In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, winter brings feet of snow to the trails, much of it untouched by humans. Sometimes the only way to safely and efficiently hike in these conditions is with a pair of snowshoes on your feet!
If you’ve never worn snowshoes before or aren’t sure where to get started, there is a learning curve, but with proper knowledge, the transition can be smooth sailing.
There are different kinds of snowshoes. Touring snowshoes are for flatter terrain. Looking to have some backyard fun or explore the rolling hills of a local state park? Touring snowshoes feature easy-to-adjust bindings but a much less aggressive traction system. There are many snowshoes in this category at a great value.
I am going to be focusing on using mountaineering snowshoes. For those looking to do some winter hiking and gain some elevation, this is what you’ll need. Mountaineering snowshoes have more aggressive teeth (also called crampons) to make it possible to ascend icy, steep terrain. These snowshoes are made to withstand harsh conditions and terrain. I recommend looking at MSR or Tubbs brands.
How to Choose Snowshoes
The best snowshoe is the smallest and lightest model that will effectively handle the snow conditions you’ll encounter. If you’ve heard of the phrase “every pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back” know why. With winter hiking, you will no doubt have heavier footwear and more gear. Smaller, lighter snowshoes are more maneuverable and less tiring than larger, heavier ones. You want to purchase snowshoes with the total weight they will be supporting: body weight, worn clothing and pack. Mountaineering snowshoes generally range from 22 to 30 inches.
A Few Things to Note
- Women should purchase women-specific snowshoes as these models will accommodate a female’s stride.
- A heel lift bar can greatly reduce calf strain on uphill climbs
- Mountaineering snowshoes should have vertical teeth that run the length of the snowshoe as well as a toe crampon.
- Try on snowshoes. Go to a store and make sure your boots are appropriate for use with snowshoes. Make sure you like the bindings. There are many options so I highly suggest you try multiple types. You want a sturdy binding, but it should be manageable with gloves.
Wearing snowshoes can take a little time to get used to. You will need to walk with a longer and wider stride to keep the snowshoes from hitting each other. You’ll also pick up your feet a little higher than usual. Many people like the aid of trekking poles in winter for balance.
Ascending up a hill you need to take smaller steps and press down with your toes more so the toe crampon provides traction. Sometimes you need to “kick step” which entails picking up your foot and kicking into the snow with the toe of your boot to create a step in steep terrain.
Descending a mountain requires a different technique. I find trekking poles to be the most beneficial downhill in all seasons, and this is true with snowshoeing. Keep your knees bent and relaxed, and your body weight slightly back.
You may need to navigate around obstacles such as downed trees, uneven terrain, bare rocks, or snow bridges. You will want to practice a variety of techniques such as side stepping before you encounter these hazards. It is difficult to step backwards in snowshoes so proper technique is key.
Postholing (falling through the snow often to mid calf or more creating a hole) is still possible with snowshoes, but it is greatly reduced. Staying aware of the path will minimize this issue. A hazard on the trail is what is known as a spruce trap: when snow is deep enough that it covers the top of a spruce tree. Veering off trail in instances like taking a bathroom break, letting another hiker pass on a narrow trail, or route finding can lead you to fall through the snow, sometimes up to your waist!
Snowshoeing is a great way to add variety to your hikes! If you’re new to the sport, start small on local trails and build your stamina. Because of the new techniques you’ll use, you’ll use muscles you typically don’t use while hiking and may feel more fatigued than usual. Snowshoes are often the only viable options for winter mountaineering and make a trek into the woods more efficient and fun! Happy trails!
Recommended Mountaineering Snowshoes
For those who have winter snowshoes, did you pick Tubbs or MSR? Let me know below!
Last modified: September 1, 2017