In our guide to snowshoeing, you’ll learn about the gear you need and the exciting and surprisingly simple art of snowshoeing so your winter will be just as fun and active as your summer.
Modern snowshoeing is quite different from the popular and intense reputation that you plunge headlong into terrible snow storms with giant tennis rackets strapped to your feet – it’s actually characterized by sleek, efficient gear and serene, invigorating melding with nature. While snowshoeing, you almost float over feet of fluffy snow while marveling at the profound and peaceful silence caused by the thick, sparkling blanket of white covering every surface. All sharp angles are erased, and everything has a soft, happy look to it. It’s a magical experience you must experience to believe. Oh, and best of all, you don’t even have to be cold while doing it.
Gear to Bring
Snowshoeing differs from summer hiking in that it requires a bit more planning for safety and enjoyment. But rest assured that all the planning you put into it will equal double the fun on the trail so long as you have all the right gear for your adventure.
If you’ve never participated in a winter sport before, you might want to try renting snowshoes for your first trip, just to make sure this activity is a good fit for you. Local sporting goods stores often rent shoes for a reasonable amount.
If you’re buying and want a new pair, visit a nearby outdoor gear store or one of the many gear websites online. These will range anywhere from about $90-250. Definitely consider checking out second hand as well. There’s a surprising number of mint-condition snowshoes available on local classified sites and at garage sales and flea markets, usually for less than half of what you’d pay in the store.
There are two basic styles of snowshoes – hiking and running. Hiking snowshoes are rounded on the front and back and tend to be longer – the longer the shoe, the deeper snow it’s meant for. Meanwhile, running snowshoes come to a sharp point in back and are rather short. If you are looking to simply enjoy nature and hike at a leisurely pace, a medium-length, hiking style pair would be a good choice for you. If you know that you’ll want to literally be able to run (and are, apparently, in excellent physical shape!), then choose the latter.
While trying on your snowshoes, wear the boots that you’ll be using on the trail so you’ll know if the straps and bindings are a good fit.
Footwear for snowshoeing should be comfortable, waterproof snow boots. This means no hiking boots or rain galoshes. You’ll quickly realize on the trail that the snow and chilly temperatures ensure that no other type of shoe will keep your feet sufficiently warm, even if those other shoes work great in the city. You’ll want tops that rise at least a few inches above your ankles to keep out the snow – no low-top boots!
Many people enjoy using ski poles or trekking poles with “baskets” on the end to redistribute your wait as you march through the snow. These also come in handy if you fall over (an entertainingly frequent occurrence) and need to get back up.
A small backpack is essential on the trail. You’ll need it for snacks and water, but also to store the many clothing layers you are guaranteed to pull on and off throughout the hike. A bag with compartments is ideal, as it allows you to separate your snacks and beverage from the piles of clothes that might otherwise bury them and make refueling a challenge.
Sunglasses or Goggles
The warming sun combined with the striking white snow creates a glare that will strain your eyes after several hours outside, necessitating protective eye wear. You’ll also be thankful for your shades when gusty winds puff icy snow into your face.
Hat, Gloves, Scarf, Balaklava
What you’ll gather from this list is that you want to be well-covered. This isn’t to say that you might not spend the majority of the hike in a t-shirt, but when you walk in the shadow of trees or it’s a below freezing day, you can still be cozy while outdoors as long as you protect all exposed skin.
A note about gloves: make sure they extend far enough down your wrist, in combination with your jacket, to keep out snow. Put on your whole ensemble at home, wiggle and dance, and see if any openings present themselves for you to address before getting to the trailhead – you might need to pick up a new pair before you go to make sure you don’t get cold wrists while mounting an epic snowball assault.
One pair of warm socks and some good boots should keep your feet toasty as you hike. Be sure they are thick but comfortable, and don’t layer socks because this can lead to blisters.
Jacket and Top Layers
Your goal is to keep your upper body dry and warm. This is most often achieved through layers. Your outer layer can be a jacket of any thickness as long as the layers underneath keep you warm. A rain jacket with lots of layers underneath will keep you just as warm as a down jacket with just a t-shirt underneath. A couple rules of thumb to keep in mind are: 1) Cotton kills – when it gets wet, it doesn’t dry, so don’t wear a cotton top on a day with forecasted snow, and 2) You can always take off layers – bring more than you think you might need versus less, and when you get too warm, put what you don’t need into your day pack.
A pair of thermal leggings or workout pants under waterproof snow pants should be enough to keep your bottom half warm. Your outermost layer should ideally have elastic around the leg holes that you can guide over the top of your boots, creating a seal from the snow. If you don’t already have ski pants or snow pants, check out the nearest thrift store or outdoor retailer and pick up a pair. The overalls style really keep the snow out! Being fully waterproof means that you can plop down into the snow for a relaxing break or joyfully roll down a hill without getting wet or cold.
Snowshoeing is surprisingly demanding, although you’ll barely notice because of how much fun you’re having. So make sure you bring plenty to eat and drink to keep up your energy. For liquids, bring bottles of water that you nestle in your pack to keep from freezing and maybe a thermos of something hot and delicious like coffee or hot chocolate to keep spirits high. Bring easy-to-eat snacks and foods high in carbs and some protein to keep you going. You’ll notice that if you stop moving for too long, you’ll get cold, so it’s best to have something quick, like sandwiches for lunch, and easy, energy-producing snacks like snack bars, jerky, or trail mix so you don’t have to spend a lot of time at a stand-still.
How to Find Locations
Overall, anywhere you can hike during summer that has snow on the ground can be a great snowshoeing locale. Check your favorite hiking app or website to see if any recent comments mention snowshoeing or snow conditions. A few outdoor areas maintain their trails specifically for backcountry winter activities (snowshoeing and cross-country skiing), so if you want to find one of these, a good first step is always an internet search of “snowshoeing trails (your area)”.
You can also always call the ranger station of a specific National Park or state forest,where they might be able to tell you about some hidden gems.
If you live in a mountainous region, generally you can count on better snow the higher in elevation you go. And hiking directly after a big storm ensures you a fluffy, beautiful experience.
Hypothermia and frostbite are the main dangers on a winter trail. We already talked about bringing more clothes than you think you might need, but the flip side of this is – try not to sweat! Your body will be working hard and you’ll likely start out wearing lots of layers, but take off and put on clothes as often as you need to to avoid sweating. The wet clothes will initially bring a welcome cooling sensation, but it’ll take a long time to dry, and if your body cools down, during a snack break, for example, you’ll quickly feel colder than before.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, remember to eat and drink even though it’s not hot and you’re having so much fun, your body might not feel thirsty or hungry. If your body doesn’t get enough energy from food, you’ll feel cold from this as well.
Set yourself up for success by starting your trip with favorable conditions. Check the weather to make sure it’s not going to be too cold (yes, cozy layers do have their limits) or that a blinding snowstorm isn’t in the forecast.
Be cognizant of the short days of winter and get on the trail early. Being on the trail after dark means you won’t see anything lovely and the temperatures will plummet, so just avoid it. Also in regards to timing, know that snowshoeing miles are much slower than hiking miles. Even if you’re used to 10-mile summer hikes, plan on just a couple miles for your first outing, especially if there is any elevation gain.This will allow you to see how your equipment and body feel in this new environment before you plan something truly epic, like a hike to a hut where you can spend the night!
- For a fun lunch break, build yourself a little bench and table out of snow. It’s easy, fun, and the packed snow will keep you warmer than fresh, fluffy snow.
- Don’t be afraid to have fun with your new, soft environment. Fall over backwards and try to get backup, roll down a hill, (once you know the snow is deep enough) jump off a ledge into a sea of fluff, or venture off the trail into fresh powder – you can follow your tracks back!
- It’s always less windy in the trees, so keep this in mind while choosing your lunch and break spots so you don’t end up mysteriously frozen.
- Warning: around the bases of trees, the snow is thinner and you might sink in up to your hip unexpectedly. It’s pretty funny.
Ready for Adventure
A couple weeks from now, you’ll be at your car in a chilly parking lot, having donned the many articles of clothing I mentioned here and with a well-stocked day pack on your back, feeling uncomfortably like a like a puffy marshmallow and wondering if you’re going to like this crazy new sport. But trust me, the moment you leave the wind-swept parking lot and enter into the fairyland of white trees and the peaceful crunch, crunch of your feet on the snow, you’ll wonder what took you so long to get out there in the first place.