Hard-won Tips for Stress-free Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is probably one of the quickest, easiest winter sports to start. You can begin using your shoes right out of the box—no learning curve at all. There are some things that I have learned in more than 40 years of shoeing that might help you:

Clothing
For me the most important items are boots and bonnets. Cold feet and cold heads make for a miserable time. For boots, I like the flexibility of leather or leather/synthetic ankle-high winter hiking boots over pac-style. Today, choices are waterproof and insulated. If you get waterproof boots, make sure they have a breathable layer and an impervious layer. You want the moisture that your feet produce—and they produce a lot of sweat—to escape. If it doesn’t, that moisture will soon freeze and then you have a real problem. I start with a polypropylene sock liner to wick moisture away, and over these use a wool blend, either medium or heavy weight depending on the temperature. For a hat, I use a knit style with a bill. I like the warmth and softness of the knit and the bill protects my eyes from the sun.

For clothing, I like many thin layers. Several thin layers can be more easily adjust to conditions, and produces heat better than one or two heavy layers. My bottom half is a poly liner, next, medium or heavy long underwear, and outer, pants of snow-proof breathable fabric. I use the same pair of breathable rain pants that I use for hunting. They have a soft quiet outer layer that cuts down on the noise. Garters keep snow from creeping up your legs too. My upper body has a poly liner and two fleece jackets—one light, one medium—that I can easily zip into or out of an insulated vest. If I overheat, I can quickly and easily take off either. For my hands, I use a thin base layer of fingerless gloves and a pair of waterproof pop-top mittens. I use a balaclava for my face and neck. Practice with your clothing just like with your snowshoes by doing some practice runs in the local park or golf course before you venture out and find out you have the wrong clothing. Too much or too little can both lead to discomfort.

Equipment
The size of snowshoes you need are based on your weight: the heavier the load, the bigger the deck. A good supplier will have a chart that will show you the size based on your weight. Buy one size bigger than you need. Since the floating action of snowshoes is highly dependent on the quality of snow, you can always use a bigger shoe on firmer snow or with a smaller load, but you can’t use a smaller shoe with a larger load or softer snow.

Poles help you from falling and are even more helpful in getting up. Use them to probe for hidden problems if you think the snow is hiding something, such as an air pocket, log, rock branches, etc., all of which can trip you. If you don’t already have any, purchase a set that have removable powder baskets and a tip protector so they can also serve as hiking poles in other seasons.

Bring some sort of a pack for carrying these items and clothes as you layer down and up:

  • Water bottles. You need to stay hydrated, as you lose as much or more water in the winter than in the summer.

Ÿ • Gorp, energy bars, and other high-energy food.

Ÿ • Repair/emergency kit, duck tape, several zip-ties, large safety pins, matches/lighter, some sort of fire starters (Coghlan’s Camp Heat and/or Fire Paste are my choices), metal cup, emergency blanket, loud whistle, small flashlight, knife, parachute cord.

Ÿ • Small pair of binoculars.

Ÿ • Sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm. There is a lot of UV reflected by the snow, so protect your eyes and face.

Ÿ • Compass. Every electronic device has GPS, but batteries discharge and the cold can do strange things to electronics. Earth’s

magnetic field never fails and neither will a compass.

Other tips and suggestions
To quote Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Wintertime is not when you want to overstretch your abilities. Climb a lot of hills before you take on a mountain.

Leave a note at your car or home as to where you are and when you expect to return. Cellphones are wonderful for taking pics and getting found.

Short steps keep more of the deck on the snow, and hence you sink less. Keep your weight over the center of the shoes. While going uphill and downhill, take small steps and let the crampons dig in. Plant your pole downhill before you take a step. Just as with hiking, keep your knees bent so that your muscles take the shock not your knees. Snow is soft until you step on a hidden rock or trunk or hole. On steep slopes, a sidestep motion is safest using the following steps: Check the entire slope and then plan your route; face parallel to the slope; plant your pole downhill; take a short sidestep with your downhill foot; bring your uphill foot alongside the leading foot; and finally, repeat the process.

Ion skies have bindings and edges used to turn and/or slow down. This generally doesn’t work with snowshoes. Any traction comes from the crampons and/or lacings, so you want as much surface as you can to change speed and direction.

Be mindful of what’s under the snow. If it has been a winter with lots of snow, tree branches, barbwire, and shrubs can create air pockets, which can collapse and getting entangled can become a problem. Go around these if you can; use your pole to probe for dangers if you can.

Springs can be hazardous since the ice will be thin. My cousin discovered a new spring on his marsh when he stepped through what looked like smooth, solid snow.

Use a map to plan your general route. I usually make a big circle, so I may have trouble if I follow my tracks to get back. Also, high winds and snow can cover up tracks. Don’t get “lost” in your feet. Make sure you look around—after all, you are there to see things. You want to plan your route to avoid obvious obstructions. Look back to get a visualization of what your return route looks like. Don’t assume you’ll be able to follow your tracks. Wind and snow can make tracks disappear.

Stay off the groomed trails of cross-country skiers. If you are on a trail, good etiquette calls for giving them the right-of-way.

Learn to recognize the beginnings of frostbite: numbness in fingers and toes and pale skin color. If you see signs, go home. Place your arms under your armpit, and then after, cup your nose with your hands and breath into the space created. Toes and feet are hard to detect and to warm, but if your hands are affected then your feet may be as well.

Hypothermia is a bigger problem. Signs are shivering, very cold feeling of your extremities and mental confusion (even to the point of taking off clothes). Take action by giving warm liquids to the person, wrapping them in an emergency blanket and warming them either with your body or a fire.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that snowshoes allow you to “float” on top of snow. In fresh snow you will sink, just not as much as without snowshoes. Shorten your stride and lift your knees. Switch trail breakers often, as deep snow can be tiring.

The easiest way to turn around is to walk in a circle, but sometimes that is not possible. Also, it can be very difficult to lift the heel of your shoe, as you might with a downhill ski. Think of the heels of your shoes as pivot points on the hands of a clock. Slowly using small steps, pivot the leading foot in the direction you want to go about 6 or 8 inches, and then bring up the trailing shoe. Repeat until you are facing in the direction you want to go.

If you need to take a break use your shoes to stomp out a flat-packed area for standing or sitting without your shoes on. I carry a 6 x 6 piece of cedar wood as a flat surface for my stove. All of these techniques depend greatly on the quality of snow. The harder the snow, the more likely you can walk normally using a snowshoe.

These are certainly not all the tricks and techniques. And the easiest way to learn is to go do it.