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.
You get three major advantages from a snowshoe: floatation, traction and stability.
- Floatation is the ability of a snowshoe to limit how far your feet sink down into deep or soft snow. If you have “post holed” in deep snow without snowshoes, you know about floatation.
- Traction distinguishes snowshoes from other winter sport equipment. Snow and ice are slippery, and the metal claw / crampons on the bottom of snowshoes give your feet a grip.
- Stability from the extra width and length of snowshoes helps you maintain balance when you encounter surface irregularities.
Snowshoe equipment dates to the shoe ski created in Central Asia in 4000 B.C. and has morphed throughout history. American Indians used latticed wood snowshoes, as did French trappers, to traverse in the depths of winter. More than 40 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 snowbelt are frequent hikers. Snowshoeing participation increased by 11.4 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to Outdoor Foundation’s “Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2011.” Backpacking participation also had an increase of 9.2 percent. Both categories showed significant increases compared to several other outdoor recreation activities.
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.
Snow shoes are simple devices described in their own 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.
- Crampons – Many snowshoes come equipped with both toe and heel crampon-type claws for better traction on icy surfaces, slopes and hard packed snow. This cleat is referred to as a crampon, even though it is very different from the crampons that ice climbers use. It is a metal claw that gives the snowshoe better traction on packed snow surfaces and steep hiking trails.
What Size Snowshoe Should I Get?
The sizing of snow shoes is relative to three primary factors.
- 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 manufacturers provide a sizing chart to provide guidance in this matter.
- 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.
- The terrain you will be encountering. Steep, rocky, wooded terrain with twisty trails is 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.
- 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.
- Wear gaiters to keep the snow out of your footwear and protect your ankles.
- Wear a layered clothing system that you can vary according to the weather and your level of exertion.
There’s not much technique to snowshoeing, 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.