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A Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing

When winter arrives and we start to get snow, I like to get outdoors and go snowshoeing on the local trails near my house. In just a few hours, I can get a great workout and enjoy the solitude of the winter woods.

If you’ve never been snowshoeing, I suggest you give it a try. It’s considerably more strenuous than hiking, so you should start out slowly on easy, level trails and build up your endurance over time. Buying a pair of snowshoes and poles can be a bit pricey, so it’s best to rent the gear you need at an REI or ski area that has groomed trails until you are certain you want to invest in snowshoes for the long-term.

You don’t really need any special clothing to go snowshoeing except for a pair of waterproof boots and leather hiking boots are fine as long as you can wear wool socks in them to keep your feet warm. High gaiters can also be helpful for keeping snow from getting into your boots and keeping your socks dry. Other than that, you can get by with wearing a wicking layer under your normal rain pants and shell, light gloves, and a winter hat. Your body will generate plenty of heat while snowshoeing and you’ll stay warm as long as you are moving.

Atlas Snowshoe Binding

Most modern snowshoes have straps or a simple step-in binding system that keep your boots securely fastened to them. The binding is fastened to lightweight plastic decking attached to the tubular snowshoe frame. This plastic decking floats on top of snow when you walk and prevents you from postholing in deep snow. If you’ve ever stepped into a snow drift or deep snow that comes up the top of your leg or waist, that’s what postholing is. It can be quite exhausting if you have to walk any distance this way.

Once you’ve put on your snowshoes and you have a pair of poles with snow baskets, you should pick an easy trail to snowshoe on. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to have a more experienced snowshoer walk in front of you to break trail if it hasn’t been packed down already by other snowshoers or cross-country skiers Snowshoeing on fresh powder is fun, but requires more energy.

Initially, walking in snowshoes will feel a lot like walking on sand at the beach, since the snow gives a little underneath you and you need to raise your legs a little higher when you walk. You’ll also need to widen and lengthen your stride to keep the snowshoes from hitting each other. Use your hiking poles to maintain balance and try to maintain an easy pace. If you start to heat up too much and sweat, just slow down your pace. Practice this walking motion on level terrain until you get the hang of it.

Next, you’ll want to get used to walking uphill and downhill in snowshoes, and over rocks and uneven terrain. Many snowshoes have metal teeth called crampons on their bottoms that dig into snow or ice and give you better purchase when going uphill and downhill. When snowshoeing uphill, you want to press down on the front of your boots and snowshoes to help the crampons under your toes grip the snow ahead of you. When you do this, the back of your snowshoes may be suspended in air. Bend your knees and take smaller strides to walk up the hill.

When going downhill, you’ll want to lean slightly back on your snowshoes and gradually slide down the hill while maintaining control of your descent. Again, bend your knees and take short steps. You’ll feel the snow give way underneath you. If you start to descend to quickly, just fall on your butt to stop yourself from sliding.

Walking on uneven ground and over rocks and other obstacles is a little trickier and you’ll want to use your poles for this to maintain your balance. Remember that you can’t walk backwards easily on snowshoes and that the surface area of your foot is considerably longer and wider than normal.

To get over an obstacle like a log, you can walk around it or step sideways over it. Stepping over rocks takes a bit more practice, but keep in mind that snow cushions rocks and that snowshoes spread your weight over a larger surface area. This can actually increase your stability if you’re walking across many smaller rocks because the snowshoe will span the gaps between them and the snow will cushion them.

 Altas Recreational Snowshoes

If you’re at the stage where you’ve been snowshoeing a few times and feel you ready to buy a pair snowshoes, the most important factor in determining your selection will be the your combined body weight + the weight of your gear. This determines the amount of surface area and the size of the snowshoes that you need to float on top of snow, and should narrow your selection immediately.

If you are already a serious hiker, I suggest you go and try on snowshoes manufactured by Atlas and MSR at an REI or another outfitter before you make a purchase. These companies have a nice selection of products that are more robust for heavier duty use and will take a lot of abuse. If your intended uses are more recreational, you might want to look at snowshoes from Tubbs, which are also well made, but less expensive.

Additional Resources

Snowshoeing Basics from REI

Snowshoes: How to Choose

Written 2009. Updated 2014.

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  1. I LOVE (smooch, smooch) my new MSR Denali snowshoes … or maybe I just love snowshoeing. It's so cool to get out there in the fresh snow, with only critter tracks around. And it definitely is a workout, even on level ground. I read somewhere you can burn, on average, 600 calories per hour 'shoeing.

    Many of us in Search & Rescue use the two brands you've mentioned. And the crampons are a must. Most of us also have snowshoe "tails," mine being the 8" MSR tails. When the snow is real deep and soft and I'm carrying my SAR pack, the extra length definitely helps with flotation.

  2. I'm resisting the urge to replace my existing Atlas 830's even though it looks like the new MSR's are significantly lighter. Do you know how much your Denali's weigh including the tails? How much of a load are they rated for in lbs? For example, I'd need a snowshoe that can float with a 200-235lb load.

  3. I'm a big fan of the MSR Lightning Ascents. I bought the women's version (in manly red, though :) – they are rated to the same load, but are lighter and a little slimmer, and I've never had a problem with them.

    The other things to consider when buying snowshoes are a) the terrain and b) the conditions in which you anticipate using them. If you are going to be on the flat, then don't bother with the heel-lifter versions, and vice versa if you foresee a lot of slope climbing. If soft powder is going to going to be your destination, then tube-style (like the Atlas) with a heavily raked front will be better, but for more consolidated snow with icy sections, the flatter MSRs with toothed rails are recommended.

  4. I wear MSR Denali EVOs that have televators (for going uphills easier). I also use 8" tails as well.

    Now having said that there are a couple tools everyone should have:

    Trekking poles with snow baskets. Just makes walking easier and getting up from falls a lot faster. Better workout as well.

    An insulated sit pad for break time.

    A hot meal for lunch does wonders along with hot tea or cocoa.

    Last, but not least:

    Everyone in the group should have a snow shovel and know how to use it. I know not everywhere has avy danger but if you go in the mts, learn to read snow, and most of all, check the avy danger before heading out. If you can afford it, an avy beacon per person is a good investment. It is a vital investment in many cases!

  5. Great point Sarah. And it's also worth pointing out that most avalanches are caused by people. At least, here in the whites.

  6. The Snow Claw is a great piece of multi-functional kit. I've tested it on avalanche debris and found it shifted more snow with less effort than with a regular shovel, and for a fraction of the weight. And it's also damn good fun to slide down slopes on :-)

  7. Hey Earlylite,

    Get a pair of MSR Lightning Ascent 30" shoes. I've used them for two years now, from Utah to Denali expeditions. They rock. Way better sidehill and steep slope traction than any other shoe I've used, and lighter too. Should have decent flotation for your total payload.

    Avoid snowshoes where the tails flip up in an elastic return. They'll just soak your back, so you need to wear shell gear all the time when moving hard.

    If you're on crusty snow and rocks, you might eventually break a Lightning Ascent crampon claw, (I've never come close, but some people have.) However, MSR's guarantee and service is great.

    Those shoes rock.

  8. I'm a fan of GVs. I was thiiiis close to buying MSR lighting ascent for women but went for the GV Active Mountain instead. I haven't been disappointed. I'm a pretty intense summer hiker, peak bagging, long distance trekking, intense backcountry trips, etc. I haven't bagged any peaks in them or anything, mind you, but I don't have a single complaint yet.

  9. Phil,

    Have you seen the new TUBBS Flex ALP series? They look like they could handle a 4K hike.

    I have YUKON CHARLIES that were a good entry level snowshoe. They excel in the woods around the Quabbin Reservoir and the modest elevations of Mt Wachusetts.


  10. Those new Tubbs look nice. I think they won an outdoor industry gear award this year.

    I have an old pair of Altas 800 series of snow shoes that I hiked in for years and they were perfectly adequate for day trips, although they'd be considered huge now. The problem is that they weigh over 5 lbs. The ones you've listed here weigh over 4 lbs, which is a pain if you have to carry them overnight. That's why I bought northern lites last year (43 oz a pair). They are so light, you barely know that you're carrying them. See http://sectionhiker.com/2009/03/08/ultralight-sno… for the review.

  11. Thanks for the tips. We are planning our first show shoeing trip! I have always wanted to try it—I can't wait now!

  12. Great post. I snowshoed once two years ago with a friend at an Audubon property in our area, but I would like to start doing a little more of it. I thought about buying some, but renting or borrowing for now might be best until I'm a little more experienced.

    (and by the way, would love to check out the Middlesex Fells sometime, keep telling myself I should but never have! I'm up on the north shore.)

  13. I saw the previous comment by “Liz” and thought, Did I comment on this post before? Nope, different Liz. :-)

    Anyway, thanks for the tips, Philip. I just bought a pair of Lightning Ascents last week (traded in my old Tubbs that had crappy bindings) and am looking forward to getting to use them for more than the half-mile I did last weekend to make sure they’re okay. Heading to the Whites this weekend, but with temps forecast in the 40s and 50s, not sure how much I’ll need them.

    I just thought you’d like to know that I bought the Lightning Ascents after reading your snowshoe reviews and deciding that they really were the kind of ‘shoes I was looking for. Thanks for all your reviews!

  14. Good article. I have a counterpoint to one thing. When going downhill, leaning back on the snowshoe releases weight on the crampons, shifts weight to the slick surface of the deck and increases your chance of slipping considerably. Instead, bend your knees and point your toes toward the downhill slope. This allows the crampons to grip and you will be least likely to slip.

  15. One thing that cracks me up is people wearing snowshoes to hike through 5 inches of powder. Two weeks ago, with the first little dusting that we got down here in northern NJ, I was happily hiking in boots and microspikes, while everyone I met on the trail was on bigfoot paws and most precariously balanced around the rock and ice outcrops. I have been snowshoeing quite a bit back home in Switzerland in the days, and I like the your beginner intro above, but I’d say for dwellers of less beautiful states than NH and Switzerland :), the tips above probably should include the advice: “If you are not postholing calf-deep or more, you are better off just wearing boots and spikes”.

  16. The Tubbs Flex Alp snowshoes can easily handle any hike in the White Mountains. I have done many winter ascents wearing my Flex Alp snowshoes. I recommend you build a repair kit for whatever snowshoes you own. I built a repair kit which allows me to make fast, easy and permanent repairs to the rivets of my Flex Alp shoes. The last thing I want to do is have to bail out because I am unable to make a field repair.

  17. Thanks for this post! I’ve had a pair of MSR Lightning snowshoes for several years, now, and would definitely echo your recommendation.

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