Imagine back in time, about 6,000 years ago, when someone caught on that you didn’t have to sink up to your “you-know-what” in the snow when you ventured out to hunt for food or companionship, occasional fighting, or just to borrow something from the neighbors. By watching some of the creatures in the wild that have adapted to the conditions with their big feet and were seemly able to walk on top of snow, the discovery was made. The original snow travelers probably did something as simple as walking on tree branches and moving them forward step by step.
Since that early time, snowshoes have evolved into the new modern devices we now find in our favorite outdoor sports equipment stores. As fancy as they may have become, we do have to remember that the basic reason to wear snowshoes is flotation on a cold, white, fluffy surface, which really hasn’t changed in all these 6,000 years. The major changes in snowshoes over these years have been in design and materials. Further innovations have been such things as ease and comfort of bindings, maneuverability, traction devices, and does the color match your outfit.
A modern revolution has happened in the last 20 years changing from mostly utility to sport and recreation. While early snowshoe uses were primarily for getting around on the job or up a mountain in the winter, many folks now just go out to go snowshoeing … similar to why skiers buy lift tickets. When I started BIGfoot Snowshoe Tours, decades ago, people were curious about this “new” old mode of winter travel called snowshoeing. This curiosity has transformed into an “everybody-has-to-have-a-pair” revolution. There are now snowshoes specifically designed for backcountry, racing, women, kids, or just going out for a winter walk.
Now the confusion arises … which snowshoes are for me? Think of the choices this way (this is because of my automotive background): do you want a sedan, pickup, station wagon, SUV, or sports car? Do you want economy, power, or muscle? Do you like Fords, Toyotas, or a Mercedes-Benz? Are you partial to red, black, green, or blue? How about freeways, neighborhoods, or mountain roads? WOW! You just need a KISS (Keep it Simple Snowshoer).
The size is just math – the bigger you are, the more fresh, deep powder you will be in, the more you want to carry, the more flotation you will need. Of the brands and models available in your market area, which ones are the most comfortable and the easiest to use … and again, does it match your outfit?
The final conclusion on confusion is to shop your local outdoor shops and find the staff you trust with their knowledge on the equipment best for the majority of your needs. A good way to find out which you will really like is to rent different brands and models when going out with friends and test them out by swapping. Keep in mind that with proper care, your snowshoes will last long enough to pass on to your grandchildren, so it pays to invest in a good pair.
Finding a place to snowshoe is pretty easy unless you live too far south. In regions where winter is white, go to the same places you have hiked in the summer. Most Nordic ski areas now have specific snowshoe trails … so you won’t mess up their groomed ski tracks. Try out their trails with some security of being in close.
Keep in mind that you won’t be able to go as far as on our summer hikes, because of the extra weight of equipment and clothing, plus snow to trudge through, and the daylight hours aren’t as long. What goes out there too far must walk back.
The biggest physical danger for snowshoers out in the backcountry is … AVALANCHE. Know where avalanche areas are and stay away from them. Attending avalanche clinics may be wise.
This first article is only the beginning. There is so much more information that will enhance your snowshoe experience. In future articles, we will be discussing other snowshoe related equipment, proper clothing, techniques and tips from BIGfoot, along with regional differences in terrain and snow conditions. The next thing for you to do is put down this magazine, rent, borrow or buy some snowshoes, and head for the hills … and if you don’t have fun, it will be your fault.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Felkley is the editing-author of Gene Prater’s original book, SNOWSHOEING: from Novice to Master, the 5th edition, published by The Mountaineers Books, call 800-553-4453 to order. After many years in the corporate automotive world, he has not owned a car in more than 15 years, has been riding a scooter for the last three years, and as a former mountain trail runner, has learned to slow down to smell wildflowers and chase snowflakes under the Blue Dome discovering that material possessions are not as valuable as time. Dave lives in Nederland, Colo., at 8,500 feet in the Colorado Rockies, prefers to be outdoors, writing about it or sharing it through his BIGfoot Snowshoe Tours.