Snowshoeing Made Easy
By Kent Trulsson and Laura Kimberly
Snowshoeing is almost as easy as walking. Certainly walking on snow with snowshoes is much easier than walking on snow without them. Anyone who has tried a hike through deep snow in boots has experienced “post-holing”—sinking to your knees or even further. Snowshoes are designed to spread your weight over more snow surface, providing floatation and eliminating that deep drop into the powder.
The typical modern snowshoe consists of an aluminum frame from 20” to 30” long and 8” to 10” wide. Across that frame is stretched some type of decking, either a plastic sheet or thin webbing much like a tennis rackets’ strings. A hinged binding designed for regular hiking boots, usually consisting of a toe clip and heel strap webbing, is attached to the frame. Crampon-like cleats mounted to the bottom of the binding, deck, and frame keep the snowshoe from slipping on ice and steep slopes. Each snowshoe weighs one to one and a half pounds.
Snowshoes are rated to support a specific range of total weight, including both body weight and pack. In Taos and other winter destinations, you can rent snowshoes—a good idea for your first time out. Generally, rental snowshoes are available in either 25” or 30” lengths. If your total body and pack weight exceeds 180 pounds, you need a 30” snowshoe. For most trail hiking, where the snow has already been compressed, any snowshoe will do. On deeper and dryer snow, a bigger shoe is needed to keep you from sinking.
Even if you plan to rent your snowshoes, you will need to bring your own boots. For day trips in dry snow conditions like at Taos, water-resistant ankle-height hiking boots, with your usual liner sock and warm outer sock will work fine. Gore-Tex lining or Gore-Tex socks add a dryness factor. Knee high gaiters keep your legs warm and snow out of your boots.
Many people erroneously believe that special skill is required to snowshoe. In fact, most beginning snowshoe hikers acquire the technique on the first 100 feet of trail. Walking with snowshoes is not much different than hiking on a dry trail, with a few caveats. First, because snowshoes are wider than your boots, walk with a wider gait. Second, pick up your feet a bit more with each step, to avoid catching the toe of your snowshoe in the snow. Third, you will need trekking poles with snow baskets (or ski poles), to help in maintaining balance, and in getting up if you fall. While you could hike without poles over gentle slopes, steep sections of trail will necessitate the poles.
Snowshoeing requires a bit more exertion than hiking on a dry trail, because, even though the snowshoes provide floatation, you still sink slightly into the snow with each step and the weight of the snowshoes requires slightly more energy to move. To offset the extra effort, snowshoe hikes are usually shorter and at a generally slower pace. If you can hike a six mile trail in the summer, you can handle a three to four mile snowshoe hike. Your first time out, let someone else break a fresh trail and save your strength for making snow angels!
Because snowshoeing is a sustained aerobic sport, you can expect to get quite warm while moving, even with temperatures around the freezing mark. It is not unusual to see snowshoe hikers stripped down to their short-sleeved tee-shirt tops. Jackets and shells usually trap too much heat and moisture to work well while you are moving. On the other hand, when stopping for breaks, you will cool off fast, and will need to be able to add layers quickly to stay warm. Ventilation options in your clothing allow you to control your temperature—zippers, buttons, and snaps rather than turtlenecks. Carry clothing that is easy to take on and off and to take advantage of the basic versatility of layering--removing what you don’t need or adding more. Don’t forget weather stripping for the body—prevent drafts with a hat, a neck gaiter, and gloves. While hiking, be careful to not get wet with sweat; it is better to stay slightly cool than to get too warm.
Carry the same essentials you would on a spring or fall hike including plenty of water. Don’t forget your sunglasses. Sun reflects brightly off snow and can cause eye damage.
If you can hike, you can snowshoe. The rewards are the same beautiful mountains, creeks, trees, and views of any season—all dressed up in white.