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 satisfying crunch of snow beneath your feet and the 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 this mode of travel, 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.
Table of Contents
- What you will need to follow this snowshoeing tutorial
- How to Walk in Snowshoes: Step-by-Step Instructions
- Extra tips on How to Snowshoe
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
How to Walk in Snowshoes: Step-by-Step Instructions
1: Choose Your Shoes
Your first time out on the trails in deep powder will need some great gear. 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 a beginner snowshoer, 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). Once you’ve mastered the technique, lighter racing models become an option.
Choosing well-fitting snowshoes is critical to being able to travel safely and comfortably in a powdery white rolling 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 snowshoe 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 right-size snowshoe for you.
Snowshoes 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 & ski tracks, then less flotation is required. If, however, you plan on hitting fresh powdery snow on backcountry outings, then flotation becomes your number one priority.
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.
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.
4: Putting on Your Snowshoes
Lay your snowshoes out on the firmest patch of snow you can find – in softer conditions, 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.
5: 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 a fraction before your toe and pausing briefly before transferring your weight to the leading foot. This will make the powder 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.
A total of five snowshoeing techniques can be used for ascending different angles of slope: stepping-up, herringbone stepping, front-pointing, side-stepping, and kick-stepping.
Stepping-up: Used on moderate inclines, this snowshoe technique entails facing directly uphill and stamping 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 crampon usage. 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 before making a step.
Kick-stepping: This entails kicking the toe of your snowshoes 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.
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.
The easiest way to cover terrain in snowshoes is to travel either directly up or down. In 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.
Extra tips on How to Snowshoe
- Always check the weather forecast before you head out, and make sure you have the gear and clothing layers to keep you warm and dry.
- Keep an easy pace, so you don’t break too much of a sweat & don’t take long breaks – either can result in feeling cold. Adjusting your clothing layers to suit the conditions is key to helping keep you warm.
- Keep snow off your snowshoes & poles by occasionally tapping them to prevent icy build-up and lack of traction.
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.
Did you enjoy our tutorial on learning how to snowshoe?
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