What wintertime sport can be done by just about anyone, goes great with four-season camping, fishing, hiking or running through fresh powder, and helps improve cardiovascular fitness?
If you thought snowshoeing, you’re on the right snow-covered track.
One of the top reasons this sport is increasing in popularity among everyone from men and women, to kids and even senior citizens, is that it literally requires no learning curve. According to Mark Elmore, Sports Director of the U.S. Snowshoe Association, Inc. and the U.S. National Snowshoe Team Director, “If you can walk … you can snowshoe. If you can run … you can snowshoe race. Unlike the other sports, you don’t need to learn any specific skills to control yourself, like you need to learn when skiing or snowboarding.”
Elmore also notes that first-timers commonly ask, “How do I turn? How do I stop? How do I go uphill?” His guidance? “With snowshoes … you just WALK … or RUN!”
For anyone seeking wintertime exercise without having to go to a ski resort, snowshoeing actually delivers a better workout than you may be able to get if you stayed indoors at your local gym. It burns more calories than walking, running or cross-country skiing at the same pace.
According to two independent studies conducted by Ball State University and the University of Vermont, snowshoers can burn between 420-1000 calories per hour. “Snowshoeing is an effective, low-impact, and safe form of exercise to change body composition. It burns up to twice the number of calories as walking at the same speed,” says Dr. Declan Connolly of the University of Vermont’s exercise physiology department.
There isn’t a learning curve with snowshoeing and it makes for a great cold-weather workout. Your first few times may require a bit of build-up before taking longer outings, and it’s wise to be prepared by dressing the right way, reviewing a safety checklist, and most importantly, having the right gear on your feet depending on where, when and how much you plan to enjoy the sport.
Snowshoeing Starter Tips
Elmore notes that snowshoeing can be quite vigorous, “Depending on your level of fitness, take it easy at first. Take frequent breaks. Stay hydrated. Be sure you are dressed properly — this is perhaps one of the most important considerations leading to an enjoyable snowshoe outing. You can burn lots of calories snowshoeing, but it doesn’t have to be an exhausting endeavor. Pace yourself and be realistic with your expectations. Don’t try to scale a mountain your first time out.”
Start with a safety checklist on what to wear and what to take with you.
The most valuable tip that Kevin Hinds, a Maine Registered Sea Kayak/Recreation Guide and Instructor at the L. L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School, offers is that it’s important to take the time to learn how to dress appropriately for the winter weather. “Always dress in layers as in wicking, warming, and weather layers,” he says.
Dressing for the conditions is a tip seconded by Elmore who advises: “Wear performance apparel that is well suited to the level of exertion you expect. Dressing is a very important aspect of any outdoor winter experience. If you stay warm and dry, you’ll enjoy your outing much more than if you overdress and get clammy and chilled within the first 20 minutes on the trail.”
You should also think about what you’ll need on the trip. Hinds’ safety check list includes taking a small backpack with water, snacks, extra fleece, warm mittens, an extra hat, compass, map, first-aid kit, cell phone, a GPS (that you know how to use) and a small repair/multi-tool kit. Another staple in Elmore’s pack is duct tape, as it can easily repair a broken snowshoe binding out on the trail.
“Always let people know where you are going and when you expect to start and finish your outing. File your ‘flight plan’ with someone. Take a cell phone, but don’t always count on having reception. It depends on where you are. That’s why the flight plan is so important,” says Elmore.
Snowshoeing enthusiasts will tell you it’s as easy as walking and running. But, knowing a few key techniques ahead of time will help master the maneuvers. The resource site snowshoes.com offers these tips for each of the following typical landscapes:
1. Snowshoeing Uphill: To ascend a slope, kick the front of your snowshoe into the snow and press down to compact it into a step under your foot. Make sure that each new step is sufficiently above the last one to keep your step from collapsing.
2. Snowshoeing Downhill: Heel traction is the key to an easy descent, giving the weighted part of your snowshoes a solid hold in the snow. Keep your knees slightly bent and keep your weight over your heels to maintain grip and control.
3. Traversing a Slope On Snowshoes: 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. Keep your weight balanced into the slope for grip as you step forward.
4. Breaking Trail: For efficient travel when breaking trail, pick up your foot until the nose of the snowshoe clears the snow, and move it forward with your next step. You’ll expend extra energy pulling the entire snowshoe out of the snow or not lifting higher than the new snow.
When snowshoeing in a group, especially a family, Elmore finds it best to let your athletic, fit teens break the trail, since it will slow them down a bit and allow the rest of the family to keep up. Snowshoeing can be a multi-generational outing, with everyone going at their own pace, but staying together. Elmore suggests, “Put the grandparents in the back of the line so the trail has been well packed down by the time they travel it and the going will be easiest for them so they’ll be able to keep up. Take frequent breaks to enjoy the winter scenery and all that nature has to offer.”
The Best Snowshoeing Gear
Snowshoeing only requires the ability to walk as a prerequisite skill, but traversing terrain in nature’s most challenging conditions — snow, ice, below-zero temperatures — calls for an entirely separate set of considerations when buying snowshoes other than price alone.
Bob Dion, founder of Dion Snowshoes (www.dionsnowshoes.com), says his company designs and sells snowshoes to create a customized fit for each user’s desired function. The customized snowshoes allow shoppers to select the best frame, binding and cleat that work best for them.
Dion Snowshoes offers several frames to choose from — with the basic rule that for packed snow, any model will work. However, for deep snow, the more you weigh, the larger the frame you’ll need. Dion offers two types of bindings: Secure-Fit and Quick-Fit. Both are designed to fit comfortably and secure. The cleats on Dion Snowshoes are made of Teflon-coated aluminum alloy, are interchangeable, and can be easily removed to sharpen or replace. The Standard Cleat is used for packed snow or groomed trails. The Deep Cleat is named for its performance in deep snow or dry-powder conditions, and is longer than the Standard Cleat with longer “fangs” for a better grip. The Ice Cleats are made for hard, rocky and ice-covered terrain.
Hinds also recommends picking your snowshoes by determining if you’ll be on flat walking areas, rolling hills, small mountains or mountaineering, or a combination thereof and what the snow conditions will be. At the L. L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School, Hinds is part of a team that allows enthusiasts to try several pairs of shoes to see what they like best, as well as provides them with some basic snowshoeing techniques.
L.L. Bean (llbean.com) sells all of the sport’s top manufacturers’ snowshoe models, as well as complementary accessories needed for snowshoeing like walking poles, and layering clothes for cold weather. The company also offers its own L. L. Bean-branded snowshoes and other equipment, including the Winter Walker snowshoes and packages for everyone from adults to kids to make snowshoeing an easy and complete family winter activity.
The two sister companies, Atlas (atlassnowshoe.com) and Tubbs (tubbssnowshoes.com) offer the Atlas 9 Series and the Elektra 9 Series for men, women and kids, and features a patent-pending free-rotating suspension that provides natural articulation of the foot over uneven and side-hill terrain with minimal resistance, letting the tail drop away with each step. The new FLEX TRK by Tubbs adds an ActiveLift 16-degree heel lift for go-anywhere day hiking performance. The Tubbs FLEX Jr. is tailored for kids 6 to 10 years old; and the Atlas Spark is recommended for ages 8 to 12.
MSR (msrgear.com) also offers snowshoes for little ones like its Denali Tyker; rugged kids’ snowshoes that can stand up to years of abuse and support kids up to 90 pounds. Easy-to-use straps allow kids to get the shoes on themselves, even with mittens on. And so you can join the kids outdoors in the winter, MSR makes multiple snowshoe models for men and women, including its Lightning Axis snowshoe (see the full test of the MSR Lightning Axis Snowshoes in this issue’s Gear Head section).
Redfeather Snowshoes (redfeather.com) offers its Arrow model, a modified round-tail design and the race-inspired Vapor. They have also enhanced the Hike Series, specifically designing a version for a woman’s stride, which is generally shorter and narrower than a man’s.
Crescent Moon Snowshoes (crescentmoonsnowshoes.com) makes it easy even for the beginner to pick the gear that fits his or her foot best, segmenting its offerings into the top-selling ‘Gold’; the great value for a first-timer ‘Silver’; and the lightweight ‘Running’ series. Its top-selling models are all within the first category, including the Gold 10 — a backcountry model recommended for snowshoers up to 225 pounds; the Gold 13 — a women’s snowshoe for individuals weighing up to 165 pounds and an excellent trail shoe; and the Gold 9, an all around snowshoe for those up to 195 pounds, recommended for both trail and off-trail conditions.
Where To Go Snowshoeing
Winter sports like skiing and snowboarding generally require an incline of some sort, as well as a resort that maintains prime powder conditions. To be avidly involved requires resort fees, waiting in line at the lift and other hassles that snowshoeing doesn’t involve. Instead, you can literally snowshoe wherever there’s snow. That may be your backyard, a trail you enjoy walking in spring, summer or fall, a snow-covered golf course, or for the more experienced outdoor adventurers — the backcountry.
For some region-specific picks, however, Elmore, who also races and pursues winter sports wherever he can find snow, recommends the following across the U.S.:
Northeast Snowshoeing: Lake Placid and the Adirondack Mountains of New York; The Green Mountain Range and Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont.
Southeast Snowshoeing: The Appalachian Trail and Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia.
Midwest Snowshoeing: The Northwoods Region of Minnesota/Wisconsin; the Duluth, Minnesota area; and Lakewoods Resort on Lake Namakagon in Cable, Wisconsin.
Rocky Mountains Snowshoeing: Beaver Creek Resort in Avon, Colorado; Snowbasin Resort in Ogden, Utah; and Salt Lake City/Park City areas of Utah.
Northwest Snowshoeing: Mount Hood in Oregon; and the Lake Tahoe and Mt. Shasta regions in California.
Southwest Snowshoeing: Flagstaff, Arizona.
Snowshoeing at a resort has its perks, though, especially to appease the winter sports interests among all members of a family or group — especially for those in the group who may not ski or snowboard. Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Vermont’s northern Green Mountains, for example, offers 24 kilometers of dedicated snowshoe trails and treks offered by its Nordic Center. Another good example is Colorado’s well-known Winter Park Resort offers guided tours through the backcountry for non-skiers and first time snowshoers. Be sure to inquire at your favorite ski resort, as the answer just may be some type of winter sports trail for those up to the fun and excitement of snowshoeing.