How-to: Choosing and Using Snowshoes


PicsArt_1448573947521written by Kelly Bauer

Snow is starting to dust the mountains surrounding our valley, but don’t hang up your boots yet. Colder temps and snow packed trails don’t have to deter your adventuring spirit this winter. We want to help you make the most of your winter adventures. Whether you’ve never put on a pair of snowshoes or are a well-seasoned snow traveler, this article aims to help you begin your journey or brush up on your skills.

So how do you choose the perfect pair of snowshoes to fit your needs? Here are some things to consider before buying snowshoes.

  • Terrain: What terrain do you expect to travel on the most? Do you see flat ground, rolling hills or steep climbs in your future? If you foresee any elevation gain, a pair of snowshoes with a heel riser will be the most effective. The heel riser, sometimes called a climbing bar or televator, shortens the distance your heel needs to travel back down to the shoe, conserving energy on climbs. Using the heel riser changes your experience from one of walking up a steep ramp to walking up a flight of stairs.
  • Snow type: What type of snow will you be traveling on? Will it be hard packed snow or will you be breaking trail? Will the snow be light and dry or wet and heavy? In the Pacific Northwest, expect wet and heavier snow. The heavier the snow, the more weight it will support which means you can have a smaller, more maneuverable snowshoe.
  • Weight: Your weight as the wearer and the weight in your backpack should be considered when buying snowshoes. Your snowshoes should be able to carry the heaviest load you expect to carry. However, the larger the shoe, the harder it is to manage and maneuver, and denser trails become more difficult.There are a variety of snowshoe brands available, one of which is MSR, a durable, quality snowshoe, made in Seattle. All MSR snowshoes can be adapted using separate tails that will support more weight in lighter snow. A tail is an easily attached extension for the back of your snowshoe. This allows the user to buy a smaller, more manageable shoe for general use and still have the tail when needed for those heavier trips.
  • Ease of Use: Sitting in the snow with cold hands isn’t the time to realize you don’t like your strap system. Do you feel comfortable using the straps on your snowshoes? Do you feel comfortable using the straps with a pair of gloves or mittens? Try on your snowshoes before purchasing them to make sure you feel comfortable using them.

So now that you have your snowshoes, what’s next? Snowshoeing is not all that different from regular hiking. This means that you may already have some or most of the gear needed to keep you safe and dry. Some things to consider are:

  • PicsArt_1448573865339Hiking Poles: Poles will enhance your snowshoeing experience in a number of ways. While traveling on uneven terrain, they aid in balance. Poles absorb impact while traveling downhill which protects knees from injury and spreads the work throughout your body, reducing fatigue. Collapsible hiking poles can be strapped to your pack when not needed. Try your poles out before you take them on the trail to see what stride works best for you,  the elbows should rest comfortably at a 90 degree angle.
  • Boots & Socks: Look for a pair of boots that are waterproof and comfortable, an insulated boot is nice, but certainly not required. Warmth can easily be gained from a sock and the right gaiters. Boots that fit properly will reduce rubbing inside the boot which can lead to painful blisters. Your current boots may work if they can keep your feet insulated and dry. Wearing proper socks should not be overlooked. Warmth, cushion and breathability mean the difference between dry feet and frost-nipped, blistered toes. There are a variety of wool-synthetic blends to choose from, these are comfortable, breathable and insulate even when wet. Make sure the length of your sock is higher than your boot to avoid irritation and always carry extras in case your pair gets wet.
  • Gaiters: Consider gaiters to keep snow from creeping into your shoe at the ankles. Gaiters can also provide added warmth. Some pants even have gaiters built in. Know that once snow gets into your boot, it’s much harder to warm up your feet. Also, the snow melts as soon as it gets into your boot, immediately creating wet feet.
  • Clothing: Like your socks, AVOID COTTON. Cotton retains moisture when wet, reducing your ability to stay warm. Remember that snowshoeing is a highly aerobic activity. Think about how much you sweat when you hike; despite being surrounded by snow, you can easily overheat while snowshoeing. You are playing in the snow, where it is cold, but it is incredibly easy to be dumping out sweat. Be bold, start cold. Come prepared with a variety of light, breathable layers because staying dry is crucial to a good experience. Remember in Oregon, the weather can turn very quickly. Always be prepared with outer layers and warm, insulating layers.  
  • Backpack: Your backpack should be large enough to carry your extra clothing, water, snacks, first aid-kit, and a map/GPS. Pack your water inside your pack to prevent it from freezing. Some packs have attachments for your poles.  

Hope for the best, expect the worst, and plan for something in-between. This is how I plan for every trip, whether it be a day hike or an extended overnighter.  A short day hike in the Opal Creek Wilderness can unexpectedly be extended into the dark or overnight with a change of weather. Snow parks are not always well marked and shorter daylight hours mean you always risk spending a night in the snow. Are you prepared to do that? Extra base layers, food, firestarters, an emergency blanket, water and a first aid kit could mean the difference between you making it home safely or not. Let a family member or friend know your trip plan and when you plan to be back. Always be prepared for a worst case scenario when entering the out-of-doors. Thoughtful  preparation will give you the confidence and freedom to enjoy your trip.

So you have your snowshoes, you’re all geared-up and ready for adventure…it’s time to hit the trail! Here are some tips for getting started and traveling in the snow.

  • Getting Started: Put on your snowshoes by sitting down or kneeling on the ground. Make sure to cinch the straps enough so that there’s no room for your boot to wiggle out or twist.
  • Going Uphill: Snow will slide more when traveling uphill so plant the ball of your foot in the ground as you step.  On very steep terrain, it may be necessary to switchback. This is the process of zig-zagging up the hill to lessen the angle of the slope. This will add distance but decrease your energy expenditure.
  • Downhill: Traveling downhill can be extremely fun in snowshoes if the conditions are right. Using poles will greatly reduce the impact on your knees and add stability. On fresh snow, keep your feet level with the horizon rather than the slope of the hill. As you step, you will create a staircase to travel on. Once you are comfortable, you can try a leap step. Take larger steps, keeping your heel down and you will be able to travel faster. If conditions are icy, consider traveling in a switchback. Firmly plant the crampon into the ground before taking the next step to maintain stability.  

This should be viewed as an introduction to snowshoeing and not an all-encompassing how to document. Outdoor activities are inherently dangerous and full of risk; understand and accept the risks involved before participating, seek qualified instruction. There is an abundance of knowledge out there about snowshoeing in the Pacific Northwest. Basic Illustrated Snowshoeing, a Falcon Guide written by Eli Burakian is a wonderful resource for beginners or veterans looking to brush up on some tips. I hope you’ve gained some knowledge and confidence in beginning your snowshoeing adventures. If you have any questions, stop by the shop and we’d be happy to help you out!

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