Let me start by telling you that adrenaline-inducing sports just aren’t my thing. When I started getting serious about outdoor adventures, I was dismayed to learn that most hardcore Vermonters are also hardcore skiers or snowboarders. When my kids were younger, they were more than happy to jump on the skiing bandwagon, and I was left sitting in a ski lodge on sunny afternoons, while the rest of my family flew through down the mountain on fresh powder.
Fortunately, my ski-lodge days didn’t last. A friend invited me snowshoeing on a blustery January day many years ago. When I strapped on the awkwardly huge snow-boats and began trudging slowly through the woods, I wondered why anyone would bother snowshoeing. It was such hard work, and I didn’t make it very far before tumbling into the snow. Since that first disastrous encounter, I have learned to embrace the slow trudge, and I have fallen in love with snowshoeing.
Why Snowshoeing is Awesome
Snowshoeing is a slow sport, similar to hiking in many ways, but it works different muscles, as you’ll realize on day one. If you live in northern climates, the snow can really start to box you in, keeping you out of the woods and off the trails. Snowshoeing allows you to break trail in just about any condition, and traipse around where hikers, and even skiers, can’t go.
Snowshoeing is an amazing workout, providing a good cardio blast while building leg muscles at the same time. I was so impressed with my snowshoe workouts, that I’ve given up running/walking on pavement in the winter. Who needs salt, slush, and traffic when you can have quiet trails, pristine snow, and wildlife?
Inclusive and Inexpensive
There’s an initial investment of course, but once you’re outfitted with insulated boots, snowshoes, and poles, you can basically hit the trails for free whenever you feel like it — as long as there’s snow, of course.
How Snowshoes Work
Snowshoeing is essentially winter hiking and enables you to tackle snowy trails or the backcountry with relative ease. Snowshoes allow walking on top of deep snow by distributing your weight more evenly, and attached crampons work to grab crusty snow and ice and keep you from slipping.
What Type of Snowshoe Do You Need?
The type of snowshoes that you decide to get will depend on your hiking style as well as where you want to go with them. I am planted firmly in the day-hiker category, which requires a pretty basic all-purpose snowshoe, but I also trek through a lot of rocks and over ice, which should be taken into account as well. If you are a mountaineer or want to race in your snowshoes, you will be looking for a very specialized snowshoe. Here’s a basic overview of your snowshoe choices.
Recreational snowshoes are great for beginners or people who hiking on flat or gently rolling terrain. They are usually entry-level models with a basic binding and minimal traction and are perfect for the casual hiker. They are also best for hiking through powdery snow or on packed trails, and while most snowshoes can handle some ice and rocks, if those are your normal hiking conditions, you should probably invest in a backcountry snowshoe.
Backcountry snowshoes are more rugged and feature an aggressive traction system and bindings. In addition to crampons underneath the ball of the foot, backcountry snowshoes will also have crampons along the edges and on the rear of the snowshoe. These snowshoes are great for climbing steep slopes and are also good in icy condition. They come at a higher price point than casual snowshoes, but they are well worth the extra cost if you live in a snowy climate and spend a lot of time outside.
Running snowshoes are smaller and lighter than the snowshoes mentioned above, as they are primarily designed for speed instead of floating on the snow. Staying on top of the snow and grabbing slick ice is less important while running because most races occur on groomed snowshoe trails. I have never run in snowshoes unless you count the time I chased my dog who chased a deer, but it’s definitely a thing. Want to learn more? Outside Magazine has a great article about getting started with snowshoe running.
What else do You Need to Start Snowshoeing?
In addition to your snowshoes, which will probably be your biggest expense, there are a few additional pieces of gear and clothing that will make your snowshoeing adventure more comfortable and fun.
Is cold feet just a fact of life when partaking in winter sports? Absolutely not! The secret to keeping your toes toasty is to invest in warm wool socks and insulated boots. I always wear Darn Tough Vermont ski socks when snowshoeing. They are lightweight and warm, and one pair is perfect to about -20 degrees Fahrenheit when I add an extra pair.
Before getting my Oboz 7” Insulated Bridgers last year, I snowshoed in clunky snow boots. They kept my feet warm, but they were incredibly heavy and made snowshoeing super awkward in most situations. My Bridgers changed all that, and now I can hike farther and stay out longer than I ever could with my old snow boots.
The insulated Bridgers are a hiking boot first and foremost. They are comfortable and rugged, with a flexible, all-leather upper and grippy lug soles. They are also entirely waterproof and feature 200 grams of Thinsulate insulation, which offers just the right amount of warmth for snowshoeing in typical weather conditions.
Poles aren’t strictly necessary when snowshoeing, but they provide balance, better weight distribution, and are great in tricky situations like traversing slopes or crossing streams. Poles also reduce stress on your ankles and knees, especially when hiking downhill. I use regular trekking poles when snowshoeing — I just add a snow basket to the bottom. You can also find dedicated snowshoeing poles or use ski poles if you have them.
I don’t always wear gaiters when I snowshoe, but they are very useful for breaking a trail in new snow, as they keep the snow from sliding into your boots. Look for a pair that is waterproof and breathable.
Tips for Getting Started Snowshoeing
If you can walk, you can snowshoe — it just takes a bit of getting used to. Here are a few tips to make things easier as you get used to your new shoes.
- Make your stride a bit wider than normal to avoid stepping on your snowshoes. Just a bit. If your snowshoes are so wide that you have to walk like you’re riding a horse, you’ll be very sore the next day.
- Hiking with a partner or group? Take turns breaking trail. Hiking through fresh snow is hard work because you have to lift your feet higher and move slowly.
- Practice going up and down hills. When hiking uphill, try kick stepping. Kick the toe of your snowshoe into the snow in front of you. You are essentially making steps for yourself so you don’t slip backward. When hiking downhill, bend your knees and plant your heel down first to grab the snow and ice.
- Practice turning around. The easiest way to reverse direction is to simply walk in a small circle. If you don’t have room to do that, simply pivot one snowshoe at a time with your legs spread apart.
Snowshoeing is such an easy and accessible way to enjoy the outdoors. The learning curve is relatively short, it’s inexpensive to begin, and it’s incredibly fun!
Tara Schatz is a freelance writer and travel blogger with a passion for outdoor adventures. She currently blogs at Back Road Ramblers, where she shares travel tips, adventure destinations, and family vacation ideas for the wanderer in everyone. Her goal is to help families connect with the world and each other by stepping out their front door and embarking on journeys big and small.