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:
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’t break 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.
When sizing snowshoes, 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.
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, deadfall 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.
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 efficient striding and balance. Ascending and descending hills can be counter-intuitive to what you would normally do when hiking. It’s important to learn to use the ice picks on the balls of your feet the same way an ice climber would to dig in and avoid turning your snowshoes into skis. Beware that digging in the ice picks can also result in a face-plant if you’re not using your poles to keep you properly centred over your snowshoes. 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 lower body especially your calves as you dig your toes into icy hills and thighs work to steady yourself especially going downhill. Stretching and warming up will greatly help your chances of staying injury-free, and minimize post-snowshoe muscle soreness. For more detailed information on the techniques of snowshoeing, check out this article on Snowshoeing Basics.
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 fewer clothes than you think you need. It’s better to tolerate a couple of minutes of 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 cold temperatures that you otherwise wouldn’t tolerate.
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 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 far more enjoyable 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!