Few activities compare to hiking across a pristine winter wonderland. Breaking the blanket of fresh snow with each step puts a new spin on hiking, and the best way to safely explore in the snow is via snowshoes. You’ll find that snowshoeing isn’t all that different from hiking, making it an easily accessible outdoor winter activity. If you aren’t sure how to snowshoe, we’ve answered everything you need to know below.
How Hard is it to Snowshoe?
Snowshoeing isn’t all that tough. In fact, it’s a lot like walking. There are a few key differences between snowshoeing and winter hiking. First, walking backward in snowshoes is a bit of a challenge, since the snowshoes aren’t attached to the back of your foot. If you walk backwards it’s easy to trip and fall, so instead, walk in a circle to turn around.
The real challenge with snowshoeing is that your feet feel heavier. This is especially true after a big snowstorm, where the fluffy snow can build up on the snowshoe, making lifting your legs a bit harder. You may even post-hole, where the shoes sink deep into the snow. Post-holing is particularly tiring, so it’s good to check the conditions and plan accordingly before you head out. Overall, you’ll find that snowshoeing is a fairly easy activity to get started, and if you’re like us, walking across the top of the snow will make you feel like a true adventurer.
What Snowshoe Gear do I Need?
In order to snowshoe you really only need three things aside from your regular winter hiking gear (we’ll cover that in a second): snowshoes, waterproof boots, and optionally hiking poles with snow baskets. The snowshoes keep you afloat above the deep snow while hiking poles with snow baskets help maintain your balance as you walk. Depending on the area where you’re snowshoeing, poles might not be needed. However, waterproof footwear is essential for snowshoeing. If your feet get wet, it’s hard not to get miserable or put your toes in danger of frostbite.
Fitting Your Snowshoes
One of the best parts about snowshoes is that one snowshoe will fit most foot sizes. In fact, snowshoes are often sized by weight capacity and not by shoe size. First, make sure the snowshoe you are renting covers your weight. Don’t forget to include 20 extra pounds or so for clothing. If the snowshoe doesn’t support your total weight, you’ll want floatation tails to ensure you stay upright and don’t sink too far into the snow.
The snowshoe should fit snugly, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation. Size the trekking poles so that your arm is at a 90-degree angle when the poles are touching the ground. Don’t forget that trekking poles will sink a few inches in the snow. Make sure you have snow baskets on your trekking poles or else they are no good as they will sink through the snow. Ski poles will also work as trekking poles but tend to weigh slightly more.
What to Pack for Snowshoeing
Now that you have your snowshoeing gear, what else do you need to pack to go snowshoeing or winter hiking? First, you always want to make sure you carry the Ten Essentials in your pack. You’ll want the following items in your snowshoeing pack for long hikes:
- A pack to hold all of your gear. 28L to 35L works best.
- Plenty of water. It might be cold, but the winter air is dry, meaning you’ll want at least 1.5L of water for a 4 to 6-mile hike. Also, consider using a water bottle instead of a bladder, since the tubes freeze on the bladder.
- Sunscreen and SPF rated lip-balm. Don’t forget to put sunscreen under your chin and nose – snow reflects harmful UV rays.
- Warm hat
- Warm gloves (consider bringing two pairs – one lightweight liner and one heavy-duty pair).
- A fleece neck gaiter, scarf, or Buff
- A waterproof rain/snow layer
- A fleece layer
- A puffy, warm jacket
- Plenty of snacks. You’ll burn more calories in the cold so bring tasty treats you’ll be excited to eat.
- A headlamp
- A GPS map loaded on your phone. Trails in the snow are often not correct, having a GPS to navigate is essential. Having a paper backup is a good idea too.
- Hand and toe warmers
- Small, first aid kit
- A lighter or a way to start a fire for emergencies.
What to Wear Snowshoeing
One of the most important elements of how to snowshoe is to make sure you’re dressed for the job. The key to dressing properly for snowshoeing requires wearing non-cotton layers.
Cotton soaks up sweat but it doesn’t dry out. This means you’ll essentially be wearing wet clothing, which is extremely dangerous in the winter and can quickly cause hypothermia. Instead, opt for synthetic or wool clothes to keep you warm and dry. These materials are designed to wick sweat and dry quickly.
When you’re moving, your body will build up plenty of heat, causing you to sweat. Shed some layers before you sweat in order to avoid catching a chill. It’s not uncommon to end up snowshoeing in a light base layer. However, when you stop moving, the cold quickly moves in again, so you’ll want to bundle up. Here’s a more detailed look at what to wear snowshoeing:
- Wool socks. On colder days or if you’re prone to blisters, consider silk sock liners
- Synthetic long underwear; top and bottom.
- A fleece jacket
- A puffy synthetic or down jacket
- A waterproof shell jacket
- Hiking pants or fleece-lined, softshell pants for colder days.
- Pack a pair of rain pants just in case for unexpected wind or bad weather.
How to Find a Beginner Snowshoe Trail
Many snowshoe trails are simply hiking trails that are covered in snow. When you’re first starting out with snowshoeing, even if you’re an avid hiker, select a low-mileage and low difficulty trail. Think around 4 miles or less with minimal elevation gain. Snowshoeing is inherently harder and more physically demanding than hiking, so start with an easy rated trail for your first outing. Remember, you can snowshoe right in the city for added safety.
There are several awesome websites that have amazing lists of snowshoe trails near Chicago. Our favorite is AllTrails. AllTrails gives up-to-date information on trail conditions, difficulty, road conditions to the trailhead, and much more. It’s a comprehensive website that lists a variety of trails and you can even use the app on your phone.
Once you’ve found your snowshoe trail, be sure to download the map to your GPS app. You can track your progress as you hike and determine if you’re still on the trail. If you’re nervous, pick a popular route with plenty of people when you start out.
How to Snowshoe Safely
Snowshoeing requires a bit more thought about safety than a regular hike, however, a few things remain the same. First, always tell someone where you are going and when you plan on returning. Give important information such as the trail name, a vehicle description, any known medical conditions, and a number to call if things go wrong (typically this is the local ranger station). Be sure to mention a check-in time and have them check in with you first. If they don’t hear back within a few hours, they should contact the authorities.
Other things to be mindful of when snowshoeing are:
- Always check the weather. Never head out to snowshoe during a storm or particularly brutal weather. The trail will always be there.
- Know how to navigate. In winter, trails are covered in snow and it’s easy for someone to head in the wrong direction and everyone follows their path. Be sure you know how to use a GPS and map (batteries die) before heading out.
- Have a turn-around time. Winter days are short and you don’t want to get caught out in the dark.
- Be aware of water obstacles. In the winter, streams, creeks, lakes, and rivers freeze over and then get covered in snow. Study the trail and keep track of your position to avoid walking over (and potentially plunging into) frozen water features.
- Phone batteries hate the cold. Keep your phone charged by keeping it in an interior breast pocket or close to your chest for warmth.
- If you’re traveling in a mountainous region (think the Pacific Northwest or Colorado), always be aware of the current avalanche conditions. Do not travel through avalanche terrain without proper training.
Overall snowshoeing is a wonderful way to explore in the winter months. When it comes to how to snowshoe, there are a few key skills and safety tips to remember. Once you get the hang of snowshoeing you can get outside and enjoy the beauty of the winter months.
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