If you are looking for a hobby to keep you active during the winter, snowshoeing is a great option.
Snowshoeing was first invented several thousand years ago by the indigenous people to transport through the harsh winter months. The snowshoes would allow them to distribute their weight over a larger area, preventing them from sinking through the deep snow while also helping them hunt in deep snow without making much noise.
Now, snowshoeing is more of a recreational sport than a survival tool. Not saying you can’t use them to your advantage for walking to your remote cabin in the mountains, hunting, or traveling cross-country in the winter, but most people use them as a way to get outside and active during the cold months. So, why should you consider snowshoeing?\
Benefits of Snowshoeing
First off, snowshoeing is excellent exercise. Not only will trekking up and down snowy hills get your body temperature up, but you will be surprised how it works the leg muscles. Snowshoeing often provides the all-important Zone 2 workout for your heart, the type of workout where you heart rate is never super high or redlining, but elevated at a light workout pace for an extended period of time. More and more studies find that Zone 2 work is the best for your heart and fitness.
Secondly, snowshoeing is an inexpensive hobby to get into. For beginners, basic winter clothing and beginner snowshoes will be enough to get you started. When you compare it to other winter sports like skiing, snowmobiling, and ice-fishing, snowshoeing is a rewarding hobby with a low entry cost.
Plus, you can’t beat getting out in the beautiful outdoors, right?
It’s also a great sport to get into for anyone because of its low learning curve. Immediately after you strap on your shoes, you can start making strides. However, it does take time to get used to the width of the snowshoes as it is easy for beginners to step on the shoe frame.
While it is a more straightforward sport to learn, beginners will need practice when learning how to trek through different terrains and what to do in certain situations. Over time you will learn how to go uphill, downhill, traverse, and pick yourself out of the deep snow after a fall.
Before you head to your local sporting goods store to grab a pair, it is important to know what basic gear you will need.
If you live in a region where abundant snowfall is normal, you might already have some gear that will work fine for snowshoeing. Here is the basic items you will need to get you started:
- Good winter boots that are insulated and waterproof.
- Warm weather clothing, including a good base layer, hat, winter gloves, out layer like a ski jacket, and snow pants.
- For spring conditions, especially on sunny days, keep in mind that a light jacket might do. You will work up a fair amount of body heat snowshoeing.
- Snowshoes that fit you appropriately in size and weight.
- A good winter hat, facemask, or balaclava.
- Adjustable poles, preferably with snow baskets.
- Backpack equipped with food, water, and emergency supplies.
This will be enough to get you out there! It’s recommended for beginners to wait to buy expensive gear to first see if they enjoy the sport. As you get more experience and are ready for more challenging terrains, it is wise to look for more advanced snowshoes and safety gear.
BEST SNOWSHOE FOR BEGINNERS
For beginners who are just getting their feet wet or frosty, as we should say, the MSR EVO snowshoe (find it here at REI) is an inexpensive and durable choice. They are made out of plastic, making some people question their reliability, but the EVO doesn’t feel cheap and holds up well on the snow.
We have used these snowshoes, and love their shape, fit, and how light they are for the relatively value-price point. They don’t have a heel life, so we found that it created some calf burn when going uphill. (the heel lift is something you get at higher price points). If you are mainly walking on flat areas, such as frozen lakes, you probably won’t notice any issues.
The EVO snowshoes are a unisex design and three adjustable straps. The straps have a long range, so they can be adjusted to fit most people. Once you decide to upgrade to more advanced snowshoes, keep the MSR EVO’s around for guests to use. Never know who you will get to fall in love with snowshoeing next.
If you don’t want to buy snowshoes right away, renting is also a great way to go. Not only can you get advice from the people at the snow shop but you also get a chance to try different kinds of snowshoes. This will help you find what works best for you before making a purchase.
- Great value
- Lightweight for the money
- Limited crampon traction
- Simple binding
- No heel lift
BEST OVERALL SNOWSHOE
As we mentioned above, snowshoeing isn’t as easy as strapping them on and strolling through a winter park. Different terrains and snow conditions take various techniques to walk over. Getting a snowshoe that can handle powder, slush, ice, and steep pitches will give you confidence wherever your adventure takes you.
We found the Atlas Montane to be a solid choice that can handle all of the snowy conditions. They are more expensive, but it is worth the investment for people looking for a snowshoe that can do it all. If we could only go with one pair of snowshoes, it would be this one. Find it here at REI.
The Montane has a durable, eliptical-shaped aluminum frame ringed with small teeth for extra traction on ice. As you step, a well-placed toe crampon grabs the ground, and the two underfoot traction bars stabilize the snowshoe, giving ultimate traction even in the toughest situations. They are also light and easy-to-carry when you don’t have them on your feet (which occurs more often than you might expect).
Our field (or snowfield) test confirmed the performance we were expected, especially on climbs. Unlike the MSR EVO, the Montane has a heel lift that made our climbing a breeze, something you will appreciate if you find yourself doing any kind of ascent. Our experience is that the bindings are comfortable and forgiving for long treks. If you plan on using your snowshoes often under various conditions, the Montane is a great overall investment.
- High-end binding that is a step-up from base snowshoes
- Very lightweight
- Strong crampon traction
- Crampons may be too aggressive for some situations
What to Look for in Your Snowshoe
There are a few things to know about snowshoes, how they are made, and what you get for the money.
The frame of your snowshoe should be suited to the type of walking you will be doing. Wider and broader snowshoes are intended for people who will be walking in lots of deep powder, because a wider frame displaces your weight better and prevents you from sinking in to the snow. Smaller snowshoes work great on hardpack snow, but are also favored by people who need to do lots of climbing or uphill hiking.
Obviously, the lighter the better. The weight of the shoe is almost always proportionate to the price. The lighter the snowshoe, the higher the price.
The binding can come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from a simple strap to a complex binding system that can work with a wide variety of footwear. We recommend not skimping on the binding, because the better the binding, the more comfortable and versatile the snowshoe will be when in use.
Those mean-looking teeth on the bottom of the snowshoe are called crampons. Crampons are super useful when walking on ice or trying to walk uphill on a hardpack snow. In some situations, crampons are a key safety factor. In more modest situations, they are nice-to-haves.
Higher-end snowshoes usually have a heel lift, which allows mobility for your heel when walking, versus being clamped-in with not range-of-motion. Many like to have some heel lift, especially when snowshoeing on hilly terrain. If you don’t have a heel lift, walking up hill is harder and will wear on your calves.
Best Places To Snowshoe
If you are looking for places to snowshoe, you will be happy to know that there are an endless amount of places to go. Starting with your hometown is a great place to begin. Local parks, snow-covered golf courses, and even the city streets are perfect places to get out for a winter stroll.
Here are some ideas for places to snowshoe outside of your hometown:
Ski-in, ski-out cabins, and lodges
Snowshoe from your front door. Just find an area with ample snow and terrain nearby. Places like Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, Michigan, and the Northern Rockies are good options for this. If you have access to frozen lakes (noted below), then that is a bonus because frozen lakes can open up lots of great terrain.
Many ski areas have dedicated snowshoe trails, and they can be a ton of fun. If you head to any mountain resort town, you will likely find snowshoe trails and even a lodge or ranch that rents the snowshoes and has terrain for you to explore. It can be a great option for those windy days when you don’t want to be on the chairlifts.
One key note — it is important to not snowshoe on nordic or cross-country ski trails. Those trails are groomed specifically for a good skiing experience, and a snowshoe can chew-up the groom job. Find snowshoe-specific trails. If you snowshoe on a nordic trail, there is a good chance you will get scolded by a skier, in addition to damaging the trail.
Open backcountry areas
Great for exploring, but always do your research on avalanche danger. Always be aware of conditions – avalanches happen fast!
National and state parks
A perfect way to use our national parks during the quieter winter months. Many national and state parks open their bike and hiking trails for nordic skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
This might seem a little crazy to some, but in areas like New England and the Upper Midwest, the lakes freeze and become hubs of activity in the winter. They can be great surfaces to snowshoe on once they have a few inches of accumulated snow on top of the ice. In fact, snowshoeing is often the easiest way to get across them.
It may seem like a good idea to snowshoe on hiking trails that you know, but it is recommended to avoid them. Narrow and rocky trails are difficult to snowshoe and can be dangerous. Falling into a tree well or getting caught in an avalanche is always a risk in deep snow areas.
What Remember When Snowshoeing
Snowshoeing is an amazing sport because it’s great exercise, great for all ages, easy to learn, and inexpensive to get started. Beginners and even advanced snowshoers always need to keep in mind safety protocols when venturing out in winter conditions.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Before going to a new backcountry area, be sure to do your research. Not only could you get yourself in a dangerous situation such as an avalanche, but you could also find yourself in a restricted area. Ski resorts, national parks, and state parks have different guidelines for people who want to snowshoe, so be sure to check with them before your trip.
RESPECT THE LAND AND FELLOW SNOWSHOERS
When you are snowshoeing, it is fine to go off of the trail to adventure other areas. If you do come across an area with plants poking through the snow, avoid those areas to help preserve the vegetation.
In addition, follow the simple rule of if you pack it in, pack it out. Don’t be the guy who leaves his granola bar wrapper in the snow.
Lastly, be sure to respect other snowshoers. The faster snowshoer always has the right away, so if you have people approaching behind you, move to the side and let them pass.
PREPARE FOR THE WORST
During the winter season, the weather can go from a bluebird day to a wind-chilling snowstorm in a matter of seconds. Since snowshoeing is often done in open areas, it is easy to lose visibility and get lost.
Always bring a pack with you with cold weather gear that can stand up to a harsh change of conditions. This includes but not limited to:
• Extra food and water
• Extra clothing, such as a dry baselayer
• First aid kit
• Knife (Swiss army knife is best)
• Shovel, along with an avalanche beacon if you are in an ungroomed mountainous area
• Winter gloves and hat that can stand up to moisture and precip
It is recommended to always snowshoe with a partner in backcountry areas. If you decide to go snowshoeing on your own, make sure you tell somebody exactly where you are going and when they should expect to hear from you. This way, if something does happen, they can immediately call for help in that area.
Do snowshoes really work?
Yes, big time. They keep your feet from sinking into the snow with each step, and give you added traction due to the crampons. Think about it this way — when you drive your heel into soft ground, you leave an imprint because all your weight is concentrated in that one spot. But if you step flat on the same ground, you barely leave a dent. That is because the same weight is being displaced over a much larger surface area.
Do snowshoes have a left and right?
Some do. Some don’t. Generally, the less-expensive the shoe, the more they are universal fit. Higher-end shoes may have a left and right – largely because the binding is specific to one foot or the other. Generally, you want to have the loose end of the binding strap sticking out to the outside of your foot, which often creates a defacto left and right.
Do snowshoes work on sand and mud?
They can work OK on sand, but we never recommend it because it will wear the snowshoe much, much faster than is intended. They don’t work well in mud because of the suction created by the mud.
Can I rent snowshoes?
Yes, in winter outdoors destinations, snowshoe rentals are abundant. Good to any local outdoors shop that rents skis, and you likely will find snowshoes available for rental as well.
Whether it is snowshoeing or any other activity, remember to have fun! Snowshoeing is a great sport for families and adrenaline junkies alike. Rent some snowshoes and give it a try; you just might be glad you did!