Snowshoes are heavy, weighing between four and five pounds a pair, so most winter hikers are happy when they don’t have to carry them on a winter hike. But how can you tell when they won’t be needed? This is a question that vexes many winter hikers. When you add up all the gear, clothing, hot water, and food needed for winter hiking, shedding those five pounds of snowshoes is very attractive. Hiking without them strapped to your back or feet takes less energy and is a lot more comfortable.
The primary purpose of snowshoes is to provide flotation so you don’t sink into snow while hiking. Hikers without snowshoes can plunge knee or waist deep into unconsolidated snow if they try to cross it without snowshoes, called postholing. Postholing is quite exhausting and makes you sweat profusely, which can chill you in winter and lead to hypothermia. Postholing can also create hazardous conditions for the people who hike a trail after you, because it creates a choppy uneven surface and voids that people might step or fall into, twisting an ankle or knee. Winter hiking etiquette requires that you avoid postholing by hiking in snowshoes.
Broken Out Trails
The enlarged surface area of a snowshoe deck helps distribute your weight across the surface of the snow so you don’t sink into it, you use less energy, and sweat less. It also packs down the trail uniformly so other can hike it safely after you. As more and more hikers snowshoe or hike over it, it will become firmer and firmer, and possibly even icy. Such packed down trails are considered “broken out.”
If you can find a broken out trail, you can probably bare boot it. Barebooting means that you’re hiking without snowshoes or microspikes, relying just on your boot sole lugs for traction. If it’s snowed since the last time a well-packed trail was hiked, you can still probably hike it without snowshoes, as long as the depth of the new snow is a few inches deep and well below your ankles. Much higher and you’ll probably find it easier to hike with snowshoes for flotation.
Message Boards and Facebook Groups
If you want to avoid carrying snowshoes on hikes, it’s best to pick trails that have already been broken out and packed down by other winter hikers. If you winter hike someplace that has a well-developed trail system and hiker population, try to find a message board or Facebook Group where hikers post trip reports or share trail condition information with one another. For example, I usually check a bulletin board called NETRAILCONDITIONS when I winter hike in New Hampshire or Southern Maine, which shows me which trails have been hiked recently and whether snowshoes or microspikes are recommended. Try to find something similar in the area where you hike.
Snow Depth Information
If you want to hike on a trail and can’t find any recent trail condition information for it, try to find a snow depth report for the surrounding area. NOAA publishes a snow depth report that displays snow pack depth and recent snowfall statistics. Type in a location (town and state) and it will display all of the observations it has available for the surrounding area. Some outdoor clubs and ski area also publish snow stake depths (measured on a yardstick) and recent snowfall totals, which can be helpful in guessing how much powder you’ll encounter on your hike. You’ll need to have a map handy to compare their observations with the location of your trail.
Recent Snowfall History
NOAA also has a point forecast tool that you can use to get precise weather forecasts and recent snowfall totals. For long hikes, especially those in mountainous terrain, it can pay to start tracking daily snowfall totals for up to a week before a hike, to understand how much snow has fallen and accumulated. This is just one element of weather forecasting for winter hikes. For more on this topic, see my article on Winter Weather Forecasting in Mountainous Terrain.
This discussion has assumed that you’ll be hiking on winter trails that run along at the same elevation. But what about hikes that climb up mountains or cross mixed terrain, where the snowpack can vary widely due to different terrain and wind characteristics. Here you’ll need to combine multiple sources of information to determine whether its worth carrying snowshoes, including trail condition reports, snow depth history, and track recent snowfall. Wind can also play an important role, blowing some areas clear of snow, while piling others with deep snow drifts. When in doubt about what to expect, it often pays to carry your snowshoes, even if you don’t need them. It really sucks when you’ve hiked for hours without snowshoes, only to discover they’re needed to get to your intended destination.
If you’ve been unable to find any information about the trail you intend to hike, including weather forecasts and history, you can make an educated guess about whether snowshoes will be needed when you arrive. If the trail leaving the trailhead is broken out, there’s a decent chance you won’t need your snowshoes. It’s not always a guarantee, but a decent assumption if your destination dovetails with the hikers who broke the trail out previous.
Bring Your Snowshoes to the Trailhead
Whatever you decide, always bring your snowshoes to the trailhead for winter hikes. You can leave them in the car if you and your hiking partners decide to hike without them, but if you need them and you’ve left them at home, you’ll have wasted a trip. Don’t let that happen.