Welcome to the Winter edition of Gym Class! Let’s kick off this season with my favorite (and widely underrated) snow-based sport: snowshoeing. Because I have poor balance and am very tall, skiing and snowboarding have never been high on my list of recreational activities. Instead of fun ways to spend a weekend, I saw them as (fun?) ways to fall faster and harder, or maybe hit a tree! Hmm. For a long time, I thought my winter outdoor activities would be limited to snowball fights, building snowmen, and drinking hot chocolate while waiting for my friends to finish on the slopes. (TBH these are perfectly good options.) But then I tried snowshoeing, and it felt like the snowy cardio challenge I’d been hoping for all my life.
Introduction to Snowshoeing
Snowshoes were first developed in Central Asia to allow traveling and hunting in deep winter snow. Early versions were modeled on snow-dwelling animals, including designs based on bear paws, snowshoe hare paws, and beaver tails. In the Americas, Native people developed the wood-framed, webbed design that modern snowshoes mimic with lightweight, man-made materials. Nowadays, you can rent snowshoes at most ski resorts and at outdoor outfitters such as REI. Snowshoeing is a great way to enjoy the beauty of a fresh snowfall. It’s suitable for most fitness levels and, for safety reasons, it’s best to snowshoe with a partner, so it makes a great winter date!
Things You’ll Need
- Snowshoes (if renting from a ski resort, call ahead to check availability and pricing)
- Ski poles or trekking poles
- Waterproof boots
- Snow-appropriate clothes (similar to what you’d wear for skiing/snowboarding): waterproof, non-cotton layers; gloves; sun protection, including sunscreen, hat, glasses; extra shirt and socks to change into after
- Day pack with water, snacks, and safety supplies
Snowshoes have a wide frame, to help you stand on the snow instead of sinking in as much, and bindings, where your boots attach to the shoes. On most recreational snowshoes, the binding is “rotating”—attached to the frame at the balls of your feet, so your feet can stay flat under you even if you’re on a slope and your snowshoe frame is tilted up. This lets you walk more comfortably; the mobility of the frame also helps shed snow buildup as you move around.
Choose a flat, packed-down area. Snowshoeing is basically just walking with large shoes, though you may need to adopt a slightly wider stance than usual and pick up your knees a bit more in deep snow. Snowshoes have crampons on their undersides to give you traction and help prevent slipping. Your ski or trekking poles help you maintain balance. After you’ve walked around a bit and gotten used to how your feet feel in the shoes…
Move to a few small slopes
When you’re walking uphill in snowshoes, think about keeping your weight on the balls of your feet. Plant the front of your foot on the slope and plant your poles ahead of you, too. If you’re climbing in powdery snow, you can kick the front of your boot into the snow: this is called a “kick-step,” and it digs your toes (and the crampons on the binding under them) into the snow, allowing you to step up. Use your poles for balance and lean forward. When going downhill, think about keeping your weight in your heels. Dig your heels in with each step, and keep your knees slightly bent. If you start to lose your balance on the way down, sit back into the snow. Use your poles to help you get back up again. (Note: Some snowshoes do not have heel crampons, which affects your downhill technique. If renting, it’s a good idea to ask the rental office about the specific shoes you’ll be wearing and any tips they have for those shoes in particular.) Once you’ve practiced a few ascents and descents …
Try a trail that combines flat areas, small hills, and fresh snow
And you’re off! For your first excursion, plan for a “15 minutes out, 15 minutes back” length. Snowshoeing is a good workout, and you may get fatigued more quickly than you expect. If it’s a super-easy half hour roundtrip, then tackle a longer trail. Otherwise, take a well-deserved hot chocolate break. While out walking in areas with fresh snow, remember that it’s easier to walk in someone else’s footsteps than to be the one making the trail. Trade off with your hiking buddy as to who’s in the lead so you can share the work.
Planning Your First Trip
To get started, check out the ski areas near you and see which of them a) offer snowshoe rentals and b) have some designated snowshoeing or cross-country skiing trails. Also check if they allow snowshoeing on ski runs. On my first snowshoeing trip, my friend and I did a practice loop on a snowshoeing trail, then decided to walk up the mountain to the ski lodge at the top (#overachievers). We walked up ungroomed ski runs, mostly, and didn’t pass too many folks. But a few times we had to cross busy groomed ski runs to get to another section of ungroomed trail, and it was a little scary (think running across a busy street). On ski slopes, the downhill person technically has the right of way. But when snowshoeing this is not always the case. On ungroomed trails, skiers have the right of way—it’s easier for a snowshoer to pause and step out of the way than it is for the skier coming downhill to do the same.
Another etiquette tip: If you are sharing a trail with cross-country skiers, try to avoid disturbing their trails and tracks. Make your own path through the snow without damaging theirs.
Other than ski areas, where can you snowshoe? Suggestions range from national and state parks to Sno-Parks to anyplace with snow. Snowshoes.com has a search function where you enter your ZIP code and get a map of nearby snowshoeing locations. For your first experience, stick to a well-mapped ski area or Sno-Park (preferably one with a few designated snowshoeing or cross-country ski trails). This way you can focus on getting comfortable with your snowshoes, and not have to worry about getting lost or being far from help if you need it.
Check the weather before you go — a clear day will give you the best chance to enjoy your surroundings while walking — and don’t forget to bring a warm, dry change of clothes for the drive home.
Unlike most Gym Class activities, snowshoeing may take you into the backcountry or onto sparsely populated trails. Cell reception may be spotty. If you’re not sticking to a ski area, there will not be ski patrol. Here are some tips to keep you safe.
- Take a friend. Enjoy the winter scenery together, commiserate on long ascents, share snacks, help each other if one of you falls down.
- REI suggests taking a small emergency kit whenever venturing into the outdoors: here’s a full breakdown of their “Ten Essentials.”
- If you’ve gone out a few times in ski areas and want to try a more remote location, leave your trip plans with someone not going on the excursion. Have a map and compass (part of the Ten Essentials), be knowledgeable about winter dangers such as avalanches, and study up on cold-weather hazards such as hypothermia. Take care of yourself out there!
- It’s difficult to walk backwards in snowshoes; if you have to backtrack, turn around to do so.
- If walking in fresh snow, use your poles to check for obstacles (rocks, roots, etc.) ahead of you in the snow as you walk.
- Remember to bring (and drink) plenty of water. Between the dry, cold air and sweating as you exercise, you will be losing a lot of water, so be sure to put it back.
Into the Wild
I hope you have so much fun exploring the outdoors this winter! And if you fall in love with snowshoeing, you can progress to snowshoe-running. I truly did not know this was a thing people could do, but there is video evidence of smiling joggers bouncing through snowdrifts. There are even special snowshoes for it. O modern world!