Early season snowstorms have already dusted parts of the Northeast United States and Rocky Mountains, which means its time to plot strategy for a winter of snowshoeing bliss.
To get started, you can’t do much better than reading “Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master” by Gene Prater, with editing by Dave “Bigfoot” Felkley.
Prater’s name is probably familiar to many snowshoe enthusiasts. He was one of the nation’s premier snowshoeing experts and is credited with helping popularize the sport. He wrote three editions of “Snowshoeing” before his 1993 death.
Two more editions followed, including the latest edition from 2002, the one Felkley edited here.
“Snowshoeing” is worth re-reading every October or November as a refresher course in how to prepare for and enjoy a season of snowshoeing. It’s amazing how much the humidity of summer makes you forget.
The book reads like a conversation between the grizzled, experienced Prater and the brash but smart young buck Felkley, even if Felkley was born in 1939. The bulk of the book, written by Prater, has the tone of a wise, patient teacher explaining the art of snowshoeing to an eager student.
Felkley’s contributions are mostly in the form of little grey boxes tucked under Prater’s prose. The boxes are labeled “BIGfoot says…” and are often things Prater never had to deal with, since they weren’t invented or in wide use yet.
For instance, Prater repeatedly cautions readers to us the best equipment and prepare for any eventuality in the backcountry, which is obvious advice that too many people ignore anyway.
Felkley interjects: “Remember that in the backcountry you must be prepared. There is no AAA or 911 quick response.”
I’m particularly pleased “Snowshoeing” devotes a substantial chapter to physical conditioning. The whole theme of the book focuses on preparedness, and that doesn’t just mean choosing the right clothes and shoes on the day of an excursion.
Getting ready for a December snowshoe jaunt starts months earlier with exercise. Prater offers specific tips, like hiking with heavy boots up and down hills while carrying a heavy backpack during the summer and fall. Cycling and weight training also help.
“Snowshoeing” is exhaustive but not exhausting. It gets deeply into the history of the sport, the many options available for snowshoers in any kind of condition, a long section on safety, lots of tips on making emergency repairs while in the middle of nowhere, things to think about while at high altitudes or in stormy weather, what to bring on various trips, and strategies for snowshoe racing.
The book truly is for every snowshoe enthusiast. That becomes apparent early in the book, with two large charts that show which type of snowshoe to buy for every conceivable person and activity.
Felkley’s tips are unconventional, which adds some fun to the reading and will make you seem creative in the backcountry when out with colleagues.
For instance, I never thought to put nonstick cooking spray on snowshoe metal claws to prevent things from icing up when the temperature is near freezing. And you can’t resist Felkley’s sunny optimism: “In those warmer days of snowshoe travel, think of rain, if it happens, as immature snow.”
Once you’ve digested Prater and Felkley’s advice, you have to decide where to go.
Let’s face it, you can bushwack anywhere on snowshoes, but a lot of us want a specific spot, maybe a place where it’s hard to get lost, has great views, is a challenge, or leads to a cushy resort.
Especially in the Northeast, you’re in luck if you check out “Snowshoe Routes New England” and “Snowshoe Routes Adirondacks and Catskills.”
The nice thing about both books is you get a lot of options that vary widely from each other. The New England book, by Diane Bair and Pamela Wright offer 72 trips across in four New England states. A lot of the courses are easy and a novice can complete in two hours or less. For those who want more of a challenge, there are some tough hikes to try, not the least of which is Mount Washington.
Bair and Wright are honest, revealing through personal experience what to look out for. On their Mount Washington trip, the wrote “The climb was excruciating, the weather dismal. We stepped and rested, stepped and rested.”
They never made it up the mountain the first try, but reveled in their success on their second attempt.
The Adirondack and Catskills book, by Bill Ingersoll, offers 65 winter snowshoeing options. It focuses mostly on the Adirondacks, which is to be expected as there is much more wild land to explore there. The hikes described in Ingersoll’s books generally seem more challenging than those in the New England listings.
Each hike in both books is accompanied by information on how long the hike should take, what the peak elevation hikers will reach, and most importantly for those at the mercy of hills, how many feet the hiker will climb from base to top.
Also helpful in each entry is how to get more information about the area where a hike is contemplated.
It’s worth taking either book with you on a snowshoe hike, since the publications are full of information on the history, natural history and other details of the landscape you’ll visit.