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Snowshoeing: Your Guide to Winter Hiking

1/5/17 by James Dziezynski

One of the first secrets to understanding snowshoeing is this: if you can walk, you can snowshoe. All it takes is a dozen perfectly normal strides to see how fun, efficient, and easy today’s snowshoes are to use. This hasn’t always been the case.

A Little History

Snowshoes have a lengthy history, stretching back as far as 3,000 BC, when both Native American and Scandinavian cultures used handcrafted wooden shoes to float over powdery snow. Snowshoes were engineered as practical, utilitarian devices, customized to their environments. For thousands of years, the idea of a recreational snowshoe was secondary to its utilitarian function as an aid in hunting, traveling, and simple survival. It wasn’t until the 1900s that engineering-minded outdoor enthusiasts began to create ways to make snowshoes better. Aluminium frames replaced wood, high-tech hypalon decking added float and durability, and most importantly, flexible and comfortable binding systems were used to secure snowshoes to boots.

Snowshoes have come a long way from their original intent and design.
    Jeff Bartlett
Snowshoes have come a long way from their original intent and design. Jeff Bartlett

Progress was slow, but as winter sports technology improved (breathable jackets, insulated gloves, lightweight boots), so did snowshoes. The 1970s and 1980s brought about the first wave of change but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the sport finally came into its own in the canon of winter recreation.

Choosing the Right Snowshoes

Snowshoeing is an accommodating sport for those who love exploring winter landscapes. Entry-level and all-around snowshoes are perfect for hiking winter trails where snow may already be packed down—with the option to cruise into untracked powder as well. Higher end snowshoes are worth the investment if making your own trail feeds your winter soul. These shoes have easy-to-use, flexible bindings, aggressive claws underfoot for hard ice, and the toughest incarnations of decking and framing materials.

For winter backpackers, extra-long versions exist for maximum float when burdened with a heavy pack. And conversely, there are small, compact snowshoes used for racing, on packed trails, and for many snowboarders, on uphill-accessible ski resorts.

As a sport, snowshoeing isn’t focused on the adrenaline-spiked thrills of backcountry skiing nor is it as rigid and nuanced as cross-country skiing. What snowshoeing offers is an easy way to access winter settings, a great workout, and the unequaled sensation of literally floating on powder. Seeing old, familiar trails in a winter palette adds new life to local adventures. For the more adventurous, seeking out frozen forest lakes or traversing ice-encrusted ridgelines is a great way to go big. And there is something to be said for snowshoeing under a full moon, when the lunar glow illuminates the sparkling powder in pale blue hues and the still, crystalline air fills your lungs.

There’s no feeling quite like floating over a few feet of snow with your snowshoes.
    Jeff Bartlett
There’s no feeling quite like floating over a few feet of snow with your snowshoes. Jeff Bartlett

What to Bring With You

It’s important to wear waterproof, breathable layers that are removable when you start to work up a sweat, but easily available to put back on when you stop for lunch or to admire the view and get cold.

A decent pair of boots is essential, too. Whether you go for leather or a synthetic material, make sure that they are waterproof. There’s nothing worse than getting excited about a snowshoeing trip, only to get cold and wet after kicking around in the snow for a few minutes. Even worse is the risk of frostbite, which can quickly ruin any adventure. Additionally, make sure you wear wool or synthetic socks. These materials absorb moisture better than cotton, keeping your feet warm and dry.

Along with boots and socks, pick up a pair of gaiters. Gaiters hook onto your laces and/or loop under your boots, and then extend anywhere from 8-18" up and over your pant leg. They are typically made of Gore-tex, nylon, or other waterproof materials, and do an excellent job of preventing cold snow from getting into your boots.

Besides the typical winter sport accessories (gloves, hat, scarf, sunglasses, etc.), don’t forget to put some snacks, extra water, a compass, trail map, headlamp (or flashlight), and your phone in your daypack. It never hurts to stuff an extra down jacket in there, either, just in case weather conditions change unexpectedly. Even a trail you’ve hiked time and time again in the summer will look different in the winter, and the last thing you want to do is get lost out there in the cold!

Where Are You Going?

In places where snow tends to be harder packed and trails are flat, an all-around snowshoe will get the job done (think Midwest, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the southern portions of New England). For places where the powder is deep, the mountains are steep, and conditions can vary, like Colorado, Utah, California, Northern New England, and the Pacific Northwest, a slightly larger shoe with sharp cleats will be ideal.

One the very best bucket list snowshoe adventure is Yellowstone National Park in the heart of winter. Many of the famous walkways are maintained year round and there are several lodging options deep in the park that are only accessible by snowcats or snowmobiles. Imagine seeing boiling steam rise from hot pools when temperatures are far below zero, or the tinkling hum of Old Faithful as the geyser’s jettisoned droplets instantly freeze into miniature, musical beads of ice.

Snowshoeing can be a peaceful, solitary adventure.
    Jeff Bartlett
Snowshoeing can be a peaceful, solitary adventure. Jeff Bartlett

The Best Part

The beauty of snowshoeing is the great freedom for the end user. For social hikers, anyone can learn how to use snowshoes, and a group hike to a warming hut is the perfect way to enjoy a winter’s day. For those who thrive in solitude, snowshoes will carry you far off the beaten path. And for those who relish a competitive spirit, there are plenty of races and events throughout the country.

Snowshoes transform the human foot into a powder-savvy appendage, opening up a world of exploration, fun, exercise, and adventure. From casual gamboling on maintained trails to all-days epics to remote locations, snowshoeing is a winter sport that has evolved into one the very best and most accessible ways to immerse yourself in winter. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, and off you go.

Or to modify a famous quote, that’s one small step for man, one giant footprint for snowshoeing mankind.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.