It's been over 25 years since my first time on snowshoes, but I remember the experience
just like it was yesterday. I'd long been intrigued by the idea of
exploring the winter woods
on snowshoes, but it wasn't until after I moved to the Adirondacks that my dream was
realized. As the seasons changed from green to gold
and then to gray, I spent my spare
time selecting a 'snowshoe' tree and carefully crafting my first pair of snowshoes. Finally,
as a soft blanket of white
covered the ground, I was all set for a new winter adventure.
Any fears I had that I might not enjoy walking on my new 'shoes' disappeared as soon
as I took my first few steps. Even though my snowshoes were much larger
I now recommend, I still found it much easier to walk on the snowshoes than I'd imagined!
Each step was a sheer delight as I gently sank several inches
into the deep snow and walked
across the snow instead of through it.
The day was full of wonderment. The air was brisk and invigorating and the sky was an
almost electric blue color. The low slanting rays of the winter sun
sharply outlined each
twig on the trees and silhouetted the snow dusted branches over the shadows of the
I found a new freedom that day as I wandered the woods on snowshoes. It's a freedom
that over the years has led me to explore many different places in
various weather conditions
all across the country. While I still enjoy making my own trail and wandering through
the woods, some of my best memories have come
from climbing the wild, rugged summits
in the Adirondacks on snowshoes.
Each winter I lead snowshoeing workshops for ADK at the Loj near Lake Placid, the AMC
at Pinkham Notch, and the Alpine Mountaineering Festival in Keene
Valley, in the Adirondacks.
It's always a high point each winter to see folks coming back from an afternoon of wild
snowshoeing bubbling with childlike
Although snowshoes have been used for at least the past 6000 years in most all snow
regions of the world, they were most widely used by the North American
each tribe would often develop a snowshoe design that best fitted the topography and
snow conditions in their locale, snowshoes were made in many
shapes and sizes.
All snowshoes are made in two distinctly different styles: bearpaw styles with a curved
heel; and teardrop styles with a tail. Traditionally the
bearpaws were rather wide and
somewhat cumbersome for a neophyte to use, while the the teardrop styles were somewhat
easier to walk on. The shorter and wider
diamond shaped shoes like the 13" x 48" Maine
or Michigan styles and the longer, narrower 10" x 60" Alaskans were the most common
More contemporary wood frame snowshoe designs are the Cross Country, Westover,
and Green Mt.. Bearpaw styles. All three feature design improvements
and are easier
to use than the older styles. The Cross Country style kept the narrow width of the Alaskan,
but was more maneuverable because of its shorter
46" length. The Westover (modified
bearpaw) style was a compromise between the Maine and Bearpaw styles. They're essentially
a traditional bearpaw with
a short stubby tail, and wider than what I recommend, but they've
been popular with many sportsmen and outdoorspeople.
Today's high-tech snowshoeing revolution began with the introduction of the Green
Mt.. Bearpaw by the Vermont Tubbs Snowshoe Co. in the 1950's. By
the narrow width of the Cross Country design for ease of walking, with the shorter length
and maneuverability of the bearpaw style, they
created a design that became one of the
most popular styles of wood frame snowshoes available.
About the same time, Gene and Bill Prater began working with snowshoe design in the
Cascades of Washington state. They began experimenting with
aluminum tubing for
the smaller, streamlined bearpaw frames, and used a neoprene/nylon decking in place
of lacing. A secure binding design was attached to a
metal hinge rod which provided
excellent control of the snowshoe. Cleats were attached to the bottom of the bindings
for climbing traction on icy crust and
consolidated snow conditions. These small, modern,
oval shaped hybrids, called 'Western' style snowshoes, eventually were manufactured
by the Sherpa Snowshoe
Company and by the mid-1980's became some of the most popular
snowshoes in the mountains.
Today there are over 20 manufacturers worldwide of modern high-tech snowshoes.
In addition to the aluminum frame snowshoes, there are also snowshoes
cold and impact resistant plastics. Snowshoe shapes may be symmetrical or asymmetrical,
and diamond, oval or hourglass in shape. An oval shape
has the most surface area when
compared with overall dimensions, while a diamond shaped snowshoe is somewhat
easier to walk on since there is less chance of
hitting one shoe with the other when walking.
Snowshoe bindings may be attached to the snowshoe with either a fixed rotation (spring-like)
hinge, or a free rotation hinge. The fixed rotation hinge
design has become quite popular
and is perhaps the easiest for beginners to use. However, the free rotation hinge design
allows for a more traditional
snowshoe hinging and permits the full use of all the various
snowshoeing techniques. It's the recommended hinge design for snowshoe mountaineering.
All of today's state-of-the-art snowshoes feature snowshoe crampons for traction.
Most use a heel crampon under the foot, plus a binding crampon for
traction as you take
a step. Binding crampons which angle forward provide a better 'bite' when climbing.
Crampons placed directly under the foot are more
effective than those placed along
the frames at the sides.
Snowshoe traction is related more to crampon design and placement than it is to length,
so longer is not necessarily better for all snowshoeing
conditions. Remember, snowshoe
crampons are designed to enhance snowshoeing, they are not meant to be replacements
for mountaineering crampons.
Even with all of the choices available in snowshoes today, a good snowshoe binding
is still the most important feature since it's the only controlling
link between your foot
and the snowshoe. For the traditional snowshoe, a simple 'A' style binding with a heel
strap and a large toe-cup, or a modified 'H' (or
Howe) style binding with a heel strap, arch
strap, and a small toe cup, work well for providing control.
For the high-tech shoes of today though, there are almost as many different bindings
as there are snowshoes. A good binding should be easy to use, and
should stay properly
adjusted until you take it off. It should hold your foot comfortably, but securely, so there
isn't any slipping around in the binding and
you have complete control over the snowshoe.
Bindings may be a flexible design of 'straps and flaps'; a semi-rigid design with some
molded or contoured components; or a rigid binding of either a
step-in design, or a completely
molded footbed. What binding design you choose is determined partly by what type
of snowshoeing you want to do.
To make it easier to choose from all the different snowshoe designs and components
available today, snowshoeing has been broken down into three basic
/ Fitness, Recreational, and Mountaineering. The Aerobic / Fitness snowshoes are
designed specifically for running and exercise, and are
not recommended for trail use
or the backcountry.
Recreational snowshoes are designed with features that are most appropriate for moderate
length snowshoe walks of up to 3 - 5 miles over gentle to
moderately steep terrain. They
are fine for broken out or groomed trails and some off-trail use.
Mountaineering snowshoes are designed for all the rigors long distance travel, steep
snow climbing, and extended off-trail use. While snowshoes
today range in price from
about $100 to $300., typically the more expensive ones will have the best features for
the more technical uses.
When selecting a pair of snowshoes, it's best to choose the smallest pair that will work
for the majority of your snowshoeing. A rule of thumb I suggest
for selecting snowshoes
is to allow up to one pound of body weight per square inch of surface area per snowshoe.
Simply, if you weigh up to 170 pounds, then
select a pair of snowshoes that has about
170 sq. in. of surface area per snowshoe.
This formula works well for most trail hiking and climbing. For snowshoeing in fresh
snow off the trail, I suggest adding your pack weight to your body
weight when choosing
a snowshoe size. If most of your time will be spent in deep powdery snow, an even larger
shoe may be helpful.
Most 8" x 25" snowshoes have about 160 - 170 sq. in., 9" x 30" snowshoes about 220 sq.
in., and a 10" x 36" style about 270 sq. in. Before making a final choice
in snowshoes though,
it's always best to try 'em before you buy 'em and rent or borrow some different styles
and experiment with them in a variety of snow
The act of snowshoeing is harder to describe than it is to just go out and do! Simply, snowshoeing
is walking on the snow. Place one snowshoe to the front
and side of the other (not on top
of the other!) and you're snowshoeing! There is no sliding around on the level with snowshoes
so it's much easier to learn
than cross-country skiing. A ski pole (an adjustable one is
preferable) can be helpful for extra stability on your first steps, and later on for climbing,
too. A slight rolling motion develops as you step in the fresh snow with first one snowshoe,
and then the other.
Today's smaller shoes are especially easy to use, and with snowshoe crampons, climbing
moderate to steep slopes of packed snow is fairly simple. Step
as hard as needed to get
a bite on the snow or crust and feel the crampon grip before taking the next step. In loose
or fresh snow, or with traditional
snowshoes without crampons, the procedure just
gets more interesting!
Climbing techniques for snowshoes are similar to cross country ski techniques, only
a lot easier with the relatively shorter snowshoes. The
herringbone step, where the toes
are angled out and the heels angled in works well on short steep slopes. Lean the snowshoe
toward the slope when taking a step to
create as level a platform as possible. The more
level the snowshoe is, the less chance there is of breaking the snow platform and sliding
Another climbing method is to traverse - or 'tack' up a slope, walking some distance back
and forth from side to side up a slope. Edge the snowshoe in
toward the slope to make
a stable platform in the snow. For best stability, keep your weight on the inside edge of
It's OK to kick
If the snow is just right it's both challenging and rewarding to kick-in steps up a steep
slope. By lifting and kicking the snowshoes into packed and
drifted snow conditions
with a motion that's similar to pedaling a bicycle, it's possible to kick-in a staircase of steps.
When the rocks and boulders on the
mountain trails are smoothed over with a mantle
of white, this is a great way to climb.
With the right snow conditions, try 'x-c skiing' down a slope sliding on one foot, and then
the other. When it's steep enough, try glissading by standing
and sliding on the snowshoes.
If it's too steep to stand, just sit down on the tails of the snowshoes and go for it!
To cross over a rock or a log in the woods, either sidestep over it, or step directly on it with
snowshoe frame and the center of your foot. It's important
for your own safety and the
snowshoe's, not to bridge the snowshoe by placing the snowshoe toe on the obstacle
and the heel on the ground with your weight in
As with anything new and different, it's wise to try these steps out in moderate conditions
where a mistake won't mean a mishap... After becoming
familiar with the techniques,
you'll find that combinations of one or more of them work well in many situations.
Layers for Warmth and Versatility
Dressing for snowshoeing is similar to that for other outdoor winter activities. Avoid
any cotton. Wear layers of polypropylene, pile or wool under an
outer shell for protection
from the wind and snow. A balaclava or hat and scarf works well for protecting the face
and head, and pile mittens and shells keep the
hands warm and toasty! Knee high gaiters
are essential for protecting the lower legs from kicked up snow - knickers are better for
use on the ski trails.
As important as it is not to underdress for the weather, it's also important not to overdress.
Learn to listen to your body and anticipate your needs.
Shed a layer BEFORE you start
to overheat, and add a layer BEFORE you start to chill. And, always carry an extra layer
of dry clothes and socks in your pack. Even
if you won't need them, someone else might...
For just going snowshoeing out in the park for the afternoon, most anything you normally
wear to keep your feet warm will work okay in the snowshoe
bindings. If heading out
for a day or longer in the woods or the mountains, it's wise to invest in some substantial
Insulated felt pack boots are economical and comfortable. If the liners get wet, however,
either by perspiration or an accidental dunking in a stream,
the boots can cause frostbite
and freezing instead of preventing it. So, it's important to carry along extra liners and
socks when using felt packs. Boots
that tie are best since they will hold the foot more
By investing in some good quality high top cross country ski boots, it's easy to combine
the two sports in one outing for some 'ski-shoeing'! Use the skis
for traveling the more
level valleys to your favorite climb, and then trade for the snowshoes for climbing.
The new high-tech winter plastic boots are warm, durable, and comfortable. They feature
a removable inner boot that works as a camp shoe and can be dried
fairly easily. A plastic
boot designed for winter hiking will be much more comfortable on the trail than one for
With the current rising popularity in snowshoeing, there are also a number of companies
producing winter hiking boots. Many of these are designed with
the recreational snowshoer
in mind, so if you're heading into the mountains for some rigorous climbing in subzero
temperatures, be sure that the footwear
you have is appropriate for the use.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
When heading out in winter, it's important to have appropriate emergency gear. Drink
plenty of liquids and carry a reserve of high energy food.
While hypothermia is a year round problem, in winter it is especially important to be aware
of symptoms in yourself and others! Frostbite is a problem
directly related to the sub-freezing
temperatures of winter. Both of these hazards can be avoided with enough knowledge
about the causes and remedies and
paying attention to the precautions. Being aware
of the early symptoms helps avoid potentially serious problems.
Hiking in minimum size groups of four or more helps provide a margin of safety in case
there is an accident. It also helps spread around the load of the
extra equipment recommended
for a day of hiking in the mountains.
All you really need to do to enjoy snowshoeing is just go out and try it.
Whether you like to explore the mountains and run marathons, or prefer a quiet walk to
observe the beauties of nature, try using some snowshoes...
Winter is harsh but soft; cold but inviting. Once you've been smitten by the lure of the
snowshoe trail, life takes on new meaning and each coming of
winter becomes a time
For More Information
The sport of snowshoeing and related activities is covered in much more detail in books like Gene Prater's Snowshoeing, Larry Olmsted's Snowshoeing: A Trailside Guide, John Dunn's Winterwise, and Steve Gorman's Guide to Winter Camping. There are also several new snowshoeing guides available, so there's lots of information available out there. There's also a magazine devoted to snowshoeing now, www.snowshoemag.com