I recall setting out with two companions on a spring time trip in the hopes of climbing Cat Mountain in the Adirondacks. Day one involved a hike into a lean-to near Cranberry Lake where we left our backpacks. Since there was no snow cover we left our snowshoes as well. However, as the elevation got higher so did the snow and the snowshoe-less trio had to halt our climb. We sat on some lovely rocks in the sun…near…the summit.
Although I preach “it is the journey…not the destination” when winter camping you shouldn’t judge trail conditions by what you see at the trailhead. Higher elevations and local terrain variations can quickly change trail conditions. Winter campers can use snow shoes or skies for traversing the winter landscape. Bring snowshoes or skies even if you have to strap them to the back of your pack; and don’t leave them at the lean-to.
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.
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.
6.1.1 Snowshoe Terminology
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.
Traction - Many snowshoes come equipped with both toe and heel crampon-type claws for better traction on icy surfaces, slopes and hard packed snow.
6.1.2 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.
6.1.3 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.
6.1.4 Snowshoeing Technique
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.
Skis for the backcountry are different than their counterparts for groomed track and race skiing. First of all, they are wider, and therefore, usually heavier. Metal edges are helpful of icy or crusty surfaces, but are not required.
For true backcountry exploration where deep snows, obstacles and downhill slopes are likely, skis are slightly shorter than those for general touring. The length you choose will be based primarily on your weight. In general, slightly shorter skis are easier to maneuver, while longer skis will perform better at higher speeds.
Backcountry touring skis need to have extra width to provide flotation. This is useful for touring outside of established ski trails while you’re carrying a pack. The greater width of backcountry skis also provides a stable platform on which to balance and learn striding techniques in variable snow conditions.
Sidecut refers to the long curves cut into both sides of a ski, or the difference between the waist and either end. A ski’s sidecut makes carving turns easier by keeping the ski’s edges in contact with the snow.
When choosing ski bindings for backcountry touring, keep three important factors in mind: durability, security and ease of repair. You’ll need bindings that provide a strong, reliable connection to your skis, stand up to the abuse of wilderness skiing and can be easily repaired when you’re out in the field.
The Three-Pin system consists of an extension on the front of the ski boot sole (with three holes in its underside) and a set of three metal pins rising up from the binding. The sole extension fits over the pins, and a curved bale is squeezed down over the extension to hold it in place. The sole extension on this traditional style of boot is 75mm wide, which is referred to as the Nordic Norm. This style of binding offers reliable support and can be repaired in the field.
“New Nordic Norm” or NNN is a name given to a boot-binding connection system that has all but replaced the traditional 3-pin systems. NNN systems consist of a short, metal rod mounted in the toe of the ski boot sole, which clips into a matching ski binding somewhat like a door hinge. NNN bindings feature raised ridges on the ski’s surface, which fit into matching grooves in the soles of compatible ski boots.
Backcountry trips involve more turning and downhill travel than those on flat terrain, so it’s best to choose boots that provide solid ankle support and torsional rigidity. Your backcountry boots must be compatible with the bindings you choose.
6.2.1 Climbing Skins
Climbing skins are strips of material that attach to the undersides of backcountry and metal-edge touring skis to provide traction for climbing. They help save your energy by keeping you from backsliding on moderate terrain. They also save time by allowing you to take a direct, uphill route instead of having to traverse across gentler terrain. They’re handy to have when you’re carrying a heavy pack, too, as they provide a little extra control.
The outer surface of skins has hairs or scales that grab the snow, preventing backward movement of the skis. When the skis are moved forward, these surfaces flatten out to allow some glide. Skins can cover the full length of the ski or just the middle section (so-called kicker skins). They typically attach to ski bases with adhesive, buckles, straps or a combination of these.
6.2.2 Telemark Skiing
Telemark Skiing uses free heel telemark ski bindings that allow your feet and ankles to flex free of the skis, whether you’re climbing or descending the steep terrain of the backcountry. Named for the Telemark region of Norway where it was developed, “tele skiing” is a challenging style that combines striding with a bent-knee technique for carving downhill turns. Telemark combines an element of “downhill thrill” with the go-anywhere flavor of free-heel skiing.
6.3 Ski poles and walking sticks
Ski poles or trekking poles are optional. If you are traversing rugged terrain, carrying a heavy pack or concerned about your balance they can be helpful. If there are slopes involved take trekking poles, they can easily be lashed to the outside of the backpack during flatland strolls.
6.4 Breaking Trail
Whether you are out skiing or snowshoeing breaking trail can be daunting and exhausting. When traveling in the backcountry, on a new trail or traveling in fresh snow someone will have to lead the way. Breaking trail is exactly as it sounds. The traveler in the lead expends extra energy pulling their snowshoe or ski out of the snow, but breaking trail helps smooth the snow underneath and compacts it for subsequent travelers. The benefit of breaking trail is being able to pick the trail and travel through fresh untracked snow.
The easiest way to break trail in deep snow is to break up the task with others of your group. Walk in a single line, with the leader breaking trail. Take turns out front, and change leaders as the leader gets tired or starts to heat up. The trail breaker can simply step out of the track and falls into the last place in the line. The leader should take consistent, medium length, even steps that are easy for others to follow. A trail breaker with long legs taking big steps is harder to follow for travelers with a shorter stride.
Mixing snowshoe and ski tracks is problematic. Since snowshoes destroy ski tracks, many well traveled areas ask snowshoers to observe traditional backcountry courtesy and stay out of ski tracks. Ski trails are normally much narrower than a typical snowshoe trail, and less well packed because skis offer more flotation than snowshoes. If the snow is deep and soft, snowshoers may find themselves post-holing right through the ski track. In most cases the ski track offers little advantage and putting in a separate snowshoe track allows both snowshoers and skiers to have a positive experience and avoids friction with skiers who often resent having their tracks obliterated and their skiing enjoyment greatly reduced.
6.5 Crossing Ice
There is no such thing as “safe ice.” Conditions and unseen or unknown factors can render seemingly safe ice suddenly dangerous. Crossing ice should not be done without planning, consideration of risks, employing safety devices and having a rescue plan ‘just in case’.
Ice conditions can be greatly affected by water currents, snow depth, and recent weather. As a general guideline, two inches of black or white ice will probably hold you up and six inches will hold up a moose. Thickness of suspect ice can usually be determined quite quickly by using an ice axe or auger to drill through. The table below provides weight bearing guidelines for various thicknesses of ice.
<2 inches (5cm)
4 inches (10 cm)
Suitable for individual weight
7 inches (18 cm)
Will bear a snowmobile
8-12 inches (20-30 cm)
Will bear an ATV or small car
If you want to get geeky about estimating ice thickness in advance you can use the following formula:
Z = ice thickness in inches
S = degree days accumulated below 32 F
A = a coefficient which varies as follows:
(.8) -windy lake with no snow
(.5 to .7) –average lake with snow cover
(.2 to .4) –sheltered small river with rapid flow
S is calculated as follows: Suppose ice is formed December 15 and the mean temperature for December 16 was 5F. To find degree days, subtract 5o F from 32F for a value of 27. If on December 17 the temperature is 4o F, subtract 4F from 32F for a value of 28. S would then have a value of 55 by December 17 (27F + 2 F = 55). Next take the square root of 55 (7.4). To determine ice thickness, multiple 7.4 by the appropriate coefficient A (say .8 for a windy lake with no snow), and your answer is 5.9 inches of ice. If you don’t know the date of ice formation, you can estimate by the following technique:
- For lakes 3 –10 feet deep, freezing occurs very close to the date when the 3-day running mean temperature is 32F and where temperatures remained mostly below that for the rest of the winter.
- For lakes 20 –50 feet deep, the date of freeze-over occurs when the 40-day running mean temperature reaches 32F.
6.5.1 Tips for Crossing Ice
Stay off the ice if you have any doubts about safety. Walk in single file and stay spread out. Stay clear of any moving water caused by currents.
Travel across ice in single file well spread apart
Carry a long pole to poke and use it to check on the ice. Held horizontally a long pole can arrest a fall through the ice.
A long pole is helpful for probing suspect ice
Keep ice picks readily available by carrying them on a cord around your neck or wear a sheath knife to help you crawl back on ice if you break through.
Ice picks are used to help gain a grip on ice if you fall through
 Outdoor Action Guide to Winter Camping, http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/winter/wintcamp.shtml