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How to Choose and Use Mountaineering Snowshoes - Trail to Summit

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November 24, 2015 / Comments (12)

How to Choose and Use Mountaineering Snowshoes

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.

Snowshoe Selection

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.

Snowshoeing in Newburyport's Maudslay State Park

Snowshoeing in Newburyport’s Maudslay State Park

 

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.
Snowshoe trail

Snowshoe trail

 

Snowshoeing Technique

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.

snowshoeing4

Kick-stepping up a snow covered ladder

 

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!

snowshoeing2

Thigh high in a spruce trap

 

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

Now you know how to choose and use mountaineering snowshoes! To learn more about the gear you’ll need to hike in winter, check out my winter gear list and the winter gear guide!

 

For those who have winter snowshoes, did you pick Tubbs or MSR? Let me know below!

Last modified: September 1, 2017

12 Responses to :
How to Choose and Use Mountaineering Snowshoes

  1. Don Weeks says:

    I have a pair of MSR Denali Ascent snowshoes, discontinued. They’re a great pair of snowshoes. Traction is outstanding with crampons and two rows of metal “teeth” running the length of the underside of the decking, also has braking bumps molded into the underside of the plastic decking. Bindings are easy to strap on with gloves and hold tight once on. I’ve used them on some very challenging terrain and they haven’t let me down. I also purchased the flotation tails. Being all plastic these snowshoes can be quite noisy in icy or crusty conditions but the functionality and performance outweigh the loud crunch factor.
    Another great article, Allison!

    1. allison says:

      Crunchy snow, crunchy leaves- we’re sure load out there in the woods! Thanks for your input. I’ve heard others rave about the MSR Denali Ascent Snowshoes.

  2. Sandra Lowe says:

    Perfect perfect timing! Thanks for the great tips. I just ordered the Lightning Ascent snowshoes! Can’t wait to use them this winter! !

  3. MEAGAN says:

    I love reading your blog, I learn so much and want to thank you for writing the way you do. I am not quite to the 4 season hiking level, but am working on the 48 (7 done so far). Just wanted to say thanks for all the great information, your website is a fantastic resource!

    1. allison says:

      You’re too kind! With more time and experience you’ll be wanting to get started in winter. If I were you I’d start looking for big sales at the end of this winter if you think you’ll want to go next year. EMS always has great sales the end of the winter on snowshoes! Congrats on starting on the 48- it’s such a ride!

  4. I just got a new Gorilla pack in the mail today 🙂 I have Lightning Ascent snowshoes. What have you found as the best way to attach them to your pack? I’ve been playing around with that tonight. With my previous pack, I’ve always lashed them outside the pack. The center pocket of the Gorilla IS big enough to stick the snowshoes in (teeth facing each other), but I’m wondering if this is going to tear up the mesh.

    1. allison says:

      On either side of the big mesh pocket there are some attachment points and you can create your own strapping system for your snowshoes. I’m sending you an email of what a friend of mine did with his Mariposa pack. You’ll love the Gorilla! The one thing I will say is that you may end up carrying some extra snow in that mesh pocket when hiking under snow covered trees!

  5. Greg says:

    Skis! 🙂

    Kick turns are fun.

    Out here in California our snow falls in wide open forests and high country with no undergrowth. Skis are so much easier, if you aren’t worried about getting snagged and hitting trees.

    1. allison says:

      Many of our trails aren’t not wide and open so I’d be in a hospital bed real quick if I tried! I’ve seen some amazing backcountry skiers out here, though! Very impressive.

  6. Kim O'Brien says:

    Allison, I love visiting your site to get recommendations. Sharing your experiences has been so helpful to me.
    I am looking into both pairs of snow shoes and can’t find a pair of tubbs to try on in person (they are difficult to find at all!). I took your advice on the Salomon Toundra boots as I wear trail runners too and after one short hike they seem like a good fit for me! Thanks for that! I tried the MSR Lightning Ascents on with my boots and had a difficult time getting the back strap to either fit above the lip for snowshoes or between the two back lips as the strap was too thick for the area. As I was trying them on in the store it seemed like my foot was staying in place well enough but I worry about my heel slipping out. Has this been a problem for you? The people working in the shops weren’t being helpful so I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. Have you gotten any feedback on the Tubbs? It looks like they are easier to cinch up and that the back strap may be more flexible where it wraps around your boots. I wasn’t sure if it was worth ordering them online and giving them a try. They are certainly popular as they keep selling out.
    Thanks!
    Kim

    1. allison says:

      I had issues with my foot slipping out at first actually because I had my foot placed too far forward in the snowshoe so watch out for that. Overall, I like the traction of the Lightening Ascents as well as the heel lifts. The Tubbs are a little easier to strap on which is nice. I tend to just put my snowshoes on at the trailhead if I plan to use them. Better on my feet than on my back! If you’re having a hard time finding them in stores, you may want to purchase them online from somewhere with a good return policy (REI, EMS, or Backcountry to name a few) and return the ones you don’t like as much- just from trying on inside. I’d be curious to know what you end up going with!

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