By John England
If you enjoy hiking, you’ll like show shoeing. It’s easy to learn, fairly inexpensive, and best of all, it provides one the chance to explore the outdoors in the winter. I started show shoeing last year with a group of knowledgeable outdoorsmen and in only a few trips I gained enough experience to safely venture out on my own this season. Most large cities near the mountains are home to clubs for people interested in the outdoors, and I recommend signing up for classes at such locations if they are offered, even though it is possible to begin snow shoeing without any formal training. I found that by traveling with experienced snow shoe guides I was able to learn quickly without compromising safety. That being said, I hope the rest of this guide will provide you with the basic information that you need to get started in this wonderful activity.
Please keep in mind that as much fun as snow shoeing is, it can be dangerous under certain conditions. Every year winter enthusiasts die in avalanches because they travel into territory they shouldn’t or because they simply don’t know what they’re doing! Please take the time to educate yourself about avalanche safety before you venture out. It’s also a good idea to check fresh snow conditions before any excursion online.
Having the right equipment before you hit the snow is crucial to safety and comfort. It’s a good idea to layer your clothing, especially on top, so that if you get too hot while moving, you can easily slip a jacket off. Likewise, when stopped for lunch or a break, it’s important to put as much clothing on as is reasonably possible to avoid losing body heat, which quickly dissipates when you’re stationary. Staying warm at all times will increase the amount of enjoyment you receive from snowshoeing as well as protect you from cramping and injuries. Part of staying warm is staying dry, which means avoiding cotton in favor of materials like wool, polypropylene and fleece. If possible, wear materials that wick moisture away.
Top: Wear a thermal underwear top, a wool or fleece sweater and a water proof (preferably gortex) jacket. Regarding gloves, wear a pair of thin liner gloves under your heavy duty water proof gloves. If you need to take your gloves off, your hands will stay warm. A wool or fleece hat is also necessary, as are a pair of sun glasses to protect you from snow blindness, a condition that occurs when traveling across snow that reflects the glare of the sun. Speaking from experience, snow blindness can be quite painful. Some people also prefer to wear a scarf to help keep their neck warm.
Bottom: More or less the same as your top half, clothe your lower half in thermal underwear, a pair of fleece or wool pants and a water proof set of pants as your outermost layer. Under your boots, wear two pairs of socks: A thick pair of wool socks and a thinner liner pair. This will help keep your feet dry and comfortable over long distances. Also important is a piece of equipment called gaiters, which are thin strips of gortex that wrap around the bottom of a persons pants and the top of their boots and clasp in the back. Gaiters help keep snow out of your boots and from jamming up underneath your pants. As for boots, water proof hiking boots work fine. Some people prefer plastic boots, similar to ski boots, but I find them more difficult to move in. They also weigh more than regular hiking boots.
Snow shoes: The level of quality of your snow shoes is important – lighter is better and even a small difference in weight can be felt over longer distances. If you are unsure about whether or not you will like snow shoeing, contact your local camping store and inquire about snow shoe rentals. Also, if you’re buying your first set of snow shoes, have an expert at a camping store fit you to ensure that the snow shoes are right for you foot size and shape and your overall weight. If possible, bring the boots you plan on using when you get fitted.
Daypack: Bring a light day pack filled with lunch, extra food, an emergency medical kit, extra water bottles filled with water, matches, kindling (dryer lint or a candle work well), an extra sweater, an extra set of gloves and socks, an extra hat, a pocket knife, a map of the area you are in, a flash light, a compass and sunscreen. These outdoor basics will help you stay safe if you get lost or sustain minor injuries.
Ice axe: Even for casual hikes an ice axe is a good idea. The ice axe doubles as a walking stick for hills and can help you maneuver through difficult turns on slopes (more on this later). It’s also the best way to stop yourself from sliding if you happen to fall on a slope (wet snow becomes very slick making it easy to slide and pick up speed). Cover the pointy end of your ice axe with an old tennis ball when hanging from your bag to avoid accidentally poking others or yourself.
Foam pad: If you’re like me, you’d rather sit than stand when breaking for food. Sitting in the snow will not only lead to a wet backside, but a cold one. Bringing a lightweight foam pad solves this problem since it will not get wet as you sit on it, and your body heat will not seep into the snow.
Snow Shoeing Technique
Forward: The basic snow shoeing step is forward. When snow shoeing, it’s a good idea to take a step and then let all of the weight rest on your back foot slightly longer than you normally would as you bring your front foot forward. This is, of course, what a person normally does when walking, but in deep snow walking is not quite so easy, and by letting one leg rest, even if momentarily, the person snow shoeing tires out less easily. This extra half second of rest per step doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up over a long excursion.
Uphill and Downhill: If the snow is dry and relatively firm, you might be able to go straight up depending on the slope of the hill. Push your toe into the side of the hill and step down to create a step. Repeat by bringing your back foot forward to create a sort of staircase up the hill. Those behind you, as with flat ground, should follow your steps. If the snow is wet and slippery, walk at a forty five degree angle up the hill using your ice axe for balance. Change directions every twenty or so steps, depending on the shape of the hill, by placing your ice axe into snow on the upside of the hill and using it to pivot you around to the opposite side. Continue up the hill in this switchback pattern. Going downhill is the same, except that you should go more slowly and place the weight of your step on your heel, not your toe, in order to prevent slipping. Use your ice axe as you go for additional traction.
General: It is always better to travel with others than by yourself. If you are traveling with others, take turns breaking the trail. This will help prevent fatigue in the trail breaker. It is a good idea to rotate the lead position every fifteen minutes. It’s important to remember that the group should travel no faster than the pace of the slowest member. Staying together is of paramount importance.
When not leading, try to walk in the path that has been set by the leader in order to conserve energy. Leaders should take strides that everyone in the group can follow.
When snow shoeing, you burn a large amount of calories, which should be replaced frequently. You should break for food and water often (at least once an hour even if just for a few minutes). If you get hungry or thirsty, break.
Water: Bring at least two quarts and more if you’re planning on being out for more than four hours.
Food: This is a subject of some debate. I prefer to bring trail mix or GORP, small cheese wheels and crackers and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert. Whatever you decide on, bring something that is easy to carry, doesn’t require cooking or maintenance, and is calorie dense (focus especially on protein sources). Avoid beef jerky and salty snacks. The high salt content will dehydrate you.