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Winter is here and it’s the perfect time to think about staying outside and extending the hiking season! Snowshoeing is my favorite winter activity and has been a game changer when it comes to my attitude during the colder months. So, when Minnesota Monthly Magazine contacted me to do a quick story and photo shoot on the sport, I practically did a cartwheel. It’s on news stands now, if my husband hasn’t bought all of them yet.
Snowshoeing is a winter sport perfectly suited to the gentle, ambling pace of Minnesotan life. It can be almost as easy as walking—or you can ramp it up.
“I’m a Southern California transplant, and I hated winter for two decades,” says Jen Theisen, laughing. “Everybody told me, ‘Embrace it,’ but I didn’t take that advice.”
Everything changed when Theisen’s children joined the Boy Scouts. Even though she had little experience, teaching kids to love the wilderness ignited Theisen’s own passion for the outdoors. (see last post)
During the infamous winter of 2010, with ice dams laying siege to her kitchen and the Metrodome collapsing under record snowfalls, Theisen borrowed a pair of snowshoes from her friend, to help her traverse the frosty landscape, and something clicked.
“Sometimes I think that I prefer snowshoeing to summer hiking because it’s quiet and peaceful,” she explains. “I feel more empowered and I feel more safe if I’m sure-footed, if I can see my surroundings, and I can enjoy just being in the forest without [worrying about] what’s out there with me.”
As a Women Who Hike ambassador and a snow[sports] merit badge counselor, Theisen has become an ardent advocate of winter hiking. She touts the relatively low cost and shallow learning curve of snowshoeing as an alternative to spendier pursuits like cross-country skiing or fat biking.
Nearly every park in the Three Rivers Park District—20 parks and 10 regional trails throughout Hennepin, Carver, Dakota, Scott, and Ramsey counties—rents snowshoes, including kids’ sizes, for just $5 a day, and there are 50-plus miles of snowshoeing trails.
“You actually burn more calories snowshoeing than you do running,” Theisen says. “It’s accessible to everyone. If you can walk, you can go on snowshoes.”
The best way to get started snowshoeing is to strap into a pair and try it. Really, its that simple. I started in the front yard, graduated to the elementary school and then the local park. If you aren’t ready to buy, a few local outdoor retailers and parks rent them. Or see if you can borrow a pair, dress in layers and go for it!
According to two independent studies conducted by Ball State University and the University of Vermont, snowshoers can burn between 420-1000 calories per hour.
The combination of resistance exercise with cold weather amps up your internal stove and burns more calories. Using poles will add stability and also get your arms moving, which will keep you warm and burn more calories too. This is also a good reason to bring a high fat snack like nuts and an insulated container of Hot Chocolate!
Snowshoeing is also a great way to get some fresh air and sunshine with friends during the long winter months to combat the seasonal blues.
I only know of one: Don’t walk on the Cross Country Ski tracks.
This rule applies whether you are wearing boots or snowhoes. It might seem like a small thing, but its really important to respect groomed ski trails and try not to disrupt them so everyone can enjoy the trail.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back
- Bring your 10 essentials and know how to use them.
- Use caution on frozen water. If you don’t know the conditions, avoid it.
- Go at your own pace and exertion level. It’s a workout!
- Stay hydrated. It’s easy to get dehydrated in winter when you aren’t expecting it.
What To Wear
Snowshoeing generates a lot of body heat. So after over heating a few times, I’ve learned to dress in thinner layers, keep moving, eat high calorie food and carry a warm back up layer in my pack. Details on my layers pictured above can be found on last season’s post A California Transplant’s Guide to Winter Layers
I like wool layers and try to stay away from cotton or down on my mid layer (it gets wet and heavy). This winter, I’ve got a new jacket and boots to try out. The Minnesota Company, Enlightened Equipment sent me a synthetic Women’s Torrid Apex Jacket to try earlier this year. Its warm, very lightweight and has performed great on my fall hiking and camping trips so far. I’m waiting for a good heavy snow to test its moisture resistance and drying time. I also recently switched to Vasque Pow Pow III UltraDry boots because they are both warm and waterproof. The main thing is to make sure you can easily add or remove layers, while you’re kicking up all that body heat!
Other Gear and Tips
As I mentioned, I bring a small daypack big enough to fit an extra warm layer (like my puffy jacket), first aid kit, and 10 essentials. Especially in cooler or wet temps, you should always prepare for an extended time in the elements or unexpected night outside.
To extend the life of your electronics in the cold, try using hot hands chemical hand warmers to keep them toasty. Here are my other favorite cold weather hacks
“The biggest thing that many beginners experience is just remembering to leave just a tiny bit more space between your feet,” Theisen says. “Almost everybody steps on a snowshoe their first time and does a face plant.”
As with cross-country skiing, poles can be a real lifesaver on frosty terrain. “If you hike with poles, your chances of tipping over greatly reduce,” Jen explains.
Apart from a wider stance, your stride while snowshoeing should be pretty similar to your normal hiking stride—except while walking uphill, when it pays to shorten your stride for traction. If the terrain feels slippery, push your feet down to dig into the snow with your shoes’ crampons (cleats).
Walking downhill can be tricky, so try to keep your back straight and your knees slightly bent. Go as slowly as you need, using your poles for support.
Ready to buy?
Cost, ease of use and size are some of the biggest considerations when buying a first pair of snowshoes. As you gain experience, you may consider things like weight, bindings, crampon style, terrain, and whether they will be used for running or hiking. Personal choice, but I would avoid the old fashioned tennis racket style, unless you know you will be in really deep snow, and get a pair that has a nice crampon (metal claw) on the bottom. This modern style is more versatile and stable up and down hills and varying snow conditions.
I have found all of our snowshoes at REI garage sales, the thrift store and gear swaps. If you have the money to invest right away, by all means, get fitted at a shop and buy a really good pair. If you just want something to kick around in while you figure out what you want, don’t be afraid to pick up a less expensive pair. Chances are, you will upgrade into another set before they break or you will be able to give or sell them to someone else just starting out.
Ease of Use
I have some really nice MSR snowshoes, but I think the bindings are hard to take on and off with mittens, so I don’t use them much. They may be higher quality than my other snowshoes, but I rarely use them because I don’t like the way they adjust or taking them on and off. I prefer a nylon webbing binding that can be quickly released by a spring tab and cinched up with one mittened hand. They are heavier, but this makes my old Atlas Elektra’s my favorite in our collection. Atlas and Yukon Charlies are two brands that have a binding like this, so make sure that you can get in and out of them easily before you purchase.
Here is a sizing guide and other great tips to review before you purchase. I think it’s ok to flex to a little bigger size if the price is right. If you are buying new, by all means, get sized and buy the right ones. Buying a pair that is too small, however, will reduce the effectiveness of the “floating effect” that snowshoes provide (and you’ll sink).
Time to get out there! Here are a few more tips for getting started and making it fun.
Crescent Moon launched an EVA soled snowshoe that I am super anxious to try. (Update! Gear review here!) It’s lightweight design might even get me to sign up for a snowshoe race! I have several pairs of different styles and sizes that my family wears, but this is the most innovative design I have seen yet. I’ve even seen photos of people using them on sand! Talk about a multipurpose, lightweight shoe!
And please share your favorite snowshoe tips and questions in the comments below.