Defining snowshoeing for you
There’s a continuum in how snowshoes may be used from walking wide and relatively flat Forest Service roads to using them on very steep slopes leading to the top of mountains or leading to technical climbs up mountains. They may be used for a few hours of exercise to multi-day winter backpacking trips. Where are you on the continuum? This will help you define snowshoes, boots, and accessories whose performance and whose cost is best suited to you.
- If you engage in other outdoor activities, much of what you might use for hiking, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, downhill skiing and more can be pirated to make up most of your snowshoeing kit. Long underwear, insulating layers, rain gear, 10 essentials, and packs used for many other outdoor sports will be perfectly fine for snowshoeing. Boots used for hiking and poles used for downhill skiing are also likely to be just fine for snowshoeing.
- For those items you don’t yet own, there are many ways to compromise when you first start snowshoeing. Employ cheap tricks to get geared up initially – get synthetic pants (dress pants or athletic warmups, synthetic shirts, nylon windshells, nylon wind pants, raincoats, wool socks, ski caps, ski coats, gloves, long underwear (synthetic or wool) for next to nothing at the Goodwill or Salvation Army. Use old downhill ski poles already in the garage or bought inexpensively for $5 from Goodwill or a ski swap. Use two-quart juice bottles as your water bottle, duct tape rolled up on itself as your repair kit, nylon dress socks you’ve already got as liner socks, generic brand sunglasses and suncream as sun protection…
- Once you decide to buy beyond a stop gap measure, buy what your research says is very good or best for your needs. There’s often a big price discrepancy between what is very good and best but, within reason, be willing to spend a little more for items that will serve you better. After buying forget about what’s newest, or marginally better, or fractionally lighter. Spend your time snowshoeing and getting out, not desiring the latest greatest.
- Weight is an important part of the equation when it comes to spending more for something you really want. A rule of thumb to consider whenever you’re considering new gear. The first 15 or 18 pounds of gear probably won’t trouble you much, but beyond here doubling your load will half (or maybe even quarter) your walking pleasure. This is doubly true if you’re part of the over-40 crowd (try to figure out that math!)
- Weight on your feet is even more troublesome than weight on your shoulders. The military’s research using treadmill tests have determined that an extra pound attached to the long levers of legs (i.e., the foot) is roughly equal to adding five pounds of weight to the shoulders. Keeping snowshoes and boots light is important! Still, minimal weight isn’t always the most efficient gear. Sometimes heft matters in kicking into difficult snows, edging, or for making components that will last. Keeping things lightweight is usually good, but the very lightest in not necessarily the best.
In late fall and early winter, trails often become icy before they become snowy and it’s easy to slip and hurt yourself. To stay active outdoors in the shoulder seasons use MicroSpikes (made by Kahtoola). These spikes pull over running shoes and boots alike and give you all-wheel traction on dicey ground. For year-round hiking, this is an important piece of equipment. Also in spring and fall you may often start on bare trail, move uphill to an icy trail where the MicroSpikes are useful, and eventually move high enough that the snowshoes are needed.
- With modern snowshoes almost any kind of running shoe, hiking boot, mountaineering boot, or winter walking boot can be strapped in easily and quickly. The decision of what boot to use depends on the intent and duration of your outing. If you’re out for aerobic exercise and will be finished with your outing in an hour or two, a running shoe will work fine. Your feet will get wet but if you keep moving this isn’t much of an issue. If you’re using snowshoes to approach a mountain you want to climb, use of heavier mountaineering boot is perfectly appropriate. Most snowshoers fall in between these extremes and a good leather or waterproof hiking boot or a good winter walking boot (like Sorels) are the norm.
- A boot that is fairly light, slightly insulated, waterproof (even though you’re in snow, non-waterproof boots can wet out easily), couple well with gaiters to keep snow from coming down the cuff are best. A relaxed fit that gives toes plenty of wiggle room and that have some expandability to apply extra socks is important. Boots that feel tight around the toes when you’re wearing two pairs of socks in the field will be cold.
There are many excellent snowshoes on the market. The snowshoes made by Yukon Charlie are made of modern materials, get respectable reviews (we haven’t tested them), and can cost as little as $75. Lighter, sturdier, and techier products like MSR Lightning Ascent can run up to $270. Between these parameters are many choices.
Photo: Northern Lites Elite
Snowshoes we’ve tested and give excellent marks to include: Northern Lites Elite (8 by 25 in; 2 lb., 8 oz.; $230); MSR Evo Tour (8 by 22 inch; 4pounds., 12 oz. per pair; $170); Verts (8.5 by 18 in.; 2 lb., 8 oz.; $75); Atlas 1030 (9 by 30 in.; 4 lb., 12 oz.; $200) or the Atlas 1230 (9 by 30 in., 4 lb., 7 oz. $280); Crescent Moon Silver Series 9 (8 by 27 in.; 3 lb., 6 oz.; $185); Tubbs Mountaineer 25 (8 by 25 in.; 4lb., 7 oz; $260), Redfeather Race 25 (8 by 25 in., 2 lb. 7 oz., $270), and MSR Lightning Ascent (8 by 25; 3 lb., 15 oz.; $270).
Non-adjustable ski poles are fine – borrow from other sports. Eventually an adjustable ski or trekking pole might be worth owning. Manufacturers of good adjustable poles: Black Diamond, K2, Exped, and Leki. In general the adjustable poles we recommend use a flip-lock mechanism. Avoid poles with twist-lock closures — the exception to the rule is the twist-lock closure of the Exped poles.
- This includes a beacon, probe, shovel and maybe even a specialized pack with airbags or an Avalung. Manufacturers: Black Diamond, Backcountry Access, Ortovox, K2, ABS). This is important gear for some snowshoers.
- In this area many, many excellent snowshoe trips avoid avalanche terrain yet take you to beautiful destinations. You need to know where avalanches occur and how to plan around them, but if you can easily avoid the risk of avalanches or the expense of the gear.
Even if avalanches are not the issue, for long day trips it’s wise for a party to carry at least one aluminum shovel. If someone is injured or you get lost, a shovel is important for creating shelter. Look at Voile shovels made of T6 hardened aluminum — they are affordable but super tough.
For Emergencies, Remember the 3 Ws
- Warmth: preserve warmth and make warmth. This entails a combination of protection from wind and rain as well as the ability to make fire. Tarps, extra clothes, lighter, fire starter, saw.
- Water: bring water and the ability to make water (pot and saw).
- Wittles: bring food.
A pack that is roughly 30-liters in size (1800 to 1900 cubic inches) is a very good size for long day trips.
Map, compass, sunscreen, sunglasses, minimal first aid, equipment repair, sewing kit, duct tape, toilet paper, money and contact info, smart phone or cell phone, cord, flashlight, spare batteries.
Outdoor Research, Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, and GoLite (ski pants, storm and wind shells, midweight tops, parkas, gloves, synthetic long underwear, hats, down coats, and more). Bridgedale and Darn Tough Socks of Vermont (super durable and warm wool-nylon socks). Black Diamond Equipment Ltd (headlamps, gloves, Avalung, probes, aluminum shovels, ice axes, packs, adjustable poles, and more). Katoohla (MicroSpikes). Camp USA (ultralight aluminum axe and crampons). Ortovox (avalanche beacons, probes, aluminum shovels, merino wool clothing, emergency bivouac shelters). Backcountry Access (aluminum shovels, beacons, airbag packs). Garmin (GPS units). National Geographic Topo! (CD map sets). McNett Corp (Aquamira, AquaSeal, Seam Grip). Voile (heat-treated aluminum shovels, straps). Silva or Sunto (orienteering compasses). Exped (adjustable poles, packs, emergency shelter). K2 (aluminum shovels, probes). Leatherman Tools (multitools).
See the websites of all of the above companies (a Google search easily locates these companies). Wenatchee Stores: Arlberg Sports, Performance Footwear, American Shoe Shop, Big Five, Hooked on Toys, Stans Merrymart, Goodwill. Leavenworth: Der Sportsman, Euro Sports. North Bend: ProSki Service. Seattle: REI, ProMountain Sports(specialists in lightweight mountain gear). On the web: REI.com, Sierra Trading Post, Campmor (discounted outdoor gear).
Our thanks to Cascade Subaru for helping get more people outdoors in winter and for sponsoring the series of Self-Sufficient Snowshoeing classes where this information was presented.
This article was originally published on 1/11/13.