Downhill with Snowshoes

Unlike the “other” type of human powered snow transportation, downhill snowshoeing technique is relatively easy to master and perhaps not quite so thrilling.

You normally do not have to worry about multiple falls and/or serious injury when learning to snowshoe downhill. There are, however, numerous little techniques to make your snowshoe downhills easier and safer.

It is easy to let it all go when going downhill on snowshoes. You can usually walk or run on snowshoes as fast as you ever will when aided by gravity. Remember that snow is generally soft and forgiving so that if you do fall the chance of injury is much less than it would be without snow.

The soft snow also lessens the impact of foot-strike, too much of which can lead to pain and joint/muscle injury. Thus, some people can actually go downhill faster with snowshoes than without. Before heading downhill fast glance ahead to make sure your route is clear of big obstructions like fences, logs rocks or other snowshoers. Snowshoeing is all about traction so that you can usually “stop on a dime,” but your momentum may prevent you from doing so if going fast. Knowing when you might have to turn or stop in advance helps you actually do it easier and faster.

It is always beneficial to look a few steps ahead when snowshoeing or doing anything fast. It is also a good idea to look at the clear places you want your steps to go instead of the obstacles you want to avoid. In other words, you want to look at the clear snowy spots between the rocks, the clear snowy areas between the stumps, etc. You and your body will soon learn to place your foot-strikes in the clear places instead of the obstacles. Generally you want to keep your eyes scanning five to ten feet in front of where your feet are now, but this distance must increase at faster speeds to give you time to react.

Proper technique when going downhill requires keeping your knee slightly bent upon foot-strike so that your muscles absorb the impact not your joints. You also want to generally make contact with the snow with the snowshoe parallel to the snow surface so that your traction claws dig in. If you land on the tail of your snowshoe you might find yourself slipping and falling backwards as your snowshoe unexpectedly acts like a ski.

To get those claws to aggressively engage on downhills you can try to land with exaggerated foot plantar flexion (point your toes down), lean forward from the waist so that your upper body is perpendicular to the slope (keeping your weight forward), and land forcefully by taking bigger strides. To achieve a bigger stride and forceful foot-plant sometimes requires an increase in speed, so that even a walking snowshoer may find themselves actually running a few steps on a short steep downhill to be safe.

Elements of this forceful aggressive foot-strike technique are important for slowing and turning at speed when going downhill on snowshoes. To slow down the tendency may be to lean back and brake. This may work to a point but you need to keep the claws engaged and your center of gravity somewhat forward over your planted snowshoe to avoid leaning too far back on the tails of the shoes.

This forward lean down a hill may seem unnatural at first, as if you might fall forward onto your face. It is useful to shorten your strides and increase your cadence a bit to slow down in order to make many small decreases in speed instead of a few large ones which are more likely to lead to a slip. You want to try to absorb some of the speed and brake using your quadriceps muscles on the front of your thighs instead of your joints for more control, but this takes strength and training to achieve properly.

Snowshoes generally do not edge well so that you want the snowshoe to land flat on the snow with the claws engaging to turn. You can lean your body into the turn but have to avoid leaning the snowshoe itself. It is better to make a number of smaller turns with shorter steps than big turns with a few steps.

These techniques work well in all types of snow, but are more important in hard packed and icy snow than in more forgiving softer snow. Skilled snowshoers can ignore many of these ideas and really go for it on downhills with loose and soft snow. By over-striding and leaning back a bit on the tails of their snowshoes they can slide a bit with each step and sort of glissade down the hill, decreasing impact and increasing speed. Cruising down a hill covered with powder snow at high speeds on snowshoes, with the snow flying everywhere and your movement feeling effortless, can be a unique thrill that rivals anything else done in snow.

About the author

Tom Sobal

*Known for snowshoeing more miles per year than anyone in the world, Tom Sobal has won more than 130 snowshoe races at distances ranging from one to 100 plus miles. He’s also garnered five World Championship titles in snowshoeing, numerous course records and won races in 12 different states. Tom hold's the world's best time for a 26.2-mile marathon on snowshoes: 3:06:17. Tom is a national advisor to the American Trail Running Association and the U.S. Snowshoe Association. Tom volunteers as a Technical Delegate for snowshoeing at the Special Olympics World Winter Games: Toronto Canada 1997; Anchorage, Alaska 2001 and Nagano, Japan 2005.

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