Gear Review: More than a walk in the snow
December 27, 2018
The winter brings so many opportunities to get out and enjoy the snow: Downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country and skate skiing and fat biking are all excellent ways to play in the powder. However, there is one activity that seems to be the stepchild of snow sports.
Snowshoeing is often relegated to the last of a list, after all of the other opportunities are exhausted. Perhaps it's the fact that it's considered easy that many people eschew this particular pastime, opting instead for something more extreme.
"Snowshoeing is a 12-step program," said Claire Walter, author of "Snowshoeing Colorado" and "The Snowshoe Experience." "Take 12 steps and you're a snowshoer."
It's true: The act of snowshoeing isn't that difficult. It can be enjoyed by anyone, Walter said, from people with physical challenges to those who are the most fit. You don't have to take lessons — simply get the right gear and learn from a few common mistakes.
Perhaps one of the most common complaints about snowshoeing is the awkwardness of the snowshoes. This usually results from borrowing someone else's gear when you first start out. However, just as you'd never (hopefully) borrow your 6-foot-3 friend's skis or snowboard and take off, the same is true of snowshoes.
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Snowshoes come in various sizes, shapes and weights; the choices can be daunting, especially since they all really look the same at first glance.
"I think the lighter and the smaller, the better," said Bruce Kelly, owner of Pedal Power in Edwards.
There is a lot of subtle engineering in snowshoes. The materials used for the frame and the decking (the interior of the snowshoe) contribute to the weight and the stability of the snowshoe; the shape affects walkability and stability. Then there's the way the decking is attached to the frame, the opening for your foot, where the cleat is placed and how your foot sits in the bindings — there are a lot of technical aspects that differentiate types of snowshoes, Kelly said.
Kelly, who has been snowshoeing competitively for two decades, has decided his snowshoe of preference and only carries that brand, Northern Lites, in the store. There are a few different sizes, but the bottom line is, the longer (and therefore larger) the snowshoe you buy, the more your stride is going to be compromised. While a larger shoe provides more flotation on the snow, most people aren't going to be in enough snow — say, more than 8 inches of fresh powder — to make that much of a difference. Kelly said on normal, untracked snow, he didn't find much benefit in a larger shoe. Choose the smallest, lightest shoe that will support your size.
But perhaps the biggest challenge people have with snowshoes is the bindings.
"Over the years, what they like or dislike about either the snowshoes they have or the snowshoeing that they tried, usually the pat answer is the binding," Kelly said. "I haven't really found a great or excellent binding yet."
The straps that keep your foot attached to the snowshoe aren't very comfortable. In order to keep the snowshoe stable on your foot, you have to tighten the straps, which restricts blood flow and can lead to soreness or loss of feeling in your foot. They also have a tendency to loosen or even break, leading to an awkward stride that can affect your experience.
Kelly's answer is direct binding. This method takes your favorite running shoe and attaches it directly to the snowshoe, eliminating the need for a binding altogether. He equates it to having clipless pedals for your bike. The direct contact with your pedal allows your stroke to be more efficient and you don't have a strap, basket or toe clip around your foot.
The result is that where you step, the snowshoe goes. Plus it's lighter. Add there's a neoprene bootie around your shoe so your feet are warm and protected from snow, and you're good to go — no messing around with bindings.
Snowshoes for dummies
Now that you know what to wear, here's how to fix some other common problems that people experience out in the snow.
• The yeti syndrome — This is a fairly common problem that you see with snowshoers: They leave pristine and return looking like half of a yeti. This is caused by two things, Kelly said, the length of the snowshoe and its design.
After putting on races for 20 years, he's seen people return in all states. However, it's usually not the snowshoer who is at fault: It's the snowshoe. How the opening at the toe is designed, the tail at the back and its tilt, and the type of decking used can all contribute to snow kicking up on your back. Smaller snowshoes kick up less snow, so either test out a pair before you buy or be sure to dress accordingly.
"I would always recommend wearing shell pants," said Pavan Krueger, an athlete who competes in several snowshoe races throughout the winter. "You kick up a bunch of snow on your butt."
• Dress for success — Speaking of shell pants, the question of what to wear snowshoeing is also a common query. Waterproof pants are extremely nice to have (for reasons, see above) as well as for the occasional "sit and slide" situation you may encounter on a particularly steep slope.
"For snowshoeing, a really lightweight shell is good," Krueger said. "It will keep snow from sticking to your clothing. I wear a polypropylene and a fleece if it's cold, and a shell. You can always tie it around your waist."
Krueger also recommended wearing lightweight gloves — fleece will do — and sunglasses. Not only do they protect against the glare on the snow, but they'll also protect your eyes.
"When you're going off the trail, you're getting in trees and things and you'll poke your eye out," Krueger said. "I always wear glasses."
Walter also suggested wearing gaiters to keep snow from creeping into your shoes and carrying poles when snowshoeing. Such as with hiking, poles can add stability, as well as give you more of an upper-body workout.
• Snowshoeing with dogs — There's no better way to get the dogs out for some exercise than snowshoeing. However, there are some tips and tricks to think about, especially if you have a dog that likes to step on the back of your shoes, like Kaylee Porter's dog, Silas.
Walter said if your dog is well-behaved and doesn't run away and off-leash dogs are allowed in that area, then letting him or her off leash makes sense. If you need to keep your dog leashed, then an extendable one can help keep your pet from pulling you off of your feet if it gets interested in something and stops suddenly.
"You're not likely to fall in snowshoes, but a dog can do it," she said.
Additionally, be courteous. Carry plastic bags to dispose of waste and pack it out. If you're on a route used by cross-country skiers as well, try not to cross over the groomed trenches they use.
"Snowshoes are the all-terrain vehicles of the winter backcountry," Walter said. "You can go anywhere and pretty much do everything."
Whether you're looking for a way to trek uphill for an early morning turn, want to enjoy the peace and solitude of untracked terrain or, like Krueger, you simply like winter running and the snowshoe races require using snowshoes, there are plenty of reasons to pick up this winter pastime. Get some snowshoes and start walking.