SnowShoeing 101: How to Snowshoe

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SnowShoeing 101: How to Snowshoe

Hiking in winter doesn’t necessarily have to be off the cards, but it does require some different skills – learn how to snowshoe with our in-depth guide.

Kieran James Cunningham
Kieran James Cunningham
Last Updated: August 16, 2020

Looking to learn how to snowshoe?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • Learn the basic techniques of snowshoeing
    • Find out how to choose the perfect pair of snowshoes for your needs
    • Learn how to stay safe when traveling in snow-covered terrain
    • Understand the differences in techniques for snowshoeing

Learn how to snowshoe with our simple, step-by-step guide for beginners. Get to know the basic techniques for ascent and descent, traversing, safety measures, and how to choose the ideal snowshoes for your adventures.

When wintertime comes, many hikers are apt to pack away their boots and backpacks until spring. However, by doing so, they miss out on one of the most enjoyable times of year to be exploring the backcountry.

Not only are the trails quieter, but you also get to enjoy the hugely satisfying crunch of snow beneath your feet and the simply impressive spectacle of snow-clad landscapes.

For those not keen on the expense and risk involved in cross-country skiing, the best way to do so is with one of the oldest modes of snow-travel: snowshoeing.

By learning how to snowshoe, any hiker can open up a whole new world of opportunities and turn themselves from a fair-weather part-timer into a fully-fledged, four-season adventurer.

In the following guide, that’s what we aim to achieve. In our step-by-step guide, we’ll take you through all the basics of snowshoeing, so you have the know-how and technique required to get your wander on all through winter.

What you will need to follow this snowshoeing tutorial

To get started as a snowshoer, you’ll need the following:

  • A pair of hiking boots
  • A pair of snowshoes
  • Hiking poles
  • Standard winter hiking kit and clothing

Snowshoeing 101: Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1: Choose Your Shoes

Snowshoe Type

Snowshoes come in three types: recreational, racing, and backcountry snowshoes.

  • Recreational Snowshoe – Ideal for beginners and travel on relatively flat terrain.
  • Racing Snowshoe – Narrower and more lightweight than both recreational and backcountry snowshoes. Often less durable and supportive.
  • Backcountry Snowshoe – Have a wider surface area to support more weight and often lateral, perimeter crampon teeth to aid traction and grip in soft snow.

For most novices, either recreational or backcountry models are best suited. Both of these snowshoe types are more robust and have larger surface areas that provide better flotation (ability to support weight above snow). Once you’ve mastered the technique, lighter racing models become an option.

hikers putting on snowshoes

Snowshoe Fit

Choosing well-fitting snowshoes is critical to being able to travel safely and comfortably in snow-covered terrain.

Snowshoes are sold with maximum recommended weights for the user plus gear. We recommend erring on the safe side by choosing a pair with a max recommended weight that leaves a buffer of at least ten pounds.

The bottom line concerning snow shoe sizing goes as follows:

The larger the surface area of the snowshoe, the better flotation it will offer.

However, striking a balance between flotation, weight, and maneuverability is the key to finding the perfect snowshoe for you.

Snow shoes that are too large will be cumbersome and heavy, leading to leg fatigue far quicker and making it difficult to turn or maneuver.

Snowshoes that are too small, on the other hand, will likely lead to post-holing.

Postholing is, essentially, the very problem snowshoes were designed to solve. It occurs when the snow’s surface is unable to bear your weight and, consequently, your foot and leg plunge straight through.

Snowshoes too small for our weight might prevent post-holing up to our thighs. However, their limited surface area means, in most cases, we’ll sink at least a few inches, which makes progress highly fatiguing.

Finally, the conditions in which you do your snowshoeing will also impact sizing.

If you envision snowshoeing on packed snow on popular trails, then less flotation is required. If, however, you plan on hitting fresh powdery snow on backcountry outings, then flotation becomes your number one priority.

hiker snowshoeing with hiking pole

Step 2: Pick Your Poles

Often deemed an “optional” accessory for hikers, poles are all but necessary when snowshoeing. Poles improve balance on flatter terrain and help when crossing slopes and serve as “brakes” when using the side-stepping technique (see below) in ascent or descent.

Both standard trekking poles and ski poles will do the job. However, be sure to swap out skinny baskets for wider snow baskets to ensure your poles don’t simply plunge into the snow.

Step 3: Safety Considerations

Before venturing into the backcountry in snowshoes, we highly recommend taking a course in winter safety skills. At the very least, make sure and check avalanche forecasts for your area and take a raincheck if the risk is elevated.

Even when avalanche risk is moderate or low, every member of your party should also be carrying (and, of course, know how to use) an avalanche transceiver/beacon, a probe, and a shovel.

Step 3: Putting on Your Snowshoes

Lay your snowshoes out on the firmest patch of snow you can find – in soft snow, they’re likely to sink in, making tightening the snowshoe straps or buckles tricky.

Next, place your foot in the binding of the snowshoe and tighten all of the straps or buckles. The ideal level of pressure is tight enough that you can’t squeeze a finger under the straps but not so tight that the straps dig into your foot.

Before setting off, tuck away any excess strap material to avoid snagging or stepping on it while on the move.

hikers snowshoeing through power snow

Step 4: Techniques for Travel on Flat Terrain

You’ll want to try to walk with as natural a gait as possible. This may take a while to master the first time you go snowshoeing, but the idea is to avoid “waddling” with legs too far apart, which can place too much strain on the inner thighs.

Pole use – Make sure your poles should be held at a 45-degree angle, pointing backward from your hip. Pushing back on your poles at this angle uses less energy and also places the poles in the perfect “brake” position if you slip.

When breaking trail—that is, snowshoeing in fresh snow—the most effective technique is stamping.

Stamping involves planting your heel on the snow a fraction before your toe and pausing briefly before transferring your weight to the leading foot. This will make the powdery snow marginally more compact, reducing the effort required to progress and the risk of post-holing.

Breaking trails in deep snow is, we assure you, exhausting work. When doing so, be sure to share the burden by rotating your leader.

Step 5: Climbing

A total of five snowshoeing techniques can be used for ascending different angles of slope: stepping-upherringbone steppingfront-pointingside-stepping, and kick-stepping.

Stepping-up: Used on moderate inclines, this snowshoe technique entails facing directly uphill and stamping into the snow with your weight on the front of your foot.

Herringbone stepping: Another technique for moderate inclines involves facing uphill with the toes of your snowshoes splayed outward at a 35-45 degree angle. Using this method, the lateral bars on your snowshoes dig into the snow and improve traction.

Front-pointing: Used on steep inclines over short distances, this snowshoeing technique is similar to “front-pointing” in crampons. Place all of your weight on your toes, plant your poles for balance, and move upwards with short steps while keeping your feet horizontal.

Side-stepping: On slopes that are too steep to tackle face-on, turn sideways to the slope and take a sideward step uphill, making sure to plant your foot firmly to create a shelf and so all of the snowshoe’s crampons (the teeth or “tines” on the sole) are engaged. Bring your lower foot up beside the first foot and repeat the process until the angle of slope eases off.

To avoid slipping, plant your lower pole firmly in the snow before making a step.

Kick-stepping: This entails kicking the toe of your snowshoes into the snow to create pockets or steps that allow you to progress on very steep inclines. After each kick, test the solidity of your “step” with a downward push before placing your weight on it.

hikers snowshoeing down a hill

Step 6: Descending

Two techniques can be used to descend: down-hilling and side-stepping.

Down-hilling: Used on moderate slopes, this involves walking with knees slightly bent and your weight ever so slightly towards the heel of the snowshoe.

Side-stepping: As with uphill side-stepping, use this technique when moving down steep slopes. Standing perpendicular to the slope, move one foot at a time downwards, leaning your weight into the slope and planting your lower pole before each step.

Step 7: Traversing

The easiest way to cover terrain in snowshoes is to travel either directly up or down. Doing so, we ensure all of the snowshoes’ crampons are engaged and maximize grip.

Occasionally, this isn’t possible due to the severity of the incline or obstacles. In such instances, we have to employ the traversing technique.

When traversing, the risk of slipping is increased because the angle of any slope will push some of the crampons of our snowshoes away from the snow, thereby reducing our grip.

To minimize this risk, kick the slope-ward edge of your snowshoes into the slope to create as wide a shelf as possible and push down on the edge to solidify the step. Plant your downhill pole firmly beneath the lower snowshoe to act as a block if the shelf collapses or you slip.

Conclusion

Snowshoeing is one of the most fun and affordable ways to get your outdoor time in the winter months. As the above tutorial has shown, it’s also easy to learn. By following the above steps, you’ll be learning skills that will serve you for years to come and hold you in good stead for, we hope, a whole host of future snowshoeing adventures.

How did you enjoy our tutorial?

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