Snowshoeing, Your Winter Fitness Alternative

in Snow by Carl H. Martens

There’s too much snow for hiking or running, but lack of funds (or nearby mountains) rules out skiing or snowboarding. So what’s a fun, easy and inexpensive way to stay fit this winter?

Try snowshoeing! There are lots of advantages. You can enjoy snowshoeing on your own or with friends. You don’t need lessons. Pretty much the only gear you need is snowshoes plus warm footwear and clothing. And it provides an excellent, low-impact workout for outdoors enthusiasts of all ages and fitness levels. 

snowshoeHere’s what you need to buy:

  • (Obviously.) You have three types of snowshoes to choose from. Flat terrain are best for beginners and easy walking on flat to rolling terrain. They’re easy to adjust and offer good value for your money. Go with rolling terrain for a more challenging hike. Their stronger crampons and binding are perfect for rolling to steep hills and trails off the beaten path. If you’re more adventurous, try mountain terrain, designed for icy, steep terrain with climbing-style crampons and rugged bindings.
  • We recommend insulated, waterproof boots with thick soles and rubber/leather uppers or waterproof leather hiking boots. Keep your feet warm and dry with wool or synthetic socks with wicking liners and gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots. If you opt for trail-running snowshoes, pair them with lightweight running shoes or cross-trainers.
  • Layered clothing. Layers trap body heat and let you adjust to your comfort level as you hike. Start with a base layer of long underwear. Microlight, lightweight and midweight versions are available – choose what’s best suited to your activity level and the outside temperature. Keep in mind that synthetics and wool retain warmth even when wet. Avoid cotton. Follow with an insulating layer of polyester fleece and an outer layer of waterproof shell jacket and pants made of eVent®, Gore-Tex® or similar material.
  • Hat, gloves and accessories. Yes, it’s true that you lose most of your body heat through your head. Choose a wool or synthetic hat, headband or balaclava to retain heat. Keep your hands warm and dry with waterproof ski gloves or mittens. Boost the heat factor by combining shells with fleece mittens or gloves. On warmer days, glove liners work well. Finally, be sure to protect your eyes and exposed skin with sunglasses and sunscreen.
Adventure: Snowshoeing on a sunny day in the upper Paradise valley, Mt. Rainier National Park

Adventure: Snowshoeing on a sunny day in the upper Paradise valley, Mt. Rainier National Park

Here’s what you need to know:

  • First steps. When you strap on your first pair of snowshoes, you’ll find that walking on them is pretty simple. Just be aware that your stance will be wider than normal and expect some aches in your hips and groin area until your body adjusts.
  • Be considerate. You’ll probably be sharing the trail with cross-country skiers, who have the right-of-way on trail systems. Whenever possible, try to stay out of their tracks and make your own trail.
  • Going up. Use your toe or instep crampon for traction. If you’re using poles, place them in front of you. In powdery snow, pick up your foot and kick into the snow with the toe of your boot to create a step. You’ll plant your crampons into the snow, directly under the balls of your feet. On hard pack snow, you’ll have to rely on your traction devices (claws) and poles. If it’s too steep, find a less challenging route. If your snowshoes have a heel lift feature, it will come in handy on moderate to steep slopes.
  • Going down. Plant your poles in front of you, bend your knees and keep your body weight slightly back. Walk smoothly with heel first, then toe. If you have heel crampons, lean back on the snowshoe tails so they’ll dig into the snow as you descend. If you don’t have heel crampons, keep your weight over your feet to plant your toe crampons firmly into the snow and use your poles.
  • Also known as “side-hilling”, it’s the best way to avoid overly steep or difficult terrain. Push the uphill side of your snowshoe into the slope to create a shelf as you move along and keep your weight on the uphill snowshoe. If someone is ahead of you, walk in their steps.
  • Using poles. They help you keep your balance, especially on rolling or mountain terrain and when you’re traversing, with the bonus of an upper body workout. Choose adjustable poles that you can shorten for uphill treks and lengthen for downhill. Flip the pole upside-down, grab it just under the basket, and adjust the length until your elbow is at a right angle. Put your hand up through the strap from below so you can give your hands a rest from time to time.
  • If you fall. Try to fall gently back or on your side. Next, take your pole straps off and position your poles and hands so they’re sideways to the hill. Roll until your knees are under you, pointing towards the slope, and brace yourself with your poles as you rise. When snowshoeing in steep, mountainous terrain, have an ice axe with you so you can self-arrest. Be sure to get proper training in this technique before you need it!
  • Know your limits. This applies to your physical ability, your gear, the terrain and weather conditions. Stick to established trails with other people nearby, especially when you’re new to the sport.
  • Always be prepared. At the very least, avoid hypothermia and dehydration by carrying extra layers for warmth, as well as a vacuum bottle with hot water. Familiarize yourself with the trail and surrounding areas, paying special attention to potential hazards. Always check local weather reports and snow conditions before you venture out. And, as with any outdoor activity, let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back.

snowshoeing trail sign brainard lake coloradoHere’s where to go:

If you have a particular favorite summer hiking spot, snowshoeing gives you the chance to see it in a totally different light in winter. National forests and state parks have great trails, as do cross-country ski resorts (for a fee). Check your state Department of Natural Resources or Parks and Recreation for Sno-Parks, also for a fee.

By winter’s end, you’ll be snowshoeing like a pro and maybe even lamenting the arrival of spring!