What Color is that Snow?
If You Can Walk...
You Can Snowshoe
Winter Family Fun
My First Snowshoes
by Carl Heilman II
Walking in the snow on snowshoes is one of the most enjoyable and relaxing things
I've done. It's hard to explain to someone how something so simple can be
until they've tried snowshoeing themselves. Each time I put on my snowshoes and walk
in an enchanted woods that's draped with a fresh mantle
of snow, I still feel the same magic
I felt the first time I put on a pair of snowshoes and headed off across the snow.
Snowshoes have been in use for as long as 6000 years and they're one of the earliest forms
of transportation. Over the centuries, many different sizes
and styles of snowshoes
were designed for all the various types of snow conditions and topography. Since snowshoes
were used more for utility and
survival, they were designed for weight carrying capacity,
and tended to be a good bit larger than what we're using today. While the traditional styles
through much of this century were the result of centuries of evolution, the past
10 years of snowshoe evolution has seemed to be almost more of a revolution.
When I started snowshoeing in the early 1970's, there were just a few choices in design,
and only a couple of choices for lacing material.
Neoprene/nylon had become a common
substitute for the traditional rawhide lacing, but the frames were all crafted from steam
bent wood. Snowshoe bindings were little
more than a few straps attached to the toe
cord, and snowshoe traction came from the grip of the lacing pattern in the snow.
Since practically all of the snowshoe styles were about twice the size of those recommended
today, I handcrafted a pair of 13" by 48" snowshoes for my 150
pound body and then
headed out to conquer the Adirondack High Peaks. I snowshoed up a lot of mountains
on those first, large snowshoes, and began to learn
firsthand about the performance
tradeoffs of size vs. light weight and maneuverability.
Today's snowshoes and bindings are MUCH easier to use than the comparatively large,
wide snowshoes of the past. Modern materials and designs cut down
on weight and
provide maximum traction and control. Snowshoeing today is about as simple as it gets!
Choosing snowshoes though, has seemed to become more difficult. Snowshoes are
now available in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. In addition
to a few traditionally
laced wood frame snowshoes, there are aluminum or synthetic frames, various decking
materials, and a multitude of binding
designs. Even the crampons for traction on the
bottom of the snowshoes vary considerably in shape, size and configuration. As the
variations in designs have
become more plentiful, choosing a pair of snowshoes has
become more complicated. Snowshoeing articles and evaluations, as well as advertising
from different manufacturers, often offer conflicting suggestions, and it's
tough to make choices based on inconsistent recommendations.
During the past two decades of designing and handcrafting snowshoes, and leading
snowshoeing workshops, I've used many different snowshoes on quite
and snow conditions. Since the only consistent thing about snow conditions in the
northeastern US is it's inconsistency, I've had a chance to
snowshoe here in snow conditions
ranging from an unyielding crust, to densely drifted snow, and even deep, fluffy powder.
While there are definite differences
in approach and terrain when snowshoeing the
west in places like the Sierras and the Wasatch Range, I found that snowshoe performance
in different snow
conditions in the west was the same as snowshoe performance in similar
snow conditions in the east.
When trying to choose snowshoes for different conditions, one thing to remember
is that ALL properly designed snowshoes work - it's just that some will
work better in
certain conditions than others. If you were to take all of the different snowshoes made
today and in the past, and start to categorize them
according to various design features,
you'd soon start to see many similarities. Since each of these features will perform a certain
way in certain snow
conditions, it's possible to decide on the type of snowshoeing you
want to do, and then choose snowshoes according to the desired design features.
Snowshoeing can be broken down into three basic types of activity: Recreational, Mountaineering,
and Aerobic / Fitness snowshoeing. The
accompanying chart describes what activities
best fit into each of these categories, as well as suggested snowshoe design features
that are most appropriate for
each. In addition, I've broken down the design features
into their separate characteristics and described how each component affects snowshoe
The level of Snowshoe Performance is related to both the Design Features of a snowshoe,
and the amount of Control a person has over a snowshoe. These two
everything about the snowshoe, from it's overall shape and balance, to the traction design,
binding design, and how the bindings are attached to
the snowshoe. A well designed
snowshoe should feel like an extension of the body, rather than an extra appendage.
Some components are more important than others. For example, I feel the Binding is the
most important element of the snowshoe. A binding that's easy to
use, and holds the
foot on the snowshoe comfortably and securely with the least amount of slippage or
lateral movement, will be the most enjoyable to use.
Even a poor snowshoe design can
be relatively easy to use with a good snowshoe binding.
The second most important feature is the overall Frame Geometry. Frame geometry determines
how evenly a snowshoe sinks in the snow, and how easy it is to
place one snowshoe
in relation to the other when walking, running, and climbing. It also affects how easy
it is to snowshoe in different conditions, and how
well the shoes work with different snowshoeing
From there the features break down into Traction, and Hinge design. The length, style,
and placement of the snowshoe crampons determines the amount of
traction for walking
and climbing on consolidated snow and crust. Hinge design affects how the snowshoe
moves with each step, and how easy it is to use different
snowshoeing techniques, particularly
some of those used in more extreme mountaineering conditions.
Each of these design features affects any snowshoe in a similar way. It doesn't matter
if the snowshoe is a bearpaw style with a curved heel, or a teardrop
style with a tail, or one
of the several variations of each - all snowshoes with similarities in overall frame geometry
and size, will perform the same way in
similar snowshoeing conditions.
So... what snowshoe is best for YOU? The best way to find out is to choose several snowshoes
with design features that are most important to you, and try
'em before you buy 'em in
some different snow and snowshoeing conditions that are like those you'll be in most
often. Then ask yourself some questions...
Are they easy to use? Are the bindings simple
and secure, and are the snowshoes comfortable and easy to walk on? Are they maneuverable
and functional for
what you'll be doing? If you'll be climbing a lot, at least try them out
on some plowed up snow piles - or better yet - out on a mountain! Will they be versatile
enough for the different types of snowshoeing you want to do? While most designs
can be used for a variety of snowshoeing activities, some are more specific and
perform well on a groomed or packed surface.
Once the decision is made on a style of snowshoe, the big choice left is ... what size? Most
size recommendations for snowshoes today are pretty similar.
However, one thing
to consider is that there may some difference in the amount of surface area between a
teardrop snowshoe and a bearpaw snowshoe that has the same
For that reason, I prefer to choose snowshoes according to the amount of surface area
of each snowshoe. Since few manufacturers list the
surface area though, the following
guidelines may be helpful.
For average snowshoeing where a high proportion of time is spent on a broken out or
groomed trail, and a smaller percentage is in the fresh snow, an 8" by
25" snowshoe with
about 170 sq. in. of surface area is fine for folks weighing up to 170 pounds, a 9" by 30"
snowshoe with at least 220 sq. in. to about 220
pounds, and a 10" by 36" with about 275
sq. in. to about 275 pounds. If you like to explore and most of your time is spent breaking
trail, then you'll want to add your
average pack weight to your body weight when choosing
a size. And, if most of your time is spent snowshoeing in light powder snow conditions,
you may also want to
step up a snowshoe size. For climbing and mountaineering conditions
a person may opt to stay with a smaller snowshoe because of the increased
and traction. Those are tradeoffs that are best decided after you've had some snowshoeing
experiences in the mountains with a winter pack on your back.
For the most enjoyable
snowshoeing experience overall, remember to choose the smallest pair of snowshoes
that accommodates the majority of your needs.
One of the best ways to compare different designs and sizes is to put one snowshoe on
one foot, and a different one on the other foot, so you can make more
of the two snowshoes in the same snow conditions. Then it's important to try the snowshoes
you've chosen as a pair to see how well they'll
work together. Borrow or rent some snowshoes
in addition to gathering advice from others, or attend a good snowshoeing clinic that
allows you to try out a
number of different snowshoes from different manufacturers.
A well selected pair of snowshoes should last a lifetime with normal use, so a careful choice
the beginning can help pay off years down the road.
I still feel that the biggest attraction of snowshoeing is it's simplicity. Snowshoeing
is the easiest way for folks of all ages to enjoy a winter
snowfall whether walking, running,
jumping, or climbing! Snowshoeing can be as easy or as rigorous as you like, and compared
to some other winter activities,
it's gentle on the body's muscles and joints. Snowshoes
are also fun to use on many different snow conditions. To get started in the sport, a good
workshop may be helpful, but lessons aren't necessarily needed... If you
can walk, then you can snowshoe!
Over the many years that I've been snowshoeing, I've found it's one of the best ways
for me to get out every winter to exercise and explore. Each time I go
out I find a sense of
peace and freedom in the woods that helps revive the spirit of youth that's inside each
of us... See you in the snow!