Snowshoeing Education 101

Two teams of college students vivaciously run between two suspended hoops on poles, as one member slam-dunks a ball through one of the hoops. The ball is passed to an opposing team member who anxiously waits out of bounds to set that ball in motion once again. And the rush toward the hoop on the other end of the court begins all over. It’s that good old American sport of basketball. But in this game it is played a little differently.

The basketball court is located outside during winter, and is covered with more than a foot of snow. Team members do not dribble the ball, but rather bounce it up into the air as they travel across the court on snowshoes. It’s a modified basketball game, played as part of a college snowshoeing course while learning about games on snowshoes.

Although snowshoeing has become an integral part of some elementary, middle, high school and college curriculums across snow-laden parts of our country, little has been done in terms of publicizing snowshoeing education or methods of teaching snowshoeing. I did publish a similar article more than a year ago in Silent Sports, a Midwest outdoor recreation magazine. My intent is to address those who teach snowshoeing, be it school teachers, coaches, recreation leaders, community events organizers, and moms and dads who want to teach their children about the healthy and fun-filled recreation of snowshoeing.

I teach an eight-week (one night a week) snowshoeing course during winter semesters for the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, as well as weekend snowshoe classes and workshops. I’ve been asked by many who are curious, “Why do you need eight weeks to teach snowshoeing?” And true, I can teach students basic snowshoeing skills in less than an hour. Snowshoe book author Steven Griffin says, “Using snowshoes is virtually as easy as walking itself, thus the process of learning to snowshoe takes only minutes, not hours, days or weeks.”

But it can take every bit of eight weeks or a full weekend to teach students about snowshoeing techniques, snowshoes and accessories, winter safety, cold weather clothing, snowshoeing games, backcountry appreciation, and the list goes on. There is more to snowshoeing than just snowshoeing, should you want to teach someone all about this highly popular sport.

A Comprehensive Snowshoeing Course Outline

Since I advocate for a comprehensive lesson in snowshoeing, consider using some of the following topics in planning your snowshoeing course. Modify the amount of material you use to fit within the time allotted for your class.

Snowshoes and history: Inform students about the difference between traditional and modern technical snowshoes, and the wide variety of styles. Identify the major parts of the snowshoe including the frame, deck, binding, rotation system and traction system. Include a good old-fashion snowshoe history lesson, pointing out the origin of snowshoeing and continue with its development up through today. Tell it in stories, skits, show-and-tell, or games so students can relate to its unique development over time.

Sizing and fitting: Teaching students how to select the appropriate size snowshoe and how to put them on is a beginning to any course. Inform them how their weight, intended use, and type of snow affect the style and size snowshoes they will use. Finding out about the many styles of bindings are a major concern for fitting snowshoes, and putting them on is important to any instruction.

Technique and application: Start out simple by teaching such skills as getting up from a fall, stamping, edging, turning around, and selecting a comfortable stride for walking. Teach them how to “break trail” (making new tracks in snow). Move on to ascending, traversing and descending a slope. Then put the technique to practice traveling on trails and on hills.

Winter clothing, footwear and accessories: Keeping warm and dry is essential to winter travel and recreation. Provide information on the “layering system” by demonstrating how to adjust inner, middle, and outer clothing layers. Information about proper footwear is important too. Periodically I have a student show up for a snowshoeing class wearing tennis shoes, not recommended footwear for snowshoeing in deep snow. And during a show-and-tell, I introduce accessories such as trekking poles, gators, snowshoe tote bag, daypack, and a repair kit.

Winter safety: I find the motto “safety first” to be crucial in learning to snowshoe. It is imperative that anyone participating in outdoor winter recreation acquires winter safety skills. Prevention and care of hypothermia and frostbite for example should be part of the course. I have students learn to evaluate risk taking such as crossing frozen water, deep snowdrifts and cliff overhangs. Using case scenarios helps students learn to problem solve.

Students should also learn about essential gear to take when hiking in the backcountry, such as water, food, extra clothing, matches, fire starter, compass, flashlight and a first aid kit. In mountainous areas, carry an ice axe and items needed for avalanche safety. You can also carry winter safety to a higher level and teach basic life saving and survival skills such as building a snow shelter, starting a fire, and signaling for help in the event of being lost.

Basic map and compass skills: People who snowshoe on trails and in the backcountry should know how to use a map and compass. Teach them how to read and use both map and compass. Then put the skills to practice. I have small groups follow an orienteering course I developed while they are on snowshoes. You could also go high-tech and introduce them to using a GPS (global positioning system).

Snowshoeing games and events: May the games begin! I especially enjoy teaching kids and adults alike to have fun on snowshoes via competitive games. Most traditional outdoor ball games like kickball, soccer, baseball, and football can all be modified and played on snowshoes. Be creative and come up with games using toys, sleds and other fun props. A sled-pulling race or a fun game of hide-and-seek on snowshoes can be fun and exciting events to start off a class with children. Introduce students to local community snowshoeing events like hikes and races, and include snowshoe-racing information at regional and national levels.

Snowshoeing references and resources: Tons of information on winter recreation is available via the Internet. There are numerous reputable Web sites on snowshoeing. I provide my students with a list of more than 50 Web sites that include general snowshoe links, major snowshoe manufacturing companies, and snowshoeing event sites. Do a little research and you can come up with a valuable Web site list of your own. And don’t discount the value of books on the subject. There are some very good books on the market. The text I use for my university course is “Snowshoeing: A Trailside Guide” by Larry Olmsted.

Healthy wilderness values: Finally, I find it essential that people who plan to use public lands for snowshoe recreation should develop a healthy appreciation and respect for the outdoors. In all my snowshoeing courses, I teach Leave-No-Trace ethics, a national concept that helps to build healthy values essential in caring for our environment. I like to take students on hikes and have them observe a starry night, sunrise, sunset, snow capped bluff or other beautiful aspect of nature, and then have a discussion about the importance of caring for our wildlands.

Go and Teach Others to Snowshoe

It’s time to take these ideas, combine them with your creative applications, and set out to teach others all about snowshoeing. But be sure to make it a comprehensive course and cover more than just how to walk on snowshoes. There is so much content you can include in your plans that you could spend hours, days, weeks, and maybe eight-weeks, teaching others all about the wonderful and exciting recreation of snowshoeing.


  • Jim Joque is a Midwest writer on snowshoeing, backpacking and canoeing. He retired from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as director of disability services and adjunct adventure education instructor, having taught snowshoeing, camping, backpacking, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace.