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From Trail to Peak

Where to start and to what end!

We had the first snow of the season, granted that wasn’t enough to go snowshoeing, but I bet it got some of you thinking about it. I know there are many people out there who have never snowshoed before and many of you might want to give it a whirl this year. This can be a daunting task for someone not attuned to the market. 

This is how it usually plays out; you walk into a gear shop, step up to a wall of snowshoes that measures 20 feet wide and 10 feet high, praying to God that it doesn’t avalanche on you, and maybe even feel a bit dizzy by the thought of trying to decipher the differences. Been there? I have, and the overwhelmed look on my face must have screamed out because it wasn’t long before an associate pounced on me. 

What kind of snowshoeing are you planning on doing?
What kind of snowshoeing are you planning on doing?
Daunting snowshoe questions

I had a million questions, so it seemed, but only a few really seemed important at the time:

  • Why is that one a hundred bucks more than that one?
  • Why are there so many different sizes of the same snowshoe? 
  • Why are those teeth thingy’s going in different directions? 
  • Which strap system is better? 
  • What shoes do I wear with these? 
  • ​Is there a left and a right? 

Now the overwhelmed look was on the associates face as well, he fetched another employee that had more experience, and eventually my questions were answered. Of course, over time and many years of snowshoeing, and using all different styles of snowshoes on different types of terrain, I have collected quite a quiver of snowshoes, and a much higher understanding of them. 

One of the biggest keys is to not under buy your snowshoes. For example you can do less with more but not more with less. Let me explain; it’s hard to use a recreational snowshoe for mountaineering, but you can use a mountaineering snowshoe for recreational outings. What I mean is, don’t buy more than what you need, so if you will never snowshoe a High Peak or do mountaineering, don’t buy a mountaineering snowshoe, but if you might, consider finding a snowshoe that does it all. As you read on, this concept should make more sense.      

Different views require different shoes!
Different views require different shoes!

Different types of snowshoes

This is based on four different styles of snowshoes and from there you can gain more insight on the actual parts and functions of the snowshoe. Don't worry - I break down most of the terms you may not be familiar with as you read on in the blog! Let’s start here:

Recreational - These snowshoes are great for the beginner or those wishing to do mostly flat terrain with only slight changes in elevation. These don’t come with a heel lift bar but do offer outstanding flotation. Maybe you want to see a back-country pond or lake.

Touring - These snowshoes are for an intermediate snowshoe outing. They have a slightly more aggressive crampon pattern and work great for more demanding terrain. These are excellent for backpacking and small mountain excursions. Some models have heel lift bars for easier climbing. They have excellent flotation as well. 

Mountaineering - These snowshoes are developed for the most demanding and rugged terrain out there. They are typically much smaller for maneuverability and packed/consolidated snow. They give the least amount of flotation under powder conditions. Tails are available for some models to help with flotation as needed; they can be put on and taken off as needed. The crampons on these snowshoes look to be something you could use as a weapon in battle. They are very aggressive and there are many more of them.  The crampons face in both directions and on some snowshoes line the side of the snowshoe for better side hill traversing. 

Running - This is a snowshoe typically around 25 inches in length and much lighter. These are designed for running or racing and made to work with smaller footwear like a waterproof running shoe. These could also work as a recreational snowshoe for a smaller woman or child. 

Wood or metal?

Wood is the old-school snowshoe that is still used today but only as a touring snowshoe. Aluminum is the material of choice making them much lighter and much more durable. Aluminum is mainly the material you will see in most outfitters, gear shops, and rental programs. 

What sex is your snowshoe?

There are three major differences between men’s and women’s snowshoes.

Length – This is the smallest difference, but women’s snowshoes are typically shorter due to the average weight of the user.

Width – Women’s snowshoes are narrower. A woman’s gait and stride is much narrower than a man’s, so the snowshoes are narrower to avoid the user from stepping on the sides.

Bindings – The bindings are narrower to fit a small foot and boot.

Women’s snowshoes are a great alternative for young children. Can a man wear a woman’s snowshoe or a woman wear a man’s snowshoe, of course. It is important to get a good fit, if that’s what it takes, I won’t tell anyone. 

What snowshoe should I buy for my kids? 

Kid’s snowshoes are made for children up to around 80 pounds, after that they should get into a smaller snowshoe at around 25 inches, weight dependent. Woman’s snowshoes and running snowshoes work well for older kids where a men’s snowshoe could still be too large. 

Wood, Metal, Recreational, Mountaineering?
Wood, Metal, Recreational, Mountaineering?

Is traction really necessary? 

In most cases, yes. All styles have a slightly different crampon style, pattern and aggressive configuration. For example, a recreational snowshoe will have fewer crampons and be less aggressive for less aggressive terrain. A mountaineering snowshoe will have a very aggressive crampon pattern and typically many more of them. 

What kind of snowshoe binding should I consider?

Every snowshoe company produces their own bindings and in many cases each style of snowshoe has a different binding as well. The most important thing to look for is fit and comfort. Be sure the boot you are using fits in the binding comfortably and there are no pinch points on the top of the foot or toes. You could be in them for many miles and several hours at a time. Some bindings are easier to get on and take off; you should play around with them in the store. There are even bindings produced to accommodate someone who walks with their toes in or out. MSR has a snowshoe called the “Axis” - the binding adjusts so that the snowshoe points straight ahead, when your feet and binding may not. 

What is a snowshoe tail?

Tail extensions are not available for all snowshoes, only certain ones and certain brands like MSR. These tails add flotation in fresh snow conditions by adding length to the snowshoes. 

Should I use poles when snowshoeing? 

It’s a great idea to use poles with snowshoes. It aids with balance and speed and takes some of the work off your legs, especially on the uphill. They should be two or three piece adjustable poles and be set in a comfortable length; usually having your arm at a 90 degree angle works best for most users.  Adjustable poles make it easier to attach to your pack or stowaway when not in use. 

Are there certain types of footwear I need to have for snowshoeing?

The best footwear for snowshoeing is an insulated and waterproof boot. When choosing a snowshoe though, you need to consider that not all bindings are big enough for all boots. Some pack boots like a Sorel or Baffin are very large and the binding might not be big enough. If you can bring in the boots you will be using to try them with the binding before you buy that would be best. Softer footwear is not the best choice with some bindings as the straps can create a pinch point over the top of the foot or toes. If you use a softer boot, look for a binding that wraps around the foot rather than just straps.  

A heel lift, what the heck is that?

This small bar on the back of a snowshoe near the heel of your boot flips up for easier climbing. On steep terrain you use much more of your calf muscle and fatigue sets in faster. With the bar you can keep your feet flatter and in turn use the larger muscles of your legs. In a sense, it is like walking up a set of steps rather than a steep slope. The bars should be in the down position for any downhill or flat terrain. The heel lift comes on mountaineering and some recreational snowshoes.  

How do I choose my correct size and length? 

Sizing is based on the weight of the user, not height or shoe size. Don’t be afraid to be honest with the sales associate about your weight, they can see you. You will need a certain length snowshoe to support your weight under fresh snow conditions and if you get a snowshoe too small for the conditions, you won’t enjoy your trip. If the trails are packed you could essentially size down one length, but if you encounter snow drifts or unconsolidated snow you will have to work much harder. 

Where to begin... ask!
Where to begin... ask!

How do I snowshoe? 

Snowshoeing can be cumbersome to some people, practice makes perfect and there is no real danger in practicing, it's not a horrible idea to take a small intro to snowshoeing course if you feel more comfortable. Think of it like walking with really big feet. 

What if I buy these and they break down after one season?

Warranty for most snowshoe companies is pretty good. Many companies will repair for free and in some cases replace. 

I don’t want to buy right now, can I just try it out?    

It’s a great idea to rent before you buy, if the option is available. Many gear shops will put the rental fee toward a pair of new snowshoes if you decide to buy from them that day. With that offering, you have nothing to lose. 

Who knew there was so much involved with snowshoeing? If you have more questions on snowshoes give me a shout right here or stop into a local gear shop for more details on specific brands of snowshoes. Want to rent? Check out some of the outfitters in the area. Want to get an introductory lesson on snowshoeing or mountaineering? Check out what local guide service might have for classes available.