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Snowshoeing for Beginners Guide

Snowshoeing for Beginners Guide
Snowshoeing for Beginners Guide

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. Leather hiking boots can also be used for a few hours if they’ve been waterproofed. High gaiters or 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 rain jacket, 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.

Modern Snowshoes use a simple strap system for securing your boots to the snowshoes.
Modern Snowshoes use a simple strap system for securing your boots to the snowshoes.

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 that floats on top of snow when you walk and prevents you from sinking, called postholing, in deep snow. If you’ve ever stepped into a snow drift or a pile of snow along the road and sink in it 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, which is why people use snowshoes.

Once you’ve put on your snowshoes and you have a pair of trekking or ski 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 snow is fun, but requires a lot 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 traction 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.

Snowshoeing up the Polecat Trail
Snowshoeing up the Polecat Trail

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.

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 MSR at an REI or another outfitter before you make a purchase. I’ve been using them for years and they are bomber (with an excellent lifetime guarantee). If your intended uses are more recreational, check out snowshoes from Tubbs, which are also well made, but less expensive.

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  1. Nice article as usual. Althought it seems like you are propigating some common myths that we might be better off doing without.
    1) Raingear for snowshoeing? Realy? Unless it’s wet out, I would suggest more like typical winter runing or cycling cloths, similar to what one would wear for Nordic skiing.
    2) What I this user weight obsession with snowshoes? The manufacturers do it too. Terrain and type of snow are so, so much more important than user weight. Sure weight plays a big role on a give day on a given route, but, on average, people that travel on groomed or well used trals and/or travel on older, harder snow will do best with little short shoes regardless of their body weight. Conversely, people that do most of their snow shoeing in soft fresh powder will want the biggest shoes they can manage to manuver in, regardless of their body weight. So, I ask, how again is user weight the most important consideration?

  2. Great article! For snowshoe racing fans, the World Snowshoe Federation championship is being held in the U.S. this year, in Saranac Lake, NY, on February 24-26. Open registration on the website, anyone can participate. There are some other great snowshoe manufacturers out there as well. I have a pair of RedFeather Race 700s for running/racing that I love, super lightweight, strong, awesome bindings. I have a pair of Atlas snowshoes for powder and ungroomed tracks, really like those bindings as well. Got both off Craigslist/Ebay in brand new condition, literally unused, for about 25% of the cost of new, so check your listings to find bargains.

  3. Do you use your PacerPoles with baskets when snowshoeing? Do you keep the wrist straps on?

    • Yes. I take the straps off all poles. Easy way to break a wrist.

      • I learned about straps the hard way the first time I skied off trail through the trees in Colorado.

        In my part of Texas, showshoeing just isn’t an option, however, I have dear friends in Colorado that I owe a visit to so I’m interested in learning more.

        The baskets on my PacerPoles seem pretty small. Do you put larger ones on or are they adequate? Have you tried the PacerPole over mitt pogies? I have a pair and did a backpacking trip last year in 25ºF to 35ºF temps and never had to wear gloves. Those things were awesome.

        • The baskets are fine for snowshoeing. Never had any problems. The mitts are fantastic. Excellent for reducing glove use on long hikes, since you can wear much lighter weight gloves and your hands will stay toasty all day.

  4. What are “mitt pogies”?

  5. Interesting overview. A couple comments:

    1. Agree with Nelson about not using raingear for most snowshoeing; high probability of overheating and sweating. The sort of breathable and wind/water resistant materials used for XC clothes or even cycling clothes will end up being more comfortable.

    2. You’re right that a person needs to widen the stride to avoid stepping on one snowshoe with the other. However, it’s also important to not widen the stride more than necessary because hips start complaining about it. Most snowshoes (though not MSR so much) are widest right where the user’s ball of foot will rest, and narrow aft of that. This allows the snowshoes to nest with each other as you walk, easing the need for a wide stride.

    3. As noted, both all-up weight and terrain are important in determining snowshoe size. At app 240 lb with load, I use 9″ x 30″ shoes because the snow where we go (northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, the UP, northern Ontario) is likely to be soft and deep rather than brick-hard windpack.

    4. Northern Lites are another great snowshoe brand – significantly lighter than Tubbs or Atlas, very sturdy, readily maneuverable, good bindings. The only down side I can think of is that the crampons are not as aggressive as other brands. For my area they work great; for that brick-hard windpack, a different snowshoe might be better.

  6. New to snowshoes, just got a pair of Tubbs Flex VRTs (in 28 ’cause with pack I’m approx 230lbs). I find them not at all difficult to walk in; it’s WAY easier than barebooting has been so far this NH winter (to the extent I’m having to stop and wait for my beloved bc I keep leaving her behind — this does not happen when merely hiking).

    Having said that, I was unprepared for how difficult it is to turn around while wearing them. Even if I merely turn my torso, it’s sufficient to snag one on the other: I’ve now taken myself out three times while standing still. DOH.

    Exertion level is less than bare booting it: even in microspikes, I was losing enough from each step that the increased efficiency offered by the massive cleats on the Flex VRT makes me positively fly across the snow. I use a combination of bagua’s “mud-walking” step and skiing skills (though I’ve not skied in 30 years, apparently the body remembers), and find the action nearly effortless. I’m leaving poles behind, they were unneeded.

    I’m throwing this out there for others who, like me, were REALLY hesitant to consider ‘shoes based on everyone saying, “oh, you’ll go much slower…” They rock.

    • You can’t walk backwards in snowshoes…I experienced this several times again yesterday moving wood. Oy!

      But you really can’t live without them for flotation and traction. They really are the bomb compared to not using them!

    • Gyffes, if you’re having trouble with balance on snowshoes, you might reconsider your decision to ditch the poles. I find them useful for steep climbs or for side-stepping over downed trees or other obstacles. You can always attach them to your backpack while on easy terrain. I had to watch YouTube videos on “bagua’s ‘mud-walking’ step.” Not my sport.

  7. How does one walk with snowshoes while going across a slope? On the trails I hike (always in the summer until this past weekend), there is a flat-ish path cut into the slope. In the snow for the first time this weekend, I discovered that the flat path doesn’t exist many times and you end up slipping down the hill if not wearing traction devices.

    How would you handle these areas with snowshoes? I assume with soft snow, the snowshoe could create a flat print, but if the angle of the slope was steep, or the snow too hard to compress, wouldn’t this cause the snowshoe and, therefore, your ankle to rotate/ angle downhill to match the slope?

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