Snowshoes are one of the earliest forms of transportation known to man.
As far back as 6,000 years ago, Arctic tribesmen invented snowshoes in order
to hunt and travel more effectively during the winter months.
These ancient snow-walking devices were probably made of bent wood and
animal skins. They worked by distributing the traveler's weight across a larger
area of snow, giving him or her the ability to "float" on top of the snow.
Though snowshoes were found in almost all snow regions of the world, they
were most widely used by the native people of North America. Each tribe developed
a shoe design that best suited the topography and snow conditions where they
Few people today use snowshoes as a tool for survival in cold climates.
But snowshoeing is increasingly popular as a winter recreation.
Fans of hiking and those who simply love venturing into nature find that
snowshoeing lets them extend their favorite activities into year-round fun.
If you like the outdoors and are able to walk, snowshoeing may be the perfect
Compared to winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing is
easy and relatively inexpensive. You can snowshoe in almost any open recreational
space or designated hiking trail.
All you need are snowshoes, minimal equipment, proper clothing and supplies,
and a few snowshoeing companions, and you're off for a day of fun.
Snowshoe styles have changed very little since they were first invented.
All are made in one of two styles: bearpaw with a curved heel, and teardrop
with a tail.
Early snowshoes were usually made of wood with rawhide-lace latticework
inside the frame and leather bindings. Today's snowshoes are usually made
of light, durable aircraft aluminum with durable-material decking (the material
inside the frame that lets the shoe "float" on the snow).
Today's shoes are smaller, lighter, stronger and easier to maneuver than
those in the past. Most also have claws on the toes and heels to help with
traction on icy surfaces. A good pair usually costs between $200 and $300
(US), though they can often be bought on sale in the spring at outdoors shops.
Snowshoes may seem expensive. But if you choose a well-made pair that is
constructed for the type of snowshoeing you want to do, they can last a lifetime.
Most outdoor shops can help you decide what type of shoe to buy. It may
also be good to attend a snowshoeing clinic where you can try on several different
types of shoes.
When purchasing shoes, consider these factors:
- The more you weigh, the larger the shoe you will need in order to stay
afloat on the snow.
- Walking on light, dry snow takes a bigger shoe to keep you from sinking.
- Large shoes are also best for trekking in flat, open country.
- If the snow is heavy and wet, you'll need a smaller shoe with good traction.
- Smaller shoes with good traction are also best for steep, mountainous
- For running, racing, and casual walking, small, light shoes are best.
You should also consider what type of snowshoeing you want to do when purchasing
equipment. There are three basic categories: aerobic and fitness, recreation,
Aerobic and fitness shoes are designed specifically for running
and exercise, and shouldn't be used on trails or in the backcountry.
Recreational snowshoes are best for moderate-length walks of three
to five miles over flat to moderately steep terrain. They are also good for
trails and some off-trail use.
Mountaineering snowshoes are for rigorous long-distance travel,
steep snow climbing and extended off-trail hikes.
The intended use of the snowshoes is also important when selecting bindings
and hiking boots. Choose hiking boots that are warm and waterproof. It is
easy to suffer frostbite when participating in any outdoor winter activity,
especially if boots become wet inside.
If you are planning to snowshoe in the backcountry, for an extended period
of time, or on ungroomed trails, you will need additional equipment.
Telescoping snow poles that fit into a backpack are good for keeping balance
and navigating risky terrain. An ice ax can also be critical when hiking in
Other important gear includes a small, lightweight snow shovel, an altimeter,
a map and compass to help you pinpoint your location, wands (thin bamboo poles
with colored flags to use as trail markers), and avalanche beakers and probes
in case a showshoer in your group is buried in an avalanche.
Always take precautions and be sure to check avalanche conditions before
setting out in remote or risky terrain.
For safety, carry water, a high-protein snack, extra socks and even extra
gloves and a hat. Take frequent breaks to eat and drink something. Snowshoeing
is strenuous, and you'll be sweating and burning lots of calories even though
you may not realize it. Adjust your clothing to avoid chills and make sure
you are keeping dry during your trek.
You will stay the most comfortable while snowshoeing if you dress in layers.
Start with a base layer of lightweight thermal underwear that keeps away moisture
and lightweight glove liners.
Windproof vests and micro-fleece jackets are good for a middle layer. On
the outside, wear a breathable windproof jacket and pants. Never wear cotton.
It does not insulate and will leave you cold! Also, don't forget some knee-high
gaiters to keep snow out of your boots.
One you're properly outfitted and supplied, it's time to head out. The
great thing about snowshoeing is that anyone who can walk can learn to do
it with very little (if any) formal instruction. It's always best to snowshoe
with others for safety, so grab a few friends and hit the trails!
Breaking a trail can be tiring. If you snowshoe with a group of people,
take turns leading so that every snowshoer can get a rest from this tough
The leader should consider the pace of the slowest member of the group
when breaking the trail. Those who follow should try to step in the leader's
footprints as best they can. This conserves energy and keeps a better-defined
trail for those who are following behind.
If you're snowshoeing anywhere other than on a flat trail, there are a
few basic techniques you can use to get up and down hills. One is the herringbone
step, where the toes are angled out and the heels angled in. This works well
on short, steep slopes.
You can also traverse, or walk back and forth from side to side up a slope.
On a steep, long slope, try kicking in a motion that's similar to pedaling
a bicycle. By doing this, it's possible to kick a "staircase" of steps into
Should you encounter a rock or log on your trek, either side step over
it or step directly on it with the snowshoe frame and the center of your foot.
It's possible to take snowshoeing lessons. But most snowshoers simply learn
from experienced enthusiasts or develop skills by trial and error.
Start off slowly and be sure to take the proper precautions, and you'll
find that snowshoeing is one of the easiest, most versatile ways to have fun
and get a workout in the winter. After a trek through a quiet, snow-laden
landscape, you just may find yourself hooked!
The Essential Snowshoer: A Step-by-Step Guide,
Lots of information, techniques and advice
Articles and photographs about the sport by a dedicated snowshoer