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Snowshoeing in the Winter: Tips to Get Started

February 23, 2011

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Snowshoes have come a long way since their origins some 7,000 years ago. Back then, it’s safe to guess that snowshoeing was not considered a leisure winter sport.

In fact, without even researching it much, I can safely wager that snowshoes were made so that people could survive winter. You know: head out, forage for food, return home with a dead animal—also known as “dinner for the family.”

Times have changed. And so have snowshoes.

Originally, snowshoes were made from wood and rawhide. Current-day versions using those materials are still available to buy, as are authentic antique versions that are often found adorning the walls of vacation ski homes. However, the rapid growth of snowshoeing as a sport in the 1990s was due to modern versions of snowshoes made with aluminum or stainless steel frames and nylon, plastic, or polypropylene decking. They are light and relatively inexpensive.

Old versus new snowshoes!

I bought a pair of Tubbs snowshoes in the late 1990s. Except for adjusting the straps or bindings to fit whichever pair of boots (waterproof and insulated work best) I am wearing, they are quite simple to use. Newer versions have even easier to adjust bindings and straps. In fact, if you are reasonably fit and feel comfortable walking, then you should have an easy time learning to snowshoe!

Best Snowshoe Equipment

• One pair of snowshoes (many outdoor shops rent equipment and offer lessons)

• Proper outdoor clothing

• Sturdy winter boots (or specialty snowshoe boots)

• One pair of ski poles or trekking poles (optional)

• Gaiters (optional)

• Headlamp (for nighttime snowshoeing)

The best way to learn a new sport is from a professional instructor, and many places that rent or sell snowshoes offer short lessons.

Snowshoeing Tips & Techniques

Here's what to keep in mind on your first day out:

• Practice on a flat snowy surface without ice. Most modern snowshoes have crampons on the bottom. These crampons work best in fluffy snow and aren’t as easy to use on icy steep slopes, especially going downhill. That’s just something to keep in mind as you are experimenting with this new sport.

• “Put one foot in front of the other.” The movement pattern is the same as walking. Lift your left foot, bending at the knee so that the snowshoe comes off the snowy surface, and take a step. Repeat this with your right foot. That’s it—just like walking, except that you have much larger “shoes” that hinge away from your foot as you lift your foot. Gaiters are also optional for snowshoeing. If the snow is very light and not packed down, and very deep, gaiters will help to protect your boots and the bottom of your snow pants from snow getting inside. In most instances, snowshoes do a great job of keeping you above the snow, and you will not need gaiters.

• Use poles. Though poles are optional, they give you two more points of balance while snowshoeing. I prefer trekking poles that are adjustable so I that can dial in the perfect pole length. The arm motions using poles are the same as when you walk and should feel natural. Simultaneously, step with your left leg and swing your right pole forward with a light flick of the wrist to put the pole basket in front of you, then plant the pole. In this case, your balance is moving from your right foot to your left foot and right pole, as your momentum moves forward. That’s as much physics as I can share with you. Just remember: It feels like walking.

• Look ahead, not straight down at your shiny new snowshoes. There are two reasons you should look ahead. The first: You are outside and it’s a beautiful winter wonderland. Take in the sights, sounds and smells. The second: Looking ahead improves your balance.

Snowshoeing is a great sport for all ages. You can head out on wooded adventures or across a frozen lake.

And that optional headlamp I mentioned in the equipment list above? If you ever venture out for a nighttime snowshoe under a full Moon, you might get hooked on snowshoeing just like I did.

So, ready to snowshoe? Ever tried snowshoeing? What do you think? I'd love to hear from you. 

During the winter months, Heather Atwell blogs about outdoor activities for Almanac.com. The offspring of parents who met in the lift line at Vermont's Stowe Mountain, Heather has skied since she could walk. She's a fully certified PSIA instructor who knows New England ski areas from her four years working for Ski Vermont and from her lifelong love of the sport. Heather’s recipe for winter happiness: Mix fresh snow and a little outdoor adventure.

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Comments

Wish I found this during winter

By Urban Adventurer

Thanks for the tips Heather. I could never get the hang of snowshoeing.... I always just fall in into the snow. How do you stay atop the snow? Maybe my snowshoes were just too small? Either way, can't wait to try them out again in the winter.

Very helpful.

By Catherine Boeckmann

Heather, those modern snowshoes do look easy. With all the deep snow we're getting in our neck of the woods (NH), it would make a lot of sense to put this on my gift list. I'm finding that cross-country skiing is just too difficult on some of the tight woodsy trails!

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