Winter sports can be a bit intimidating. Fierce weather, tons of gear, and risky maneuvers combine in a foreign environment. The fast speeds and intense slopes that are part of skiing and snowboarding might keep many away. And even knowing how to snowshoe might seem like a challenge.
But the reality is different. The weather might be cold, but when you go snowshoeing, you can be tucked away inside of a dense forest to avoid the wind. The gear might seem difficult at first, but the learning curve is pretty short. And you can completely control your speed, avoid unnecessary risks, and enjoy being in the great outdoors during the winter.
It’s also a great way to get some exercise. And likely cheaper than any other winter sport (or gym) you can find.
So let’s take a look at what you need to start snowshoeing.
Snowshoeing Basics: What It’s Like to Snowshoe
Before getting into the sport, you might be a bit uncertain about what the goal of snowshoeing is. Are they simply tools that people use to get to their cabin in the middle of the woods in the winter? Is there any point to walking around on snowshoes through the forests?
Why should you leave the comfort of your couch and roaring fire (not to mention Netflix) just to go outside and walk around?
The reason people love to snowshoe is because it is a truly magical form of hiking. Rather than be bound by warm weather, throw some snowshoes into your gear area and enjoy the winter too! For many people, snowshoeing is a great way to explore, see new views, and enjoy the great outdoors when they’re covered in a nice layer of fluffy snow.
Plus, snow is a natural insulator and stops sound from traveling far distances. Stepping inside of a snow-covered forest is like stepping inside of recording booth. It completely envelops you in the absence of sound. It’s dreamy and thought-provoking. It’s eerie, yet comforting. And completely worth facing the cold weather to experience.
The initial investment for snowshoeing is relatively low for a winter sport. With the proper clothing and some cheap rentals, you can find a free snowshoeing trail and head out on your adventure. And it’s a great way to get exercise when it’s otherwise difficult to be outside.
Even the busiest trails are usually fairly quiet in the winter. If you want to have an easier time snowshoeing, stick to trails after other people have trampled them down. They’ll go through the soft snow or powder and you can follow up in their path.
If you want a real challenge, find a trail that hasn’t been touched. Treading through deep snow is a more more intense workout (and a more dangers situation where you have to be very careful about getting lost).
One more quick tip: Be weary of are tree wells. As the snow falls, it collects on the limbs of trees, resulting in a lack of snow right next to the trunk of the tree. If you get too close during the wrong conditions, you can fall in and bury yourself in a very awkward way. People literally die from this.
When you have an idea in what you want out of snowshoeing, find a trail that is on the easy side of things. An out-and-back trail is probably better than a loop because you can turn around at any moment and know what you’ll face on the way back.
Once you have your trail selected, you’ll wait for the appropriate conditions. If you go too early in the season, you might have to deal with a lot of dry spots. (To go early in the season, get crampons for your hiking boots and leave the snowshoes at home; using them on hard surfaces will cause damage.)
Once there is sufficient snow pack, I like to wait for a fresh 4-6” snowfall before heading up. Enough to make the trail soft, but not so deep it’s a struggle to get though. You can go without a recent storm, but the trail might be hard packed and slick in spots.
Park at the trail head and gear up. Put on your waterproof outerwear, have your gloves, hat, and sunglasses/goggles ready to go, then lace up your boots. Don’t forget your pack with additional layers of clothes, plenty of water, and some emergency supplies. You are venturing off in difficult conditions and need to be prepared for the worst.
You’ll probably want to hike in your boots up the trail until it is completely packed with snow. Then toss on your snowshoes, making sure to get them nice and tight without cutting off circulation, and get your poles in hand.
Start making your way through the forest, making sure to track your position on GPS. Download Gaia GPS or another similar app to make sure you know where you are. You should have a compass and paper map in your pack too. Don’t become a statistic by getting lost.
As you continue along, enjoy the quiet of nature. Eventually, you’ll reach your destination, enjoy a snack or picnic, then head back to the car. Don’t forget to leave your snowy gear in an area that will dry out easily on your drive back. Then head home, grab a nice pizza and some drinks, and cuddle up by the fire after a adventurous day in the snow.
Sounds nice, right? Let’s talk about exactly what you need to go snowshoeing.
Snowshoeing Boots and Clothing
Snowshoeing clothes are very similar to a lot of other winter sports. It’s all about layering and making sure you’re well covered with decent quality gear, while maintaining the flexibility you need. Unlike skiing and snowboarding, you can usually skip the helmet for most snowshoeing excursions.
Boots, on the other hand, are a tricky part of snowshoeing. You have to find a balance between waterproof warmth and hiking comfort.
Some people simply use the snow boots they’ve had for years (myself included – a nice pair of nearly 20-year-old Sorel boots), while others get boots that are more closely related to hiking boots. But they need to be seriously waterproof. So these can get expensive.
While you can use snowboard boots in a pinch, you’re probably going to be pretty uncomfortable after some time. Ski boots are simply too stiff and no good for snowshoeing.
What should you use? Well, if it’s your first time and you have some boots tucked away that you think might work, give them a shot! If they don’t work, do you want to upgrade your general snow boots? Then do that.
If you really want to get the best piece of gear and be ready for long hikes up intense terrain, then find a nice pair of winter boots that cover your ankles and are seriously waterproof.
The other weird piece of gear which can be helpful (but isn’t necessary) are gaiters. These go over your shoes and lower part of your pants, creating a nice seal all the way around your ankle. Great for keeping the cold snow out and for keeping your ankle warm.
Gaiters come in a variety of sizes, so find ones that fit you, your boots, and your walking style well. I usually skip these since my snowboarding pants have built-in gaiters that seal around nearly any boot.
Once you have your boots and gaiters covered, then you’ll want to layer up with the rest of your winter clothing. It’s important to layer because as you warm up and walk around, you don’t want to overheat. Overheating leads to sweating and sweat is the enemy of staying warm in cold weather. The goal is to be warm and cozy without sweating.
Start with your base layer. This should be lightweight and made of a material that dries quickly. Don’t overlook the importance of a base layer, unless it’s a very warm day.
After that, focus on mid layers. For your bottom half, that usually means a simple pair of sweatpants. For your top half, things can be a bit more complicated and depend on the weather. Maybe a t-shirt is enough on a warm day. But on a cold day, you might go with a thick flannel shirt, then a fleece as your mid layers. Whatever the case, having an extra payer in your backpack is a great idea.
The next layer is your outerwear. If you have any ski or snowboard gear, those will usually work very well for snowshoeing, as long as you can hike in them. Whatever the case, you want a durable, waterproof layer on the exterior to protect you. It will keep you dry and shield you from the wind. Don’t skimp on outerwear – good stuff will last years if not decades.
Finally, you’ll need to cover up the extremities. Warm socks, gloves, a hat, and sunglasses/goggles are the final touches. Goggles are especially important if it’s windy or snowing, but a lot of times, I like to use sunglasses while snowshoeing. Your gloves will be an important part too since you’ll be holding onto poles.
And that’s it! Base layer, mid layers, outerwear, and accessories. Now let’s talk about the real deal: the snowshoes themselves.
Snowshoes and Poles: What You Need to Know
To get the right snowshoes, you need to know two things: (1) the terrain you’ll be facing and (2) the weight of yourself wearing all your gear and supplies.
Most snowshoes are designed for a particular purpose. Sometimes that purpose is “all mountain” – meaning that they are designed for use across many situations. But more often, they’re designed for flat surfaces or steep terrain. If you are just getting into it, you most likely don’t need the ones for steep terrain (unless that’s your thing).
The cheapest entry-level models are usually designed for flat terrain, while the more expensive ones are for more advanced terrain. One of the biggest differences is the heel lift seen in the advanced models, which allows for easier accent of steep grades.
Many snowshoes are constructed with a sturdy material (known as the decking) attached to an aluminum frame. This is what you’ll see the most, and one pair we recommend are the Chinook Trekker Snowshoes, a great value pair of entry-level snowshoes.
But there are also snowshoes made from other materials. A composite construction combines the decking and structure into an integrated, often much lighter, frame. These can be noisy as they’re usually made from harder plastics. The MSR Evo Trail are depandable, all-weather snowshoes to get you started.
One more snowshoe construction type is a relative newcomer, but is softer, quieter, and provides a bit of insulation. These are made from EVA foam. The biggest downfall is that they are very flexible and can’t provide quite as much traction as other styles. But for easy-going beginners, they can be great. The Crescent Moon EVA Foam Snowshoes are a great option for those who don’t want to push it too hard.
Snowshoe bindings are built into the snowshoes. You’ll need to select the snowshoe with the binding in mind. Your biggest concern is how your boots fit into the bindings. You don’t want to completely max out your bindings, nor do you want to be floating in ones that are too big.
Most bindings float off of the snowshoe through a pivot near the ball of each foot. As you step forward, you toes can point down while the snowshoes stay level. Once your weight shifts onto the snowshoe, you foot lays flat on the snowshoe. It’s a very simple design. Some don’t float around and are fixed in place.
Try out the different binding styles. Some use cables, others rely more on straps. The fastening devices can be different across manufacturers. Most have an adjustable rubber strap to go around the heel and a set of straps going over each foot. Check the fit of the heel placement, then step into them (on a soft surface) to see how the bindings lay across your feet. See which ones you like working with, remembering that you’ll likely be wearing thick gloves.
The final consideration for your snowshoes is the size. This depends on your weight, including all gear and supplies, as well as the conditions you’ll be facing. If you’ll be snowshoeing in deep, light, powdery snow, you need much larger snowshoes compared to being on a hard packed snowy surface.
Getting bigger snowshoes sounds great, but it comes with a downfall: The bigger the snowshoes are, the more difficult they are to control. You need to find snowshoes that fit your weight and your gait. It might be difficult to find a place to practice with snowshoes, but don’t take off the tags until you do.
And let’s talk about one silly question that a lot of beginner snowshoers have: How do you walk in snowshoes? The answer is simple. You walk as normally as possible. Be careful taking too tight of turns, don’t attempt to go backward, and don’t go in snow that’s too deep. To be honest, you don’t have to think much about it. Try to keep your eyes up and not on your snowshoes themselves. And that’s enough about how to walk in snowshoes. Seriously, you can do this.
I prefer snowshoes with a tapered design because I usually walk with my feet close together. Some people don’t mind big round snowshoes though. To find what you like, consider renting a pair.
But don’t rent snowshoes too many times. For the cost of 3-4 rentals, you can usually buy your own pair of snowshoes. Keep you eyes out on the local classifieds (NextDoor and Craigslist) for great deals and used snowshoes.
Once you have your snowshoes, then it’s time to get poles. You can go with collapsible trekking poles (as long as they don’t get brittle under cold temperatures, like some carbon fiber) or you can just use your ski poles. The general rule of thumb is to be able to hold your pole on the ground with about a 90° angle at your elbow. But do what fits you and your snowshoeing style the best.
Some people skip the poles. I recommend using them for stability and to make it more of a full-body exercise, but if you don’t want or need them, then don’t!
How to Snowshoe Summary
Are you ready to get out there? Absolutely! Gear up and go for a lovely snowshoe adventure in a winter wonderland. Never let the cold weather hold you back again.
Think about what you want out of your trip. Start with a well-used trail that’s fairly short for your first few outings. Discover the world beyond the ski slopes and figure out what you like the most.
Gear up with plenty of layers, solid boots, and snowshoes of your choice. Grab an affordable pair of aluminum framed ones or go all out with the most advanced snowshoes ready to tackle the steepest toughest terrain.
Do you have any tips for staying warm in the winter? Leave us a comment with your thoughts below.