“Okay, everyone, line up,” I began saying to the class. “We are going to play follow-the-leader with a twist. The first one in line chooses an animal. You are then to walk like that animal.” Fifteen grade-school kids walk like moose, with their fanned-out hands above their heads mimicking antlers and taking giant plopping steps on their snowshoes as if walking like the great Northwoods mammal itself.
The children are having a blast as they laugh and tread through the snow. They don’t realize that my primary goal is to allow them to experience walking on snowshoes and using some basic stride techniques.
I have several other ice-breakers I use to introduce novices to snowshoeing and use activities to perfect technique. These games help them learn the basics of the sport. For example, Hide & Seek on and around hills puts ascending and descending skills to use. Likewise, a game of Simon Says allows all kinds of movements on snowshoes, while doing the Hokee-Pokee can help build confidence levels in children as they attempt to dance around in the snow.
Though these games are helpful when snowshoeing with kids, learning basic techniques is also beneficial for adults. Here, we discuss the basic methods to get started on snowshoes and an intro to ascending and descending hills.
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Basic Techniques to Get Started
When it comes to learning to snowshoe, the basics are all you need. According to snowshoe author Phil Savignano, “One of the greatest aspects of snowshoeing is that the learning curve is so short.”
Although I taught eight-week-long college courses in snowshoeing, you do not need that detailed course to enjoy the refreshing sport of snowshoeing. For many, you can strap snowshoes on your feet and start walking like normal.
Though, techniques can be helpful for encountering new situations. So here are some fundamental techniques that can be developed within an hour for the beginner to get out on snowshoes and take in the fresh crispy winter air.
Authors and instructors may vary slightly on some of the definitions and terminology for snowshoeing techniques. Therefore, I recommend exploring techniques by reading various snowshoeing books (see references at the end of the article). In addition, I use language and explanations from different authors I developed over time through practical application and teaching.
The stride movement involves walking forward on snowshoes at a gait compatible with the snowshoer’s step. Walk as you would without snowshoes. But allow for some straddling depending on the width of your snowshoe. The idea is to prevent hitting your shins or developing pain in your thighs due to too wide a straddle. If you are walking too wide, your snowshoes may be too large.
Breaking trail is making tracks through the untouched snow. The depth of the snow will determine how difficult your effort will be to break the trail. You may need to take slower and higher lifting steps in deep snow.
When with a group, rotate the person in front every few minutes since they always exert the most significant effort and energy when breaking the trail. Rotating will allow everyone to break the trail and rest throughout the hike.
Stamping can help create a trail in fresh snow. For the stamping technique, stand in place and step lightly with your heel first and then your toe. Pause for a brief moment, and then transfer your weight onto the entire snowshoe. This movement helps to solidify snow using the physics of time and pressure.
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Falling will likely happen, so it’s important to know how to get up.
A simple approach is to roll over onto your front, put one knee up and push yourself up to a half-kneeling position. Then, raise yourself back to standing by using your knees to brace your hands/arms. Or, if you have a hiking staff, use the staff to support yourself as you stand.
I have students line up a couple of arm distances apart. Then, I have them fall back into the snow and make snow angels while wearing their snowshoes. I say, “Now that you are down, let’s get up,” and proceed to demonstrate how to do so.
Read More: Snowshoeing for Beginners: The First Timer’s Guide
Turning around on snowshoes is also a first among the basic skills. Of course, walking in a circle is the easiest means of turning around. But time and space do not always permit that option.
Step turn: An excellent alternative to turning around is to use what is called the step turn. This movement involves lifting one snowshoe and placing it at a 90-degree angle in front of the other shoe (forming a “T” with your snowshoes). Then shifting your body, bring the other snowshoe alongside it, making a half-turn. Do it again to make the complete turn.
Kick turn: Another approach is the kick turn. In this technique, you make a complete 180-degree turn by placing one snowshoe in the opposite direction to the other and having your body make a complete turnaround. This step works well in tight spaces when a quick movement is needed to make a complete turnaround. However, this technique requires lower body flexibility (try these back exercises) for the exaggerated twist.
Read More: Using Activities To Perfect Snowshoeing Techniques
Getting Up and Over Hills
After you learn the basics, going up and across hills involves procedures that require more skill and practice than most other techniques.
Valuable accessories used for ascending, traversing, and descending hills are hiking poles (like these options). I use one pole while snowshoeing and find it invaluable for hilling, which helps with balance and provides relief of stress to my knees.
Techniques I teach for going uphill include these well-accepted approaches.
Stepping Up: You can use the first approach for climbing a moderate incline. The technique is called “stepping up“ by many authors. While facing directly uphill, step into the snow with your weight on your toes while planting your front claws or crampons into the hill. Use the stamping technique mentioned above while stepping up the incline.
Herringbone stepping: This technique can also be used for moderate hill climbing. Face uphill with your snowshoes turned out at about a 45-degree angle, similar to the herringbone skill used in cross-country skiing. Placing your weight on the outside of each snowshoe as you ascend will allow you to dig into the snow and give you greater traction as you climb.
Scrambling: This technique involves an aggressive and fast stepping-up pace while climbing a moderate incline with weight to the toes.
Read More: Snowshoeing Skills for the Hills
Edging: For the edging technique, plant the side of your snowshoe edgewise into the snow, pause, and push your weight onto the outside edge of the shoe, solidifying the snow and building a step. Edging can be helpful with the side-stepping technique (see below).
Side-stepping: When climbing a steep incline, you may have to go up sideways using an accepted approach called “side-stepping.” Turn your body perpendicular to the hill and take sideward steps up by edging your snowshoe to make a step or shelf. For example, if your right side is facing uphill, take a good-sized step with your right foot, edging and moving your weight onto the side of the snowshoe that edges into the hill. Then bring your left snowshoe below the right shoe and into the shelf you just made. Continue uphill slowly in the same fashion.
Kick Stepping: Finally, a popular technique called “kick stepping,” often used in the mountains, works well in deep snow on steep inclines. Kick the toe of your snowshoe into the slope, pause, and stamp. Your goal is to build steps. Be cautious of collapsing snow shelves should your steps not solidify properly.
If hiking in the mountains, be sure to become better trained than reading an introductory article on snowshoeing techniques. Know your level of expertise before heading out on any adventure.
Read More: 7 Basic Tips To Train the Mountaineer in You
Traversing and Switchbacks
Remember that the best way to go up a hill on snowshoes is directly up the fall line, the shortest line connecting the top to the bottom. But that is not always possible. Sometimes the incline is too steep, or there are obstacles, such as trees, rocks, and ledges. So there may be times when you have to find alternative routes to get up a hill.
Traversing and creating a switchback are ways to ascend a hill rather than taking the fall-line path.
Traversing an incline takes you uphill at an angle. A traversing technique I use involves kicking in the edge of each snowshoe to form a shelf while moving forward and upward at a designated angle to the hill.
The snow depth will determine the use of stamping as you use the edging technique for each step. It’s kind of like side-stepping, except rather than just moving uphill, you are also moving forward at an uphill angle.
Switchbacks: Uphill hiking trails do not usually follow the fall line throughout public lands. They use switchbacks to ease your hike and make ascending a hill more reasonable. Switchbacks are a series of back-and-forth paths angled up a hill that ultimately takes you to the summit.
The same goes for climbing challenging hills on snowshoes. You can create your switchbacks by first assessing the hill and deciding what series of angles provide you the path of least resistance to reaching your goal, the top of the hill. Then, using whatever ascending technique discussed above will offer you the best approach to your newly created switchbacks.
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Sir Isaac Newton indicated that what goes up must come down. Although he was referencing the law of gravity, his statement applies to the snowshoer, who eventually will come down from the top of a hill. Coming down a hill on snowshoes requires descending skills.
Down-Hilling: The first technique I teach a student group is “down-hilling,” a term used by many snowshoe authors. Down-hilling involves walking down a gradual slope with snowshoes level to the horizon, keeping knees flexed, and putting weight directly on the shoe with some shift to the heel depending on the angle of the slope. Keep your body level, and do not lean forward or back.
Side Stepping: Just as you may side-step up a steep slope, you can use “side-stepping” to come down the same pitch. Place your weight on the hillside edge of your snowshoe, making snow shelves as you descend. Be careful that your steps are far enough apart so the shelves do not collapse on each other.
Step-Sliding: A technique I enjoy doing is what various authors have referred to as “step-sliding,” “running,” or “glissading.” It is a descending technique for moving fast down a hill. To accomplish this technique, assess the terrain ahead for safety, assuring it is clear of obstructions. Then lean back with your weight on your heels, pull up slightly on your toes, and move down quickly and with long strides. Snow flies and an innate surge of inner energy will take you by surprise, often resulting in you yelling or screaming “Yahoo!!” or “Yeeeeha!!”
Read More: Ask the Coach: Tips for Running Downhill
Try out the basics in your backyard and practice them. Since I just touched the tip of the iceberg by introducing basic snowshoeing techniques, I recommend you read more about techniques from other authors. Also, consider taking an introductory snowshoe class from a nature center or community recreation program before heading out on your snowshoes.
Once you have the basics, take a hike. I recommend not going too far if you are a beginner. Know your limits and start with a short walk on a familiar trail, possibly a mile or two. Be prepared; dress in layers with appropriate wicking, breathable, and water-resistant clothing, and bring along a small pack with your day trip accessories.
For the intermediate snowshoer, go ahead and push your limits by going a little further and try climbing some challenging hills in the area. Although the learning curve is short, fun from snowshoeing can last a long time, even a lifetime.
Additional Reading Materials
- Basic Essentials, Snowshoeing by Phil Savignano, Globe Pequot Press, 2000.
- Basic Illustrated, Snowshoeing by Eli Burakian, Morris Book Publishing, 2012
- Snowshoeing by Sally Edwards and Melissa McKenzie, Human Kinetics Publisher, 1995.
- Snowshoeing by Steven Griffin, Stackpole Books, 1998.
- A Trailside Guide, Snowshoeing by Larry Olmsted, WW Norton & Company, 1998.
- Snowshoeing, From Novice to Master by Gene Prater and Editor Dave Felkley, Mountaineers Books, 2012
- The Essential Snowshoer, A Step by Step Guide by Marianne Zwosta, McGraw-Hill, 1997.
- The Snowshoe Experience by Claire Walter, Storey Publishing, 2004
- The Snowshoe Handbook by Len McDougall, Buford Books, 2000.
What are your tips for practicing snowshoe techniques? Have you used those above? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
This article was first published in our PDF magazine in 2007. It was then transcribed for Snowshoe Magazine online on September 7, 2018, and most recently updated on January 17, 2023.
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