Covering the Extremities: Prepare for the Snowshoeing Season

A magic hat is what turned Frosty into a real walking and talking snowman.  As written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, the lyrics go like this:

“There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found. For when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around.  Oh, Frosty, the Snowman, was alive as he could be. And the children say he could laugh and play, Just the same as you and me.”

It was a hat that was essential to Frosty’s life, just as a hat in the dead of winter would be essential to our life. Let’s get ready for the upcoming snowshoeing season by making sure our extremities are well protected, including our head, hands and feet.

Covering our extremities during winter makes for comfort and safety. Rarely are my hands or feet cold when snowshoeing, because my cardiovascular system is working hard to keep my inner furnace burning. I tend to be comfortable wearing something light on my hands. When I stop to take a break, my furnace slows down and I start to feel the effects of the cold. At that point, I cover my hands with a heavier mitt. But the danger comes when someone is not prepared and their extremities are uncovered as their inner furnace is on idle and temperatures are dangerously low.

The NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center reported that the winter of 2013-2014 in the Midwest was among the coldest on record. In Wisconsin where I live, data showed the average low in January to be at 1 degree Fahrenheit. Many consecutive days fell well below zero that month, with some days as low as -20F. When being outside in these conditions, use of safety measures is critical.

Potential Problems if Unprepared

If you are not prepared properly for cold weather when snowshoeing, the problems that could occur are twofold: frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite occurs when human tissue freezes from over exposure to the cold. Frostbite can be dangerous and result in permanent damage to extremities, including fingers, toes, ears and nose. Frostnip is the early stage of frostbite, when there is a loss of circulation due to freezing of the skin. It appears gray or white and is stiff to the touch. Warm your extremities by placing gloves over ears or fingers under armpits. The best prevention to frostbite is to be covered up.

When a person’s core body temperature falls below 98.6 degrees, their extremities get cold. This could eventually lead to uncontrollable shivering and the person becomes irritable, apathetic and awkward.  At that point, they are experiencing signs of hypothermia, considered critically dangerous for winter travelers and it can be life threatening if not treated. Chronic hypothermia can result in needing advanced medical attention requiring evacuation to a hospital.

Covering the Hands

Winter jackets and snow pants protect arms and legs, but what about hands and feet? As I snowshoe, I often wear a handmade pair of fleece mittens. In my daypack, I carry a pair of waterproof/breathable gloves or waterproof down-lined mittens.  Mittens are often recommended over gloves, because your fingers help keep each other warm from body heat. Gloves separate the fingers. But a lot depends on the material and insulation of the glove. Quality gloves can serve the snowshoer well too.

Mittens make maximum use of body heat

Mittens make maximum use of body heat

Gloves and mittens come in varying materials and linings. Some are made of polyester, polyurethane, nylon, fleece, wool, and acrylics. Some have a mix of fabrics, such as wool, synthetic and spandex mixed.  High end gloves and mittens costing over $100 can be found having a ripstop nylon shell with goat leather palms, and GORE-TEX waterproofing.  Some have 700-fill goose down insulation while others are lined with PrimaLoft material. A glove in the $200 range is heated by a rechargeable lithium battery. There a lots of options on the market when making a hand protection choice.

Also, wearing a pair of glove or mitten liners used to wick moisture from your hand and into the outer glove, can help keep you dry and warm.

Covering the Feet

“Your boots are among the most important pieces of equipment that you bring into the backcountry. With every step, they are the direct interface between you and the land,” writes Rick Curtis, author of “The Backpacker’s Field Manual.” Footwear for snowshoeing is very important for keeping your feet warm, dry and comfortable.

Starting on the inside and working outward; first put on a sock liner. I use a thin nylon liner that is made to wick moisture from my feet and into the next layer… the sock.  I found liners that were also made of polyester and polypropylene.

Most of my winter socks are a blend of wool and synthetics. One pair I found was made of 43 percent Merino wool, 28 percent nylon, 14 percent polyester, 3 percent acrylic, 1 percent Kevlar and 1 percent spandex. There are many combinations of fabric blends in hiking and winter socks. I recommend having wool as one of the blends. In winter, never use socks containing cotton, since it absorbs moisture, does not insulate, does not dry well and bunches up when damp resulting in blisters.

Good footwear make a difference

Good footwear make a difference

On top of the socks goes a boot, hiker or other appropriate footwear for snowshoe travel. The type of footwear depends on use. A pair of running shoes works well for trail runners on a packed snowshoe trail in moderate temperatures. But a pair of insulated winter boots is needed when backpacking on snowshoes in deep snow and in very cold temperatures.

Good footwear makes a difference

The key to good snowshoeing footwear includes: waterproofing, breathability, warmth, comfort, arch and ankle support, and a durable sole. There are seemingly as many boots on the market as there are feet, and they are made from a variety of materials and fabrics. Some are made of waterproof breathable leather, polyurethane or polyester synthetic uppers, thermoplastic rubber; combined with Thinsulate, PrimaLoft and other brands of insulation, GORE-TEX linings, removable and washable wool felt inner linings, fiberglass shanks… and much more.

One final touch to footwear that helps to keep feet dry in winter is the use of gaiters… a waterproof material that wraps around the leg and sits along the top of the boot. Curtis writes, “High gaiters are essential for winter activity. They keep snow from getting into your boots and keep your socks and pant legs free from snow.”

A Yooper wearing a Chook

A Yooper wearing a Chook

Covering the Head

I believe the word “chook,” derived from the Canadian word “tuque,” is indigenous to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P.) where I grew up. “Chook: A knitted hat usually with a tassel and usually hand knit by your grandmother. Pronounced Chook, sounds like book; or Chuke, sounds like puke.”  This is the definition of chook in Da Yooper’s Glossary at  As a child, my parents would always say to put on my chook before going outside to play in the snow. My chooks today are mostly made of wool or breathable synthetics. And what I call a chook is referred in other parts of the country as a winter cap, ski cap, stocking cap, boggan or beanie.

A Yooper wearing a Chook

When growing up a Yooper (someone from the U.P.), I found men often wore the Stormy Kromer cap. First designed and made by George “Stormy” Kromer and his wife Ida of Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century, and more recently manufactured in Upper Michigan, the Stormy Kromer cap is in its 111th year making caps of various styles including the Ida Kromer cap for women.

The Bomber or Aviator hat was and is yet another popular head cover made of leather or fabric and is usually lined with rabbit fur or synthetic fur. The hat’s primary feature is its huge ear flaps that can be worn up on the hat or down over the ears and connected with a chin strap.

If you go online, there are numerous styles of winter hats and caps. You will even find the balaclava… a garment that covers the entire head, leaving only the eyes, nose and mouth exposed. The balaclava would be good cover for those extreme winter conditions. And, scarves and hoods on jackets are also head-cover that will protect you from the elements.


“Frosty the Snowman, is a fairytale, they say. He was made of snow, but the children know he came to life one day.”  Why? Because, “There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found. For when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around.  

Although Frosty and his magic hat is just a children’s story, you and your winter hat are for real. Be sure to wear it when snowshoeing on the trails this season. And remember to protect your other extremities by wearing good footwear and gloves or mittens.

About the author

Jim Joque

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.

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