Snowshoes & Snowshoeing

Colin Fletcher said, “Snowshoes allow you to travel (sweating hard, but sinking less than a foot at every step) across snow into which you would otherwise go on sinking forever if God had not arranged that human legs eventually converge.” From: The Complete Walker IV.

Snowshoes date to the shoe ski created in Central Asia in 4000 B.C. and have morphed throughout history. American Indians used latticed wood snowshoes, as did French trappers, to traverse Colorado and other states in the depths of winter. More than 30 years ago, snowshoes made from synthetic materials came onto the scene – predecessors of the different styles people use today.

Snowshoeing may be small compared to other outdoor industries, but clearly a niche has been carved. According to American Sports Data, 1.2 million people are frequent snowshoe participants and 15 million people living in the snow belt are frequent hikers.

Today’s recreational snowshoes are smaller, lighter, stronger, and more maneuverable than the traditional wood frame and rawhide models. They are made of high-quality, light, durable, aluminum or carbon fiber with a durable synthetic decking. Quality snowshoes cost $200-300, although you can usually find a sale- especially off-season and they will likely last for decades of use.

Snowshoe Terminology

  • Bindings - attach the snowshoe to your boot. The best bindings have a system which is easy to get in and out of with gloves and/or cold hands.
  • Frame - is the structural foundation of the “shoe” which defines its shape and size.
  • Decking – is the material within the frame which enables the “shoe” to “float” on the snow. It can be of either the lace or solid material variety. A common decking material is Hypalon.
  • Flotation - Staying on top of the snow.
  • Traction - Many snowshoes come equipped with both toe and heel crampon-type claws for better traction on icy surfaces, slopes and hard packed snow.

What Size Snowshoe Should I Get?

Sizing of snow shoes is relative to three primary factors.

  1. The total weight being supported (your weight plus the weight of your backpack). The more you weigh, the bigger the shoe must be in order to keep you afloat. Usually there is a sizing chart to provide some guidance in this matter.
  2. The type of snow you’re traveling on. Light, puffy, dry powder requires a bigger snowshoe whereas smaller snowshoes are suitable for wetter snow and traveling packed trails.
  3. The terrain you will be encountering. Steep, rocky, wooded terrain with twisty trails are more suitable for smaller snowshoes whereas flat open country facilitates larger, longer snowshoes.

How To Snowshoe

If you can walk, then you can snowshoe. It’s that simple. The beauty of shoeing is its simplicity. You don’t need much equipment.

  1. Just strap a pair of modern snowshoes onto your favorite hiking boots. You shouldn’t need special footwear as you will be exercising hard enough to maintain good circulation to your feet.
  2. Gaiters will keep the snow out of your footwear and protect your ankles.
  3. Wear a layered clothing system that you can vary according to the weather and your level of exertion.

Snowshoeing Technique

There’s not much technique to snowshoeing. In fact, if you know how to walk, you know how to snowshoe. Nevertheless, here are a few useful tips:

  • To climb a steep slope kick the front of your snowshoe into the snow and press down on the ball of your foot engaging the crampon. Make sure that each new step is sufficiently above the last one to avoid collapse.
  • To descend a steep slope keep your knees slightly bent, lean back, and keep your weight on your heel crampons to maintain control.
  • To traverse a slope, kick the side of the snowshoe into the hillside, engaging the crampons. Swing your heel hard towards the uphill slope, then stomp down, securing the snowshoe edge and crampons in the slope. Trekking or ski poles are helpful for balance and support.
  • When snowshoeing in a group, walk in a single line behind the leader who is breaking the trail. When it’s your turn to lead, take consistent, even steps that are easy for others to follow.

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