First-Timer’s Guide to Snowshoeing

Snowshoe Magazine’s Guide to Snowshoeing: Knowing What to Buy, Where to Go, How to Get Started and Learn What’s Important

There is no better way to begin snowshoeing than just going and doing it. Take a risk, rent or buy a pair of snowshoes, dress for the elements and enjoy. However, that’s just a start – there is more to it than just taking a refreshing plunge in some snow.

(For great deals on snowshoes and more, click here.)

Snowshoeing has been around for thousands of years. And, obviously, the art of snowshoeing has become more sophisticated over time – now it’s considered a winter sport. From the early wood-frame to the aluminum-frame models, snowshoeing has garnered quite a following throughout the world. Modern day snowshoeing is made up of casual snowshoers who hike trails for pleasure, the snowshoeing enthusiasts who trek through the backcountry, and the competitors who race.

Snowshoeing in the wildernessConsidering this is the fastest growing winter sport in the world (snowboarding is growing fast too, but not fast enough), snowshoeing is poised to become a monster of a market. Many involved in skiing and snowboarding utilize snowshoes to participate in some great backcountry hikes to find the holy grail of mother nature: Deep, unscathed powder. Snowshoeing is a great alternative for many sports – especially those who like running.

What’s So Great About Snowshoeing?

The sport is easy to learn, virtually inexpensive (compared to other winter sports), poses little risk of injury and is a great way to exert energy during the cold winter months. According to research provided by Snowsports Industries America (SIA), 40.8 percent of snowshoers are women (a number that is increasing rapidly), 9.4 percent of snowshoers are children (ages 7-11), and 44.2 percent of snowshoers are ages 25-44.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), snowshoeing participation in the United States increased by 7.5 percent in 2011 (to 4.1 million) from the prior year. However, this represents the very strong 2011 winter season and not the very weak 2012 winter.

Overall, snowshoeing is gradually increasing in popularity throughout the United States. Since 2008, snowshoeing participation has grown 40.7 percent—based on OIA’s data.

“Last season, 4,111,000 persons in the U.S. went snowshoeing at least once during the 2011/2012 winter. Participation increased 7.5 percent from the 2010/2011 season. In fact, snowshoeing was one of the only snow sports categories that enjoyed growth last season,” explained the SIA in its 2012 Participation Study.

One of the more appealing facts about snowshoeing is how it can help enrich a person’s health. Known to help maintain or improve cardiovascular fitness, the sport helps burn more than 600 calories per hour. Snowshoers can burn more than 45 percent more calories than walking or running at the same speed, according to SIA. Snowshoeing is a great way to pursue losing weight; however, a healthy diet should be maintained to seek the appropriate effectiveness in a healthy lifestyle as well.

What to Look For in a Pair of Snowshoes?

When buying or renting a pair snowshoes, keep in mind the following details:

  • There are three types of snowshoes available: Recreational Hiking, Aerobic/Fitness and Hiking/Backpacking.
    1. Recreational hiking snowshoes are a basic selection and are perfect for first-timers. Usually, these snowshoes work best on simple terrain that doesn’t require a lot of steep climbing or descents.
    2. Snowshoes for aerobic/fitness are best suited for those who are active snowshoers – like runners and cross-trainers. This type of snowshoe has a very sleek design and is generally tougher than most available.
    3. If you like the powder and are more experienced with snowshoeing, purchasing a pair of hiking/backpacking snowshoes is your ticket. These are as tough as they come: Strong aluminum frame, durable material for flotation, and bindings that support all types of boots.
  • The cost for a pair of snowshoes is generally inexpensive. Look to spend on the low-end around $100 and on the high-end around $300 (sometimes higher depending on the manufacturer).
  • Many retailers will offer a package deal that will provide poles and a snowshoe bag. These are generally good deals, but pay particular attention to the type of snowshoe you will be receiving. If you want to do some backcountry snowshoeing, a starter kit won’t be the best option. Ask your retailer for more details.
  • It is highly advised not to purchase a used pair of snowshoes. If you decide to go through with buying a used pair, inspect them thoroughly: Check the frames for damage (including chips), check the bindings for overstress and check the flotation material for holes and rips. Know who you are buying your snowshoes from. Don’t get caught in the backcountry with a faulty pair of shoes.
  • Finally, as one of the most important factors in snowshoeing, choose according to the size available. Usually measured in inches, the length will depend upon how much you weigh. The most common sizes (excluding kids lengths) are 25 inches, 30 inches and 36 inches. Your retailer should be able to help you when deciding snowshoe length.

Snowshoe Resort

Try Before you Buy

Snowshoeing is a great activity for so many reasons: it gets you outdoors, keeps you fit, and is inexpensive. You can snowshoe almost anywhere there is snow-cover and, as an activity, it is suitable for young, old and everyone in between.

Despite all of this, while the temptation may be there just to jump in, buy a pair of shoes and give it a go–sometimes it is wise to try a sport before you make an investment, no matter how small. Any dusty roller blades you may have impulsively purchased hidden in your closet?

Fortunately showshoeing has gained so much in popularity that many ski resorts, Nordic centers outfitters and conservation areas now offer snowshoe rentals. These provide an ideal opportunity and place to get started because you get to try the sport to make sure you’ll enjoy it; you get to try a style of snowshoe to make sure they are right for you and all of these places have groomed and mapped trails which provides a safe environment and controlled way to start.

Rentals and trail passes can be had for as little as $10 and in many cases you have either the opportunity to get recommendations on where to go, or trails are marked based on length and degree of difficulty so you can plan according to your own comfort and fitness level.

A simple Google search of ski hills, resorts or conservation areas near you should provide you with a few options to try out before you decide to commit.snowshoes_rent

Where to Buy or Rent a Pair of Snowshoes?

There are plenty of snowshoe retailers to choose from. However, there are more obvious choices than others. For instance, searching online for snowshoes you will find those that specialize in only selling snowshoes, such as ORS Snowshoes Direct. Others, for example, include REI and Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) that sell snowshoes and other gear around the nation – they are all the obvious retailers. The less obvious retailers are independent stores that may include equipment for running and local mountain outfitters.

Although price may be similar between retailers (unless they are having a sale, which they often do), snowshoe brands will differ. If you really want a nice selection of shoes to purchase from a retailer, Backcountry.com is the place to buy not only snowshoes but accessories as well. They also have great prices on certain brands, models and snowshoe starter kits.

eBay is another great place to purchase snowshoes for a reasonable price. If you decide to purchase from eBay, be on the lookout for used snowshoes (you won’t be able to inspect them before you buy). Don’t forget Craigslist! Your local Craigslist site can provide you with many used snowshoe options: Run a search for the word “snowshoe” or “snowshoes” in the for sale category.

SnowshoesIf you would like to rent snowshoes, the best place to start is with a ski and snowboard rental store. They will most likely have a decent selection for you to choose from. However, many retailers (like REI) will let their customers rent snowshoes. Ask your retailer for more details.

The other alternative to widen your snowshoe selection search is to purchase directly from the manufacturer.

Here’s a list of the snowshoe manufacturers (a majority are based in the United States, some are worldwide):

Airlite Snowshoes – http://www.airlitesnowshoe.com
Arctic Trekker – http://irl.bc.ca/Forestry%20Supplies/snowshoes.htm
Atlas Snow-Shoe Co.www.atlassnowshoe.com
Baldas Snowshoeswww.baldas.com
Bigfoot Snowshoeswww.bigfootsnowshoes.com
Crescent Moon Snowshoeswww.crescentmoonshowshoes.com
Dion Snowshoeswww.dionsnowshoes.com
Easton Mountain Productshttp://eastonmountainproducts.com/snowshoe/snowshoe.php
Faber Snowshoeswww.fabersnowshoes.com
Fimbulvetr Snowshoes – www.fimbulvetr.no
GV Snowshoeswww.gvsnowshoes.com
Havlick Snowshoeswww.havlicksnowshoe.com
Inook Snowshoes – www.raquettes-inook.com
Iverson Snowshoe Co.www.iversonssnowshoes.com
Louis Garneau Snowshoes – www.louisgarneau.com
Mountain Safety Researchwww.msrcorp.com
Mountain Tracks Snowshoes – www.mtsnowshoes.com
Northern Lites Snowshoeswww.northernlites.com
PowdeRidge Snowshoes – www.powderidgesnowshoes.com
Redfeather Snowshoes
www.redfeather.com
Risdon Rigs Snowshoes – www.risdonrigs.com
Schnee Schuh Profi – www.schneeschuhprofi.com
SmallFoot Snowshoes - www.smallfoot.eu
SnowXu Collapsible Snowshoeswww.snowxu.com
Suluk snowshoes – http://bit.ly/O5eSa6
Trackers Skishoes – www.trackerskishoes.com
TSL Snowshoes – www.tslsnowshoes.com
Tubbs Snowshoes – www.tubbssnowshoes.com
Vert Snowshoes – www.verts.com
Whitewoods USAwww.eriksports.com
Wilcox and Williams Snowshoes – www.snowshoe.com
Yowie Snowshoes – www.yowies.com.au
Yukon Charlie’s Snowshoeswww.yukoncharlies.com

Snowshoe Makers and Manufacturers That Were – http://goo.gl/mYqw8

(If this list is missing a manufacturer, please e-mail info@snowshoemag.com)

Where Should You Go Snowshoeing?

If it’s covered in snow…go for it!

But, be careful. Don’t take risks and most importantly, have fun.

The prime areas for snowshoeing are at Nordic centers, which are usually placed in or around a ski resort. Other types of snowshoeing destinations include bed and breakfast inns, mountain lodges, state parks, national parks, snow-covered golf courses, open space (provided by your state government), ski slopes, and much more.

Backcountry SnowshoeingBackcountry snowshoeing is particularly dangerous considering avalanche problems can occur. It would be wise to seek educational courses on avalanche safety (purchasing an avalanche beacon is suggested). For more information, seek out your local mountain and/or outdoors club. (Pictured: Sol Mountain lodge in British Columbia – the perfect backcountry snowshoeing destination.)

Although many people like the individuality and peacefulness of snowshoeing, it’s a good idea to snowshoe with a friend or partner. And, bring a global positioning system (GPS) device and a compass to help better navigate remote and wooded areas.

Snowshoe Magazine suggests using iNeverSolo.com, which is a unique service that allows you to create a detailed online plan for your particular activity (outdoor or urban) and alerts your designated contacts via e-mail if something goes wrong and you are unable to reach your destination as planned.

There are also snowshoe events around the nation that are organized by such associations and companies like Winter Trails (www.wintertrails.org), REI, EMS, The United States Snowshoe Association (www.snowshoeracing.com), a variety of snowshoe manufacturers and more. Every snow-laden state should have snowshoe events every year, check your local community and recreational listings for more details. Or, check out Snowshoe Magazine’s calendar of events and snowshoeing club information.

Please note: Remember to bring plenty of water or a water filter on your snowshoe travels.

plan_aheadPlan Ahead

Nothing takes the place of advance planning with any activity, but it becomes especially important when the weather has the potential to work against you.

It’s surprising the number of people who will head out on a hike thinking their destination is “only an hour away” and never stop to consider they then have to make it an hour back. In the winter and with the cold, that can be a huge mistake.

Especially for a new or inexperienced snowshoer, it is important to consider and understand your limits. There is nothing wrong with a half-hour hike – planned 15 minutes out and 15 minutes back – especially if you are trying out new shoes or are unsure of your endurance level. Start slowly, plan for short routes and you can build up your level of adventure once you gain confidence and ability.

What Should I Wear When Snowshoeing?

Footwear:

It is wise to choose your footwear according to your snowshoeing style. Leather hiking boots that have been waterproofed are great for hiking and backcountry trekking. Trail-running shoes are perfect for running and aerobic snowshoeing (look for waterproofing material). Snowboarding boots are also ideal for snowshoeing.

Wool socks for hiking and/or a wool/silk combination for running are important to snowshoeing. Never wear cotton socks when in the snowy elements.

And, if you plan to snowshoe in deep snow and don’t plan to stay on snow-packed trails, wear Gaiters to keep snow out of your boots and shoes. Gaiters are great selection for backcountry hikers.

Clothing:

Don’t be afraid to dress in layers. And, use layers that can be taken off with ease, considering in some cases it can get hot during the spring season. Consider wearing synthetics and wool to induce heat retention when wet. Long underwear is essential when snowshoeing and a zippered top lets you regulate body heat.

Polyester fleece provides a great insulation, as it too retains heat when wet. And, a waterproof jacket (with breathable waterproof fabrics) will keep you dry and protect you from cold winds.

The more obvious choices in winter wear are gloves, a hat, sunglasses (or goggles) and other personal selections.

DSCF0072Hydration is Not Just for Summer Sports

While hydration is a key word connected to many summer activities, and while most hikers would never head out on an adventure without a bottle of water, the same consideration is not given to winter activities and it should be.

Just because you don’t feel as thirsty when the weather is cold, that doesn’t mean your body isn’t using and losing water. Consider the visual of warm breath (moisture) turning to mist as you breathe out in the cold air. That cold, dry air will also work to dehydrate you more quickly.

Understand that the work of movement under the weight of extra clothing, and with snowshoes strapped to you, means you will sweat, despite the cold. Forget the fact that you don’t feel hot. Understand that sweat is often trapped under layers or and it will evaporate quickly in the cold so you may not be aware of it.

Don’t Forget to Nourish

Just as water is important, so is planning for food along the way. If your body is working hard, it is not only using water but also burning fuel. Needing to rest outside in the cold because you don’t have the energy to go on, getting colder for your inactivity and lack of motion is not where you want to find yourself.

You certainly don’t want to be burdened with a lot of excess weight, but it’s easy enough to pad your pockets with small bags of nuts, chocolate, jerky or dried fruits. Instead of opting for purely sugary snacks, these complex carbohydrates and proteins will give you more long-term energy to complete your route.

snowshoeingUnderstand the Dangers of Winter Activities

Winter is a great time to get outdoors. The air is fresh and crisp and there is snow and ice-covered wonders hiding around every corner. It is important to understand though that, with winter’s cold, come some basic risks that must be understood.

Hypothermia. Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to cold, is aggravated by wet, wind, exhaustion, dehydration and hunger. Wear layers so you can shed some if it gets warmer to avoid excess sweating and so you can bundle up again when it gets colder.

Consider a windproof layer to keep that extra chill from settling in. Wear a hat to prevent heat loss. Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering (your body’s attempt to generate more internal heat), numbness in fingers and toes (your body focusing heat on internal organs to protect them), lethargy, and shallow, rapid breathing (your body slowing its functions to conserve energy). Watch for the early signs in yourself and people you are snowshoeing with and take steps to warm up before things reach critical levels.

Frostbite. Frostbite can happen quickly, especially in windy conditions, and most often the person affected may not even realize. Frostbite is a condition in which tissue freezes and it can often have long-term implications. It happens most often in fingers and toes and in the face where it is exposed to the elements. Patches of skin may appear pale and then turn white and waxy as the frostbite progresses. If you suspect the onset of frostbite, don’t rub the affected area as this may damage the tissue further, rather find other ways to warm the area gently or get the person to a place they can warm up.

Competing as a Snowshoer: Where to Begin and Where to Go to Race

Snowshoe RacingSnowshoe racing and competition is growing quickly within the sport – nationwide. The popularity of events on a state-by-state basis and national championships series is blossoming as more snowshoers gain a considerable amount of expertise.

The best place to search for racers and to get involved is to start with The United States Snowshoe Association. For more information, visit http://www.snowshoeracing.com.

Also, the snowshoe manufacturers hold racing events throughout the winter months. Atlas, Dion, GV, Redfeather, and Tubbs are the companies that stage a majority of the events in the United States.

Kids and Snowshoes:

Raising the Next Generation… on Snowshoes by Tanya Koob

Hey You Kids, Get Outside! by Pam Mandel

Kids on Snowshoes (PDF link)

Other Important Resources:

For a quick, basic introduction to snowshoeing and its fundamentals, watch this informational YouTube video (duration: approximately five minutes):