressive, so if you plan on moving into steeper terrain, you may want to get a different model.

EXPLORE - Snowshoes designed for backcountry travel are going to be better suited for the non-groomed trails. Out in the backcountry, you'll find deeper snow, steeper hills and probably ice. The cleat will be aggressive and often there will be additional traction rails running the length of the shoe. These snowshoes will tend to be wider and longer than their recreational friends. This is where you'll also start to see heel lift bars come into play for those strenuous uphill treks.

RACE - Racing snowshoes are built for running on the snow. They're light, short and narrow. Built for groomed or packed trails, they won't need to float so much, but they'll have fairly aggressive traction to help propel you forward as you stride.



Styles + Materials

TRADITIONAL - Made with a wooden frame and rawhide for the decking, the traditional snowshoes look great when hung on your cabin walls and are still plenty functional when taking them out for a spin in the snow. The bindings can be a leather harness to a simple strap.

ALUMINUM - More common these days are snowshoes featuring a lightweight aluminum frame with a plastic, composite or synthetic decking. They're incredibly durable and are great for the cold temperatures you'll meet. Bindings are usually 2 to 3 plastic straps over the top of your boot, with 1 at the back of your heel. Some feature a "wrap / harness" method, with a bit of foam on the interior for a bit of comfort.

MOLDED - Still more snowshoes feature a molded, full plastic decking. Instead of an outer perimeter (like an aluminum frame shoe), the plastic decking is molded around a metal frame and cleat structure. The metal frame is hidden by the decking, but flip that shoe over and you'll see the main structure and all the traction it creates. This style is sturdy, durable, and easy on the ankles in rough terrain, making them a great option for those newly pursuing this winter sport.

You already know how to hike, so walk pretty much like that.
You already know how to hike, so walk pretty much like that. Photo © Atlas / Ian Coble

Stance

The way you walk.

Don't be a cowboy. Unless that's normal for you.

When you strap on a pair of snowshoes, the best thing to remember is to try to walk normally. If you find yourself walking like a duck, cowboy, or something other than your regular stride, this should be a hint that your snowshoes are too large for you. Just because you're a male, doesn't mean you need big old shoes. Get yourself a narrower snowshoe if you can't stride naturally. You shouldn't have to make uncomfortable accommodations to have a good time with snowshoes. It will take a slight bit of getting used to, but after a bit of practice, you'll have it locked down.

Bring a photographer with you so you can get cool pics like this. Or a tripod.
Bring a photographer with you so you can get cool pics like this. Or a tripod. Photo © Tubbs / Becca Skinner

Location

Where do I go?

Tell me all the best spots!

When starting out and learning, usually the best spot will be a city park or even a golf course. Just make sure there is enough snow on the ground and you're allowed to be there. Check websites for information and hours. Another great place is a ski resort. Ski resorts may have designated trails, and heck, maybe you want a break from skiing for a different type of fun. As you become more advanced or adventurous, you can seek out trails or ungroomed areas to explore. As always, safety first!

ETIQUETTE - Be aware of those around you. Just because you have snowshoes strapped to your feet, doesn't mean you rule the world. They can take you far, but take into account winter hikers, other folks on the snowshoe prowl and especially cross-country skiers. Cross-country skiers rely on tracks to glide and it's much harder for them to blaze their own trail. If you see these tracks, do your best to avoid them and walk alongside. It's much easier for you to stop and step aside than it is for a skier to do so.

Vasque Snowblime UltraDry Boots are insulated hikers ideal for snowshoers.
Vasque Snowblime UltraDry Boots are insulated hikers ideal for snowshoers.
Sorel Caribou Boots can offer tons of insulation and warmth for casual hikes in colder temps.
Sorel Caribou Boots can offer tons of insulation and warmth for casual hikes in colder temps.

Footwear

You'll need more than a snowshoe.

Otherwise your toes will be cold.

There are plenty of options when it comes to footwear, but start with what makes you most comfortable. If your feet are cramped and squashed, you're gonna have a bad time. Start with a warm, merino wool sock, then get into some boots.

Waterproof hiking boots are a great option, especially if you spent all summer breaking them in. If you have a decent pair of socks, your own body heat from moving around will keep your toes toasty warm.

• You can certainly snowshoe in your big, insulated winter boots if you want to, but you'll have a harder time strapping the snowshoes on. They may not be quite as comfortable after a lot of time on the trail either. If you hate cold feet, then these are the ticket, but remember they'll be a LOT warmer. Snowboard boots will also be a chore to strap on and walk in.

• Racers or those looking to run in their snowshoes probably want a decent pair of waterproof trail runners. Light, fast, and comfortable.

Patagonia's R2 can be used for layering in super cold temps, or worn alone if you are running or on a high output hike.
Patagonia's R2 can be used for layering in super cold temps, or worn alone if you are running or on a high output hike.

Layers

I’m talking clothing, not cake.

Cake is delicious though.

Winter is cold and that can certainly bring some dangers with it. Prepare yourself and dress the part and be sure to check the weather before heading out. First off, this means no cotton! Start with a base layer of synthetic or merino wool that will wick sweat off your body and dry quickly. Then you need a midlayer, which can be a fleece or a down or synthetic insulated jacket. Third is a wind- and/or waterproof layer, of which you'll need pants and a jacket. This can be a little controversial here, but it really depends on the weather. In cold but dry weather, you can probably grab a softshell. It'll breathe better as you exert yourself. In wet, cold weather, definitely grab your hardshell for the waterproof protection. If you begin to overheat, typically these jackets will feature pit zips to dump that excess body heat.

Adding some gaiters to your setup will help ensure your footwear and feet stay dry.
Adding some gaiters to your setup will help ensure your footwear and feet stay dry.

Extra Accessories

A little extra never hurt.

Recommended but not always necessary.

Trekking Poles are a highly recommended option. They will shine in steep, rugged terrain, on the downhill, or when working to get around a large object such as a log. Trekking poles can also help maintain balance and get you back upright after a tumble, especially in really deep snow.

Snow Baskets will help the trekking pole float in the snow, just like your snowshoe will help you float. It prevents the pole from sinking too deep.

Gaiters will be very helpful in keeping snow out of your boot. Not really necessary in hard, packed snow, but definitely a good thing to have when venturing into deep powder.

Hydration Pack, I'd say is almost a must, especially when planning a longer adventure. Even cold weather adventurers need to hydrate, just like you would on a hot summer hike. You'll not only feel better, but probably last a bit longer. If it's really cold, you can look into insulation for the tubing to keep the water from freezing in the drink tube when you're not using it. Plus, there is probably enough space in the pack to hold onto an extra (or discarded) layer, depending on your personal body temperature.

Now Get Out There and Snowshoe On!

Quit wasting time indoors, building cabin fever through the winter months. Strap some snowshoes onto your feet, breathe in some fresh, cold air and tromp through the snow. It's easy as pie when exploring local parks and trails, or upgrade your adventure and head into backcountry. The snow offers a different view into nature and snowshoes allow it all to happen. Bundle up, hats, gloves and all, grab a friend and explore the winter white world.