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Snowshoe 101

Snowshoeing Gear & Tips

If you can walk, you can snowshoe—or at least that’s what they say in places blessed with hundreds of inches of snow a year. By that logic, if you can climb the hill behind your house, you can summit Everest. Distilled to its simplest form, snowshoeing is walking in the snow; however, the right location, gear, clothes, and technique will dictate your joy potential during the outing. Here’s what you need to know before you go.

How to Snowshoe

Snowshoes work by distributing your weight over a large surface area, providing flotation and keeping your foot from sinking into the snow. Since snowshoes are wider than your foot—to produce more surface area—you’ll likely adopt a wider stance while snowshoeing than you have while just walking around.

  • Uphill: Snowshoes are equipped with crampons or cleats, which are particularly valuable when moving uphill. In packed or icy conditions, you’ll want to dig the teeth of your snowshoes into the snow firmly before moving up. In especially challenging terrain, the kick step—literally kicking a step into the snow with your snowshoe—is a useful technique for safely ascending. Many snowshoes designed for hiking and backcountry missions feature heel risers, also called climbing bars. Heel risers put your feet in a neutral position when climbing uphill and increase both the comfort and efficiency of snowshoeing on an incline.
  • Traversing: Traversing, sometimes referred to as side hilling, is a snowshoeing tip for skirting super steep and rugged terrain. To keep your balance when moving across a slope, dig the uphill side of your snowshoes into the hill and keep your weight on the uphill foot. Side rails are a popular feature for those heading into more mountainous territory.
  • Downhill: When descending, stay relaxed, keep your weight slightly back, and make sure to firmly plant your heels. More aggressive backcountry-specific snowshoes commonly feature heel crampons for enhanced braking ability.

Where to Go Snowshoe Hiking

It’s perfect snowshoe weather—the snow is stacking up outside and you just bought a new pair of snowshoes. Whether you’re snowshoeing in Maine or Colorado, if there’s snow on the ground, there’s terrain suitable for snowshoeing. Local parks and woodlands are great spots for beginners to familiarize themselves with their equipment and for snowshoe savants to sneak in an after-work hike. Likewise, many ski resorts and Nordic centers maintain dedicated snowshoe trails with well-marked loops, consistent conditions, and even trails specifically designed for beginners.

Advanced Snowshoeing and Potential Dangers

For adventurous snowshoers, the mountains are the ultimate snowshoe arena. Established hiking trails provide obvious routes, but winter’s thin foliage also allows the opportunity for bushwhacking. The lack of leaves allows for easier navigation and the snow covers ground-bound obstacles, making snowshoes the perfect vehicle for off-trail exploration.

Just as the snow conceals annoyances like undergrowth, rocks, and downed trees, it also hides potential hazards like running water and tree wells. In some situations, like on steep slopes, snow itself is a hazard. If you’re traveling in the mountains, it’s extremely important to understand avalanche hazards. Mistakenly wandering onto an unstable slope can have fatal consequences. If the mountains are on your mind, find a mentor and make the time to learn about avalanches.

What to Wear Snowshoeing

The right snowshoeing clothing affects everything from your comfort to your safety in the outdoors. Like other aerobic outdoor sports—think cross-country skiing rather than alpine skiing—you’ll want to dress in a combination of wicking layers, allowing you to fine-tune your kit to conditions and exertion level. One of the best snowshoeing tips is to start out cool—it’s amazing how quickly you warm up once you get going!

  • Clothing: Pair wicking base and mid layers with more weather-resistant outer layers. Because they’re better able to dissipate the heat you generate on the move, outer layers made from breathable fabrics, such as fleece and soft shells, are preferable to less breathable waterproof fabrics. However, if you’re heading into the mountains, make sure to pack a waterproof layer and a puffy coat to stay warm when you take a break or if a storm rolls in.  
  • Accessories: Always pack a winter hat and gloves, even for short snowshoe trips. You may start out in something lightweight like a trucker hat and liner gloves, but pack a warm hat and heavier waterproof mittens, along with a neck gaiter or balaclava, to adjust to changing conditions.
  • Boots: Your choice of snowshoe boots is dictated by the type of weather and terrain you plan to snowshoe in. Insulated, waterproof winter boots are a popular choice, but a mountaineering boot makes more sense if you’re planning to head into the deep mountains or expect extreme weather. Waterproof mid-height day hikers work well as snowshoe boots, provided it isn’t too cold. Make sure to pair your boots with wicking quick-dry wool or synthetic socks.

Gear up and Be Prepared 

The shallow snowshoe learning curve makes it easy to look like an expert early on. What differentiates snowshoe Joes from snowshoe pros is often their snowshoeing equipment.

  • Poles: Adjustable poles with snow baskets are great for enhancing your experience. They improve your balance while traveling both up and downhill, and provide stability while side hilling. Size your poles so that your arm is at a 90-degree angle when holding them—shorten them when heading uphill and extend on descents.
  • Food: The calories burned snowshoeing are almost twice as much as walking or running at a similar speed. Stay fueled with foods that won’t freeze—peanut butter and honey sandwiches are a personal favorite.
  • Drink: Remaining hydrated while snowshoe hiking is key. Insulated hydration packs and water bottles with insulating covers are practical solutions, but a Thermos of something warm boosts both performance and spirits. 
  • Sun Protection: New Englanders may only dream of the sun on grey winter days, but if you’re planning on snowshoeing Park City or other high-elevation destinations, you’ll want to pack a pair of sunglasses and sunscreen. Apply sunscreen liberally, as the sun reflects off the snow, increasing its intensity and burning the least likely of places, like the bottom of your nose. 

Part of the appeal of snowshoeing is that it’s easy to learn. But beware of overconfidence—winter weather and snow conditions can quickly become dangerous. Stay safe and know your route. With that in mind, snowshoeing opens up new adventures, adds a new element to old ones, and is a great way to beat the crowds—it’s incredible how few people are on the most popular trails in the winter. Snowshoeing is also an awesome way to stay active in the snow. Perhaps we should start saying, “If you can walk, you can burn almost twice as many calories snowshoeing.”

A former child model, Tim Peck spent a portion of his youth gracing the pages of Sunday paper advertisements for many now-defunct department stores. Living responsibly/rent-free with his parents into his thirties, Tim pursued climbing, skiing, and biking while logging an impressive amount of time in the mountains (and accumulating gear accordingly). Relentlessly pursuing the dream, Tim’s modest life ambitions are to ski all 12 months of the year, to climb 5.12, and to live in a van. Follow him on Instagram.