Snowshoeing is one of my favorite winter activities. Next to that it is also an activity that basically anyone can enjoy in an area where there is enough snow. In this article I will explain what snowshoeing is, what kind of snowshoe activities there are and about the kit that you need.
Snowshoeing is fun! However, if you barely sink into the snow, it is a fairly pointless and inconvenient activity and it is better to just go for a walk. If the feet have to be lifted clumsily high (and therefore tiring) each time, the snowshoe will prove its worth and the more snow there is, the more fun it becomes. In addition, on snowshoes you can enter areas that would otherwise remain inaccessible. But what should you pay attention to on your first snowshoe trip?
Different activities snowshoeing
Snowshoes can be used in three ways: on day hikes, on large snowfields and in alpine terrain. During a day hike, the terrain is relatively flat, although this is of course not necessary. It is true that, even in case of any problems, you always come home. A day trip ‘close to home’ requires less preparation, experience and possibly spare material. Enjoyment is paramount, especially in winter sports areas.
On the large snow expanses in Canada or Scandinavia, moving yourself is virtually impossible without aids. The snowshoe is the alternative to the ski or snowmobile. On multi-day trips, the durability of the snowshoe in these sparsely populated areas is essential, as is good condition and being able to call for help if something should go wrong.
Making a one or more day trip through alpine terrain on snowshoes is by far the most difficult. You must have good ascent and descent technique (kick-in, surf), be able to estimate which slopes you should and which you should not ‘take’ and finally have avalanche knowledge and be able to deal with avalanche transceivers and probes. In alpine terrain, snowshoeing is definitely a risky sport: you think you can do it, but avalanches are lurking and knowledge of the weather forecast is essential. If you have little or no experience with all this in alpine areas, always go out with a guide.
Type of snowshoes
No one can say for sure where the first real snowshoe came from. Whoever thinks it is an invention of the North American Indians is certainly wrong, because in Central Asia they already had something that could be tied under the feet for moving in the snow. It is possible that snowshoeing from Asia ended up in North America via Alaska. It is true that the snowshoe made its greatest development in Alaska and Canada and eventually took the form of a tennis racket via a half-timbered piece. Today the literature (‘Snowshoeing’ – Gene Prater, ed. The Mountaineers) mentions four types snowshoeing: Yukon, Beavertail, Bearpaw and Western.
Yukon and Beavertail
The first two models still have the classic appearance of the tennis racket, with the Yukon being larger and longer than the Beavertail. Both models still come into their own on the large snowfields.
This one is more or less oval and is suitable around the house or on day trips.
The Western model was developed relatively recently and dates back to about 40 years ago. Characteristic of this model are the oval-shaped aluminum frame with slightly rising front, the plastic deck and the hinged binding. You will find this type in the better Dutch outdoor sports shops and in the winter sports areas: the traditional ‘wooden tennis racket’ can almost only be seen as wall decoration in mountain huts.
Different western models
You can also choose from different models within the Western group. For example, there are Westerns for flat terrain (the simple models, sometimes completely made of plastic), for multi-day trips through deep snow (narrow and long, with a lot of load capacity) and Westerns with crampons and extra lateral grip especially for traverses in the mountains or iced trajectories. A recent development to increase walking comfort is the snowshoe with a flexible (part of the) deck. There are also Western models (completely made of plastic) especially for children. These models are essentially narrower; On adult snowshoes, children’s legs are too far apart, which can lead to injuries.
Also read this review of the MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoe
Which model for which tour?
Day hikes place the least demands on the model. Preferably as light as possible and especially not too long, those are the criteria. Especially if you are going to walk with children. Crampons – the sturdy metal teeth under the snowshoe – are not really necessary. Plastic models with a simple, adjustable binding from the lower price range are fine.
For trips over thick layers of snow on large, slightly sloping snow plains (possibly trudging for a sled), you need large elongated snowshoes with a lot of carrying capacity.
In mountainous, alpine terrain, you need to be able to turn well and a short snowshoe with a hinged large crampon is best. Traversing is also important here, and a ‘tennis racket model’ (with such a ‘tail’) is absolutely not sufficient. Such a model tilts easily and quickly causes painful ankles.
Snowshoes that are too big also make it difficult, and even dangerous: you can’t put your feet next to or together, or you slide down unintentionally. A climbing aid – usually a metal ‘blow-up bridge’ – for under the heel of the hiking boot is downright nice (relieves the pressure on the Achilles tendon), and a model with ‘aggressive’ metal edging around the snowshoe deck gives extra lateral grip , which is nice during long traverses. Snowboarders and freeriders also use short models with a good crampon for the ascent.
A pair of telescope poles is indispensable additional equipment for snowshoeing. In mountainous terrain, avalanche equipment (beeper, probe and shovel) and knowledge is added. In terms of clothing, you can walk relaxed in a softshell plus waterproof overtrousers.
Together with the quality and suitability of the snowshoe, the walking comfort is determined by the ordinary shoe. It must fit easily into the binding of the snowshoe, must be absolutely waterproof and preferably also breathable (shoes with a Gore-Tex lining). Furthermore, the normal shoe must be well broken in and unwind just as comfortably as you can expect from ordinary mountain hiking boots.
Realize that, depending on the type of draft, your shoes cannot always dry optimally at night and waterproofing is more or less a precondition for ‘survival’. On day trips or when staying overnight in nice and warm huts, waterproofing plays a less prominent role. Padded winter walking shoes (type ‘Sorel’) are the best in case of severe frost.
Wearing gaiters to keep the snow out of your shoes is absolutely necessary, also on simple day trips. Many (pricey) winter overtrousers are nowadays standard equipped with sewn gaiters. Hat, gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, thermos flask and first aid kit including blister plasters complete your snowshoe outfit. This equipment comes with a backpack that is as compact as possible, stable on which you have to be able to attach the snowshoes with tension straps. For when there is no snow or when you have to walk along the road.
Maintenance & Repair
Any snowshoe for snowshoeing, no matter how expensive and solid, can break. Think of kicking the deck or the stringing of one snowshoe with the crampon of the other, the unhappy grinding over rocks or jumping down on snowshoes with a heavy pack. Wear and tear can of course also occur at any time along the way. In the field with deep snow, you’ll be really screwed if you’re not able to repair the damage yourself at that moment. Therefore, before you leave, check your snowshoes and especially the bindings carefully and always take a repair kit with you: tension straps, self-locking nuts, tie wraps and good pliers.
If you only go snowshoeing once in a while, renting a pair of snowshoes is always worth considering because of the hefty purchase price. Specialized outdoor sports shops in the Netherlands therefore rent out excellent snowshoes, suitable for all described tours except for the most extreme. Also abroad snowshoes are rented at almost all winter locations, but strangely enough you often have to make do with simple models.
Tips for tours
You can go snowshoeing wherever there is enough snow, but some areas are simply more beautiful than others. The best are tours through untouched nature, preferably without encountering skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts. Below is a selective and therefore debatable area suggestion:
• Bayrian Alps
• Fichtelgebirge (alternative to the Hartz)
• Saimaa (around Savonlinna)
France (from Champcella base):
• Øvre Dividalen
• Ötztal above Sölden
• Krkonose or Giant Mountains in the south against the Slovakian border
• Bieszczadi in the southeasternmost tip, against the Ukrainian border
• Val Benasque
• Isaba/Basque Pyrenees
• The most beautiful but absolutely not too underestimated tour suggestion on snowshoes walks in the middle of winter on the Swiss Haute Route du Jura (the ‘Siberia of the Alps’): with tent in 7 days from Biel to Borex on Lake Geneva.
Websites of some well-known snowshoe brands: