If you’ve never tried snowshoeing before, you’re missing out. If you like hiking, but do a lot less of it in winter, snowshoeing is the answer to get you back outdoors. It’s fantastic exercise, and a simple way to get out and explore what makes winter enjoyable. The great thing about snowshoeing is that there isn’t a steep learning curve, so anyone can jump right into it. That being said, there are a few things to consider before heading out for the first time:
1) Gear You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on top of the line snowshoes. The basic components you’re going to want to look for include bindings that fit well, don’t slip off and won’tbreak easily. There is nothing worse than stopping to fiddle with your bindings every few minutes. Something that adjusts easily and is going to stay on no matter what you encounter should be your #1 priority. Next you’ll want poles. Poles help you balance when you encounter uneven terrain, and help you stride more efficiently on flat areas. Adjustable poles are key. Being able to quickly adjust the length of the poles is an important feature. You’ll want to adapt the length of the pole to the kind of terrain you’re encountering. Longer poles are good for flat ground and shorter ones are good for digging in and pushing off of uneven and hilly terrain. Next you’ll want something that supports the proper amount of weight. Snowshoes are rated by weight. You should factor in your typical backpack weight along with your body weight when you are buying. See this article on how to choose the right ones. You’ll likely want to buy something with a higher weight rating than you think you need.
2) Locations As a rule of thumb, most places you would normally hike, are usually good places to snowshoe. It’s important to consider how well used the trails are (the more people on the trails, the more the snow is packed down, making snowshoes rather useless). Fresh snow is ideal, but fresh snow also makes it harder to find the trails you would otherwise easily identify. Paying attention to navigation becomes more important. Hiking through brush, dead fall and rocky areas can be a pain in the butt, and doing it with snowshoes only makes it harder. If lakes are frozen (15cm thick or more) they can be ideal areas to snowshoe. Be sure to check your local ice thickness reports before attempting any lake crossings. A trail with a lake that you would normally navigate around now becomes a snowshoeing highway, allowing you to explore all kinds of different areas. Exploring across lakes and using them as a shortcut is perhaps my favourite part of snowshoeing. For info on snowshoeing in Nova Scotia see my Winter Activities Page.
3) Kinetics Snowshoeing is not simply hiking with snowshoes on. There are a few things that you have to do to become proficient. Using your poles is key for balance and striding efficiently. Using the ice picks on the bottoms of your snowshoes, especially on the balls of your feet is key to climbing hills. Resisting the urge to go uphill flat footed is important. Going down hill is sometimes counter intuitive to what you would normally do when hiking. Sometimes you need to use the picks on the balls of your feet to dig in, which can result in a face plant if you’re not using your poles properly. Going down flat footed can turn into an unanticipated black diamond ski run as your snowshoes lose grip and function (poorly) like skis. Snowshoeing is a great workout for every muscle in your legs, especially your calves as you dig your toes into icy hills, and your thighs as you steady yourself going downhill. Stretching and warming up will definitely pay off. For more detailed information on the techniques of snowshoeing, check out this article on Snowshoeing Basics.
4) Clothing You may be heading out in bone chilling cold, but it won’t take long before your body is overheated and sweating (your nemesis in cold weather). You’ll want to layer up and have a backpack to put your unused layers in. It’s usually best to start off wearing less clothes than you think you need. It’s better to put up with a couple minutes of being cold, knowing that your body temperature is going to skyrocket as soon as you start moving. Start off with minimal layers, and add them if needed as you go. You’ll want to avoid sweating and having wet clothes at all costs. Wetness against your skin can make your body temperature plummet to dangerous levels as soon as you slow down or stop. Layering your socks is a good idea too. Start with a base layer to keep blisters and moisture in check, and add an insulating layer on top. You’re bound to end up with your butt in the snow at some point, so you’ll want a pair of waterproof/breathable shell pants. Your extra layers should be in your backpack and put on right away during any breaks. Sealing in the warmth your body has built up will keep you comfortable as your body temperature drops rapidly in winter conditions. If managed properly you’ll hardly ever be too cold or too hot. You’ll be surprised at how you don’t even notice the cold that you otherwise wouldn’t tolerate.
5) Water And Food Even though it’s cold, you’ll still need plenty of water. Modern hydration packs can work seamlessly with your backpack to make carrying and drinking the water much easier. You’ll also be burning a lot more calories than hiking. Having food/snacks (think; fuel) is more important when you’re snowshoeing. You need to provide the extra calories your body needs to keep you warm and energetic. Along with your extra layers, packing water and food is important. You can get extravagant by packing a small backpacking stove and enjoy a nice hot chocolate, coffee or fuel up with some warm oatmeal. These breaks will be better than anything Starbucks or Tim Hortons can offer!
Snowshoeing is a great activity to get you outside and actually enjoying Winter, while whipping you into shape. Get out there and start exploring!