Snowshoeing is the fastest growing winter sport and it’s easy to understand why! Not only it is a fun way to explore beautiful winter landscapes, but snowshoeing is also affordable and incredibly simple.
At it’s core, snowshoeing is simply hiking in the snow. If you can walk, you can snowshoe!
Keep reading to discover the basics of snowshoeing. This post includes:
- How to snowshoe
- What gear you’ll need
- The best clothes to wear snowshoeing
- How to find a trail to snowshoe
- Essential snowshoe safety
Published September 2020. This post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I may receive a percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
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How to snowshoe
Snowshoeing is very intuitive – and I say that as someone who is actually pretty clumsy when it comes to physical activities!
After attaching the snowshoes to your feet, simply start walking. Snowshoes are larger than regular shoes so you may need to pick up your feet a little higher and widen your natural stride to avoid stepping on the snowshoe frames.
- When changing direction, make wide turns to avoid tripping over
- If you need to turn sharply, lift your leading leg entirely and rotate before putting it back on the ground.
It may seem a bit awkward at first, but it’ll soon feel more natural. You may experience some soreness after your first snowshoe due to the different walking stance.
Climbing and descending hills
In soft, powdery snow, it is best to use the kick-step technique to ascend slopes. This involves kicking into the snow with the toe of your boot to create steps.
When the snow is harder, icy or crusty, use the crampons under the snowshoe to climb. If the slope is too steep, zig-zag up the slope using switchbacks instead.
Some snowshoes have a heel lift feature. This simple bar behind the heel flips up and levels the foot to reduce fatigue on long climbs.
When descending a slope, keep your knees bent and relaxed. Put your body weight slightly back, towards your heels. Walk slow and steadily, ensuring that the underfoot crampons gain traction on the snow with each step.
Like any outdoor activity, snowshoeing does have its share of risks. Most can be overcome with some planning, however:
- Wear appropriate clothing. Choose warm but breathable clothing, protect exposed skin, dress in layers and bring more than you think you need
- Bring food and water. Cold, dry air is dehydrating and it’s so easy not to notice. Drink regularly and stop often for snacks. Snowshoeing can burn up to 1,000 calories per hour
- Know the terrain. Always know where you’re going so you can prepare for any hazards e.g. water crossings, exposed sections, elevation, avalanche areas
- Avoid steep slopes. Slips and falls are the most common source of snowshoeing injury. No matter your skill level, it is safer to ascend and descend more gradual hills
- Ascend and traverse carefully. Make sure you have traction with every step. Consider carrying and using microspikes (like these ones) on icy sections
- Slide with caution. Although it can be tempting to glissade (sliding while seated) down a hill, asses the area and check for obstacles (and other people!) first
- Take turns breaking trail. Avoid getting getting too tired by sharing the effort to lead the group
- Avoid tree wells. These soft pockets are located at the base of trees and are covered by deep snow. Easy to fall into, they can be very difficult to get back out of
- Be aware of unseen hazards. Rocks and fallen trees underneath the snow can also create dangerous cavities
- Know what time the sun sets. The days are short in winter and it can be easy to get caught out after dark
- Check the weather forecast. It’s crucial to be aware of the conditions and any alerts in your snowshoeing destination
- Make sure you always carry the 10 essentials. These items can help avoid emergency situations and also alleviate them should they happen
If you plan to snowshoe in areas where avalanches are a possibility, be sure to take an avalanche safety course. Course listings can found found here. Always check the avalanche forecast before heading out and bring avalanche safety gear (beacon, probe, shovel).
Read more: How to Kill Yourself Snowshoeing by Michael Coyle, Search and Rescue volunteer
Where to go snowshoeing
Many hiking, biking and walking trails are also snowshoeing trails in winter. When starting out snowshoeing, however, I’d recommend heading to a location with established snowshoeing trails. Some examples are:
- Ski resorts and cross country ski areas
- Regional, provincial and national parks
These places usually have beginner trails featuring easy snowshoeing terrain as well as facilities (parking, washrooms etc).
Once you’ve got some experience, I would then consider looking at venturing further.
Check whether there is a snowshoe trail guide for your area or use AllTrails to find local trails suitable for snowshoeing (there is a snowshoeing tab you can select). Another idea is to visit your favourite hiking trails.
Even if you’re going snowshoeing in a group, be sure to tell someone else where you are going and when you are planning to get back.
Essential gear for snowshoeing
As mentioned, one of my favourite things about snowshoeing is how affordable it is. All you need is a good pair of winter shoes, appropriate clothing and a pair of snowshoes.
Snowshoes help to reduce how much you sink into snow, enabling easier exploration of winter landscapes.
For your first time snowshoeing, consider borrowing or renting a pair from an outdoor store or ski/cross country resort. Buying snowshoes isn’t huge investment but if you’ve never put on snowshoes before, it’s a great idea to have a go first.
If snowshoeing is something you enjoy, it’s cost effective to buy your own pair of snowshoes. There’s a wide choice available, sold at a variety of price points.
I’ve written an entire comprehensive post about buying snowshoes – click below to check it out!
Insulated, waterproof boots are ideal for snowshoeing. They help to keep your feet warm and dry. Winter boots work well, as do waterproof hiking boots. The latter offer more ankle support, which is especially beneficial if you’re going on a long day of snowshoeing.
In combination with my waterproof hiking boots, I wear a pair of warm merino wool socks.
To keep snow out of your boots, consider using gaiters. Water resistant yet breathable, gaiters will help your shoes stay drier for longer.
Poles are not mandatory to use when snowshoeing but they offer greater balance and stability on challenging terrain. Using poles can also help reduce stress on the knees when descending.
To prevent them sinking too far in the snow, snowshoe poles usually have larger baskets than regular hiking poles. It is fine to use hiking or skiing poles for snowshoeing, provided you replace the standard baskets with larger snow baskets.
When choosing snowshoeing poles, I’d recommend going for a pair that has adjustable length. This allows you to use a shorter pole length when going uphill and then a longer pole for downhill sections. Telescoping poles are also easier to stow in or on your backpack when not in use.
For sizing, the pole should create a 90 degree angle when held straight out on flat terrain. Your elbow and forearm would be parallel to the ground.
To stay safe while snowshoeing, bring the 10 essentials with you in a backpack. The 10 Essentials are:
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses)
- Navigation (map, compass)
- First aid supplies
- Fire starters
- Illumination (ideally a head lamp)
- Knife and repair kit
- Emergency shelter
I’d also recommend a signaling device, which can be something as simple as a whistle.
An insulated bottle (such as a Hydroflask) is ideal for carrying water. It’s also fun to bring something warm like hot chocolate when snowshoeing.
Hand warmers are both cheap and light to bring. Great for warming up hands, you can also use them keep electronics happier in the cold!
In addition to taking an avalanche safety course (AST) , it is crucial for snowshoers exploring avalanche terrain to bring appropriate safety equipment. This includes:
Each member of the snowshoeing group should have their own beacon, probe and shovel.
For snowshoeing in British Columbia, an avalanche probe longer than 3m is a must due to the heavy snowpack.
It is possible to buy kits with all three pieces of avalanche safety gear included.
What to wear snowshoeing
Dressing for snowshoeing is all about wearing the right clothes from head to toe.
Snowshoeing is low impact but can be surprisingly aerobic. Layers are the key, allowing you to put on or take off a layer when the conditions change or the trail starts to climb.
I bring the following:
- Base layer: Both top and bottom. These should be insulating and moisture-wicking. I personally use and love merino wool base layers
- Mid layer: A fleece or sweater and synthetic or down jacket
- Outer layer: Waterproof jacket and pants
- Extras: A warm toque/beanie hat (again, I prefer wool), gloves and a neck warmer
*I always have two top base layers and two mid layers with me on every outdoor adventure – one to wear and one just in case it is colder than expected
In addition to the above clothing, I have extra clothing waiting in the vehicle. It’s so nice to have the option to change if cold, wet or sweaty after snowshoeing.
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada