If it’s covered in snow, it’s a good trail for snowshoeing. Right? Or is it? I enjoy cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking – but rarely on the same trail despite snow on all three kinds of trails. So while you can certainly go out for a hike on any snowy trail and bring your snowshoes with you, your walk will be much more enjoyable if you choose a route that is optimal for snowshoeing.
Some trails are much more fun on skis, and other routes honestly don’t require anything other than a warm pair of boots. So how do you decide which trails are best for snowshoeing and when you need to use snowshoes?
Follow the guidelines below to choose the perfect trail for your next winter adventure, so you know when you need your snowshoes and when you don’t need to use your snowshoes.
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1. Soft snow and powder are your best friends on snowshoes
Once you’ve snowshoed in freshly fallen powder, you’ll never go back. Snowshoes may feel cumbersome when the trail is too firm and hard under your feet, but add powder or soft snow, and you’ll feel like you’re floating.
People who say that “snowshoeing is boring” probably haven’t tried snowshoeing in soft snow or discovered the joy of jumping off a giant boulder and landing in waist-deep powder.
Soft powder provides an opportunity to use your snowshoes to their fullest and have some fun adventures and play games. You can make frequent stops to make snow angels, have a snowball fight with the kids, or even tromp out a circle with spokes like a wheel for a fun game of pie tag.
Special Considerations for Deep Snow
When hiking in some powder or deep snow, remember to keep the following in mind:
Children won’t walk very far if the snow is knee-deep. So choose a soft-packed trail where the kids don’t sink very deep or bring a sled for when they tire out.
Beginners to snowshoeing will also tire quickly if hiking through deep snow. Muscles can easily fatigue when you sink past the top of your boots with each step. Choose your distance with care based on who you will be hiking with on the trail.
Not all snowshoes are the same. For snowshoeing in the backcountry and off the beaten path, snowshoes will need to be longer and typically have a wider surface area for maximum floatation in deep snow.
For example, traditional Ojibwa snowshoes (like this kit) or Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes are excellent for floatation because of their length and wide surface area. For a snowshoe with moderate flotation but added traction for hills, try MSR’s Lightning Ascent.
Overall, look at the snowshoe description before purchasing a pair. For example, you won’t want a pair of on-trail snowshoes or a pair intended for racing or running if hiking in deep fluffy snow. If in doubt, rent a pair of longer snowshoes for those special trips where you’ll need something different from your usual gear.
2. Hard-packed trails do not require snowshoes but can be used for extra grip
It’s a matter of personal preference, but I cringe every time I see a family or group of adults walking down a perfectly hard-packed trail on snowshoes. The very nature of snowshoes is they help you to stay on top of the snow when walking through powder. If there is no powder and you can stay on top of the snow without sinking, they are not required.
However, some people may choose to wear snowshoes on packed trails for extra grip.
Ideally, use snowshoes on the trail if:
- You post hole on the trail without snowshoes, creating huge holes in the path that could be dangerous to other users.
- The snow is soft enough to sink in without snowshoes, and hence wearing them is justified and enjoyable.
- Other users have already damaged the trail, or the path is full of post-hole marks and is dangerous to hike. This scenario is often the case in the spring when the snow starts rotting and turning to crusty ice. On these outings, snowshoes help you stay on top of the holes, so you won’t have any surprises where you suddenly sink up to your knees and get a boot caught in a small tight hole. (I’ve had a hard time prying my feet out of such pits and have risked spraining an ankle.)
3. Choose walking crampons or ice cleats on slippery solid trails.
Snowshoes are designed for snow rather than for ice, and you’ll find snowshoes feel awkward when used on solid ice that is not snow-covered. However, I can jump off small waterfalls with my microspikes and make a precise landing without hitting my snowshoe tails on the hard surface.
A basic rule of thumb is snowshoes for snow, spikes, or cleats for ice.
4. If it’s track-set, ski!
Many parks where I live have separate trails for snowshoers. If this is the case, you can use the snowshoe designated routes rather than hiking on designated cross-country ski trails.
But why not just hike on the side or walk down the middle and avoid the tracks? You can but may not see other hikers because nobody does unless it’s a shared trail! Hikers usually like to walk side by side in the middle rather than hugging the edge of the trail single-file. Furthermore, hikers tend to take up a large portion of the trail, and if they accidentally step in the tracks, they can destroy the corduroy grooming for skate skiers.
Also, groomed ski trails are so hard-packed you wouldn’t need snowshoes to walk on them without sinking. Plus, there’s no powder to play in! So finding your powder stash to play in on snowshoes is much more fun.
Guidelines for using multi-use or shared trails:
- If on a shared trail, give skiers who are coming downhill the right of way.
- If on a ski trail, hike to the side when possible and don’t step on the ski tracks.
- Skier tracks are the same as machine tracks. So be careful of those as well.
5. Just because you hiked it in summer doesn’t mean you should in winter.
Many summer hiking trails make excellent snowshoe trails in winter, but some don’t. You should always check with a visitor centre first to find out if you will be hiking in avalanche terrain.
If you aren’t adequately equipped and trained for traveling in avalanche areas, it’s highly advisable to stick to official snowshoe trails that you know to be safe. It’s also wise to check avalanche reports through your local avalanche center before heading out. Some routes could still put you at risk when there are high or considerable conditions.
Go Out & Enjoy Winter Trails
Overall, snowshoeing is a great sport when you choose the right trail, play it safe, and respect other trail users for maximum enjoyment on all sides. You can introduce kids to snowshoeing as well, and in the right conditions, they will have a lot of fun.
Our family does a mixture of snowshoeing, winter hiking, and skiing, depending on the destination we are visiting. And sometimes, we do all three on the same day for those special backcountry outings where we have to trek a long way into a backcountry cabin or hut. It’s all about choosing the right sport for the trail and conditions.
What other recommendations do you have for choosing a trail in the winter? Let us know in the comments below!
This article was originally published on December 22, 2015, and updated on March 1, 2022.