Summer can be a tough time for snowshoers. For most of us, the snow has retreated to high elevations and consolidated to make snowshoes unnecessary. In the Northwest U.S. snow levels are around 8,000 feet, generally a few thousand feet above most trailhead and rock hard. My snowshoes have been left hanging in the garage, neglected in favor of trail runners and shorts.
Sand can swallow your feet, fill your shoes, and rub the skin right off your feet. Worse, the tricks we often use to keep snow out of our boots seem a lot less effective against sand. When the sand does get in it’s unlike snow, it won’t melt away.
Snowshoes, however, do work on sand. It’s unlikely Tubbs Snowshoes or Atlas Snow-Shoe Co. are going to produce a line of sandshoes, but they might as well. Snowshoes work great on the sand. The crampons aren’t all that necessary because the coefficient of friction of sand is so much higher than snow that you’re not likely to slip much. The real advantage to wearing sandshoes is that you stop sinking in the sand.
My kids and I decided we’d try sandshoes. They’re 10, 8, and 6 and have been snowshoeing for years. Our dog, Treen, is four years old and she’s also experienced in the snow. In Washington, sand dunes are pretty isolated so we had a few miles to hike through the scrub to get to the White Bluffs on the banks of the Columbia River.
Right away, I was sinking in the sand. The kids were, too. I had thought they’d float more, but without sandshoes on they were already filling their shoes. They strapped in and headed across the dune. I followed, but since I was the one to carry all the gear through the desert I had opted to leave my snowshoes/sandshoes at home. Big mistake.
The kids were able to walk across the top of the sand thanks to the flotation of their ‘shoes. I struggled through. It wasn’t quite post-holing, but it was certainly more tiring than walking on the surface.
The White Bluffs, and specifically the North Slope, are a couple of isolated dunes a few hundred feet above the river. The windward side, facing the river, is a fairly gentle slope that’s pretty well consolidated. I sank four inches. The kids did not. The leeward side is much steeper and less consolidated. I sank between six and eight inches. The kids barely made a mark.
Although there was no cornice at the top of the dune, it was the least stable part of the slope. As we moved along the ridge we triggered what would have been loose dry avalanches in the snow. It was a great opportunity to discus avalanche safety with the kids again. (It’s never too early to start.)
With all these similarities to snow, I decided maybe the sled I had dragged along the dry trail might not have been a wasted effort after all. Normally, I’d have started the kids down the most gentle slope until they begged for more speed, but since that side dropped off a cliff down to the river a few hundred feet below we began along the ridge. Or at least we tried.
It turns out the reason a plastic sled works so well on snow is that the friction melts the snow and creates a lubricating layer of water. Since the melting point of sand (1700C) is a little bit higher than snow (0C), let alone the melting point of the sled (130C), we hardly moved at all.
Even on the steepest slope, nearly 60 degrees, the descent was more of a slow motion event than you would expect on snow. Not that the kids minded. To them, it was sledding. Even still, it could’ve been a little better since it wasn’t as cold–though a face plant in the sand is a lot harder to recover from than in the snow.
If you go, leave the sled at home, but do bring your snowshoes. If you’re going to be walking on sand for more than half a mile, they’ll be worth their weight. Even if you’re not going that far you should take snowshoes at least once just to say you have.
(Other items that worked well for us included a shade shelter, a pad for the dog to sit on instead of the hot sand, and of course, lots and lots of water.)
See you on the dunes!