Choosing the right snowshoes
As many winter recreationists rediscover snowshoeing, newer models of many snowshoes are becoming available. Ski
areas and outdoor equipment stores are also offering snowshoes for rent, which is an excellent way for those interested in snowshoeing to decide what type of shoe is right for them.
Regardless of configuration, all wooden snowshoes are referred to as "traditional" and all snowshoes made of other materials are called "modern."
Notwithstanding variations in planned use, larger users should plan on buying larger snowshoes. A common formula is that for every pound (0.45 kg) of body weight, there should be one square inch (6.5 cm²) of snowshoe surface to adequately support the wearer. Users should also consider the weight of any gear they will be packing, especially if they expect to break trail. Those planning to travel
into deep powder should look for even larger shoes.
Many manufacturers now include weight-based flotation ratings for their shoes, although there is no standard for this as of yet.
When traditional wooden shoes were still popular, it was common to buy the bindings
separately, much like downhill skis
(and many wooden shoes are still sold this way). They were commonly called "H" bindings,
since they consisted of a strap around the heel crossing a strap around the toe and one at the instep, forming a rough version of that letter.
On modern shoes, there are two styles of binding: limited-rotation, in which the toe is not allowed to go below the decking; and free-rotation, in which it is. The former is preferred for racing purposes as it prevents the tail from dragging, the latter for climbing steep slopes as it allows kick steps. The heel is always left free.
A series of straps, usually three, are used to fasten the foot to the snowshoe. Some styles of binding utilize a cup for the toe. It is important that a user be able to manipulate these straps easily, as removing or securing the foot often must be done outdoors in cold weather with bare hands, exposing him or her to the possibility of frostbite.
The loose ends of the straps are always placed outside the direction of travel
to avoid stepping on them while snowshoeing. Under some conditions, snow develops into ball-shaped attachments on them, which must periodically be removed as they become a hindrance.
In 1997, Bill Prater and a younger associate developed the step-in binding, designed to make it easier for snowshoers wearing hard-shelled plastic boots
(serious mountaineers) to change from snowshoes to crampons
and back again as needed.
Snowshoers often use trekking poles
as an accessory to help them keep their balance on the snow. Some manufacturers have begun making special snowshoeing models of their poles, with larger baskets more like those found on ski poles
(which can also be used). It is not necessary to have them, it is simply a preference.
Most types of footwear can be worn with snowshoes, although hiking boots
are the preferred choice among most recreational users (except racers, who prefer running shoes). Ski boots
will not work with snowshoes, requiring backcountry skiers to carry other footwear for the snowshoe portion of their trip.
If going into deep snow, snowshoers will often take along gaiters
to keep snow from getting into their boots
from above. Some manufacturers make their snowshoes with boot
or toe covers to provide the same protection.
A snowshoe carrier of some type is also advisable, particularly if the trip will not take place entirely on snowshoes. Some backpack
manufacturers have designed special packs
with "daisy chains," strips of looped nylon webbing
on which the shoes can be secured for the duration of the journey. Snowshoe manufacturers, too, have begun including carriers and tote bags for their products, if for no other reason than to prevent the often-sharp cleats on the bottom from damaging surfaces they come in contact with.
Since snowshoeing is commonly done in cold weather, users should prepare for it by dressing warmly and carrying the appropriate equipment.
When putting on snowshoes, left is distinguished from right by which way the loose ends of the binding straps point (always outward, to avoid stepping on them repeatedly).
Snowshoes function best when there is enough snow beneath them to pack
a layer between them and the ground, usually at a depth of 8 inches (20 cm) or more.
Snowshoeing can be done anywhere there is sufficient snow. There is no need to go to a special area of any kind, although such areas may offer some amenities not found in the typical woodlot or golf course.
Walking in snowshoes
It is often said by snowshoers that if you can walk, you can snowshoe. This is true, but snowshoeing properly requires some slight adjustments to walking.
The method of walking in snowshoes is to lift the shoes slightly and slide the overlapping inner edges over each other, thus avoiding the unnatural and fatiguing "straddle-gait" that would otherwise be necessary. A snowshoer must be willing to roll his or her feet slightly as well. An exaggerated stride works best when starting out, particularly with larger or traditional shoes.
New snowshoers find the learning curve to be quite steep. However, it helps that accidental, humiliating falls are far less common to snowshoeing than other winter sports.
Walking skills are easily transferable to straightforward snowshoe travel,
but this is not always the case with turning around. While a snowshoer with space to do so can, and usually does, simply walk in a small semicircle, on a steep slope or in close quarters such as a boreal forest this may be impractical or impossible. It is thus necessary in such circumstances to execute a "kick turn" similar to the one employed on skis: lifting one foot high enough to keep the entire snowshoe in the air while keeping the other planted, putting the foot at a right angle to the other (or as close as possible for the situation and the snowshoer's physical comfort), then planting it on the snow and quickly repeating the action with the other foot. This is much easier to accomplish with poles.
Kick turns do, however, put considerable strain on the hip muscles, and if many have to be made during a snowshoeing trip, the user can be very sore the next day.
While the cleating and traction improvements to modern snowshoes have greatly enhanced snowshoers' climbing abilities, on very steep slopes it is still beneficial to make "kick steps," which is kicking the toes of the shoes into the snow to create a kind of snow stairs for the next traveler to use.
Alternatively, snowshoers can use two techniques borrowed from skis: the herringbone (walking uphill with the shoes spread outward at an angle to increase their support) and the sidestep.
Once a trail has been broken up a mountain or hill, snowshoers often find a way to speed up the return trip that manages to also be fun and rests the leg muscles: glissading the trail, or sliding down on their buttocks. This does not damage the trail and in fact helps pack
the snow better for later users.
Great distances can be descended by glissading, and any number of methods to control one's speed and direction are available to the experienced snowshoer: the shoes, poles, hands (if properly gloved), and self-arrest techniques.
In situations where they must break trail downhill
and thus cannot glissade, snowshoers sometimes run downhill
in exaggerated steps, sliding slightly on the snow as they do, an option sometimes called "step sliding." If carrying poles and properly experienced, they can also employ skiing techniques such as telemarking.
On new fallen snow it is necessary for a snowshoer to "break" a trail. This is very exhausting (it may require up to 50% more energy than simply following behind) even on level terrain, and frequently in groups this work is shared among all participants, sometimes in shifts as short as three minutes. It is thus not recommended to snowshoe solo, particularly up a mountain, without a broken route.
A trail breaker can improve the quality of the ensuing route by using a technique, similar to the hiking rest step, called "stamping": pausing momentarily after each step before putting full weight on the foot. This helps smooth the snow underneath and compacts it even better for the next user.
A well-broken trail is usually a rut in the snow about 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) deep and 2 feet (61 cm) wide. While it may appear after heavy use as if it is possible to "bareboot" or walk it without benefit of snowshoes, this practice is frowned upon by serious snowshoers as it leads to "postholing," or roughening of the trail from places where boots
have fallen through. Initial appearances to the contrary, the snow in a broken trail is not sufficiently packed to support the more concentrated weight of a foot.
Snowshoeing in conjunction with other sports
The surge of interest in snowshoeing in the 1990's is in some part due to snowboarders, who took to them as a way to reach backcountry powder bowls and other areas while they were still banned from most ski
areas. Their similarities to snowboards, in shape and binding, led
many of them to continue use even after snowboarders were allowed to use most ski
skiers, too, found snowshoes useful in reaching the same areas.
Another popular expedition, particularly among hikers, is the "ski-shoe" trip combining a cross-country ski
portion on a level, wide trail with a snowshoe up a less skiable section, usually to a mountain summit.
have found that using light snowshoes allows them to continue exercising and racing during winter. Like their warm-weather counterparts, events cover all distances, from sprints of 100 m to the 100-km "Iditashoe." There are even hurdle events.
Snowshoe segments have become common in many multisport events and adventure races, including a required snowshoe segment in the winter quadrathlon. Some competitors in those events like Sally Edwards and Tom Sobal have emerged as stars.
While snowshoe racing has probably been around as long as there have been snowshoes, as an organized sport it is relatively new. The United States Snowshoe Association was founded in 1977 to serve as a governing body for competitive snowshoeing. It is headquartered in Corinth, New York, which considers itself the "Snowshoe Capital of the World" as a result. Similar organizations, such as the European Snowshoe Committee and Japan's Chikyu Network, exist in other countries and there is an international competitive level as well.
Snowshoe races are part of the Arctic Winter Games and the winter Special Olympics. However, they are not yet an Olympic event.
Snowshoeing on sand
Just as snowshoes have made running a year-round sport in even the coldest climates, runners
have in turn found ways to make use of snowshoes in summertime. Some enthusiasts and racers have found that snowshoes facilitate foot travel
in sandy areas such as beaches and deserts.