Snowshoe Buyer's Guide

By: Mark Mazour
Snowshoes are becoming more and more popular for both leisurely winter activities and exercise.

While the forecast for deep snow makes others want to stay in, I start making plans for a snowshoe trek.

Snowshoeing was once reserved for only the northern climate. If you had to travel in deep snow to work a trap line or check on livestock, snowshoes were the only way to stay on top of the cold, white powder. Now, snowshoe designs have changed, and people across the country are finding out that skiing is not the only activity that makes you smile on a snowy day.

Why would you want to go snowshoeing?

  1. If you can walk, you can do it. No lessons from the local pro needed here. People of all ages and skill levels can enjoy snowshoeing. All you need to do is strap on a pair, and within minutes you will be shoein' like a pro. Besides good winter clothing, all you need is a pair of snowshoes. You don't need to rent special boots either. Your normal hiking or winter boots will fit into all bindings.

    Snowshoeing is great exercise.

  2. It is a great time to be outside. Snowshoeing is simple and just plain fun. It is also a wonderful time to enjoy the great outdoors and the beauty that a fresh snowfall provides. A familiar woodlot will take on a whole new look when covered with eight inches of fresh powder. Also, you will find that getting away from the crowds is a lot easier. While hiking trails may be crowded on a summer weekend and you have to hike miles to get away, you will only find a handful of people in the woods and mountains on a winter day. If you do find people, solitude is only as far away as the next right turn. Just break a new trail for your own piece of wilderness.

  3. It is a great way to get some exercise. After the holidays, we all tend to carry a bit of extra weight around. Staying at home on the couch won't make those Christmas cookies go away. When snowshoeing on packed trail conditions, the average person can burn approximately 450 - 550 calories per hour. If you are working your way uphill, you can easily burn 1000 calories per hour.

Well, how much snow do I need to go?
It depends on snow quality and density, but in general, six to eight inches of snow is needed for a snowshoe excursion. A good portion of the country has that right now, and mountainous areas can keep enough snow until June. I always plan many of my snowshoe trips to the Rocky Mountains in February, March, and April. Then, even in warm years, you can count on a significant snow base, occasional fresh powder, and in later weeks, warmer temperatures.

Sounds great, now how do I know what snowshoes to pick?
Regardless of what type of snowshoe you pick, the size will be dictated by two simple elements - your weight and snow conditions. Picking snowshoes has nothing to do with your standard shoe sizing. The more weight the shoes have to carry and the density of the snow will determine the size of the snowshoe necessary to give you enough floatation to stay on top. Remember in figuring your weight to calculate it with the gear you will be carrying. While a 30-inch shoe holds me fine for most day hikes, if I throw a pack on my back I need a 36-inch shoe to keep from sinking in powder. Most shoes will have weight recommendations with each size, determined by the surface area of the individual shoe.

Taditional Wooden Snowshoes

If you will be hiking on common trails packed from other hikers or mainly on wet snow, I would recommend erring on the smaller side, since the smaller shoes will be lighter and easier to maneuver. If your plans call for travelling off trail, deep powder, or backpacking, I would recommend stepping up a size to stay afloat in the deep stuff. Breaking trail can be tough work, especially if you sink too far with every step.

Traditional Wooden Snowshoes
When looking at snowshoes, you will be faced with two options, modern or traditional. The traditional ones are built of a leather webbing and wooden frame on a design that has been proven throughout the north for centuries. Wooden snowshoes require a bit more maintenance, yet they do offer the tie to the past and the performance and aesthetic value found in a hand-crafted product. Cabela's Canadian Snowshoes are an excellent choice. Each pair is handmade by Huron Indians from full-grain leather webbing and carefully selected Northern white ash frames. Wooden shoes, such as these, provide excellent floatation with large surface areas and are best suited for mild terrain.

If you do go with a traditional wooden shoe, you will have to purchase a binding separately. Cabela's Heavy-Duty Snowshoe Bindings are perfect for keeping your snowshoes attached to your feet. The fast buckle heel strap is a breeze to put on, and it locks your foot securely in place.

Alaskan Outfitter Snowshoes

Modern Snowshoes
Modern snowshoes made of aluminum and synthetic materials have begun to dominate the trail scene. They all include integral bindings and short of driving over them with a truck, they are virtually indestructible. The metal cleats (crampons) used in the front and rear of the shoe also provide you extra traction for climbing or descending slopes or on hard packed trails. The front crampon will pivot as your foot rocks forward, digging in and giving you the traction required for climbing. If steep terrain is in your plans, look for a model such as Cabela's Alaskan Musher Snowshoe that has a full pivot rod for complete rotation, allowing the tip of the shoe to stay up in very steep terrain.

Cabela's has another excellent option in modern snowshoes with their AlaskanTM Outfitter Snowshoes. These quality shoes are built from aircraft aluminum and durable Olefin decking. The bindings are easy to adjust - just put your boot in and pull the strap. They feature an aggressive front crampon, and Grizzly Claw rear cleats keep you stable in uneven terrain. Proven by testing in the Alaskan wilderness, these shoes are designed for the outdoorsman who needs to cover ground, no matter how deep the snow is.

Don't leave the kids at home!
After holiday candies and being cooped up in the house, odds are your little ones have plenty of energy to burn. Kids like playing in the snow, and there's no better way to let them play, burn a little of that excess energy, and spend time with the family than a snowshoeing excursion.

Cabela's also has two great choices for the kids. The Little Bear Grizzly and Cub Snowshoes feature a virtually indestructible design, and bindings that are easy for kids to put on, even with mittens. They also offer the Atlas Jr., which include heel and toe cleats, making them suitable for steep terrain.

Do I need poles?
Snowshoeing can easily be done without poles; however they do add to stability, especially when carrying a pack or when traveling in steep or uneven terrain. Cabela's offers two excellent options in collapsible snowshoe poles from Atlas. The collapsible design works great. On uphill terrain, poles can be shortened to allow for an easier pole plant, and on descending terrain, they can be lengthened for better stance and upright positioning. If you have to cross a side slope, you can even make the uphill pole shorter for easier travel. The larger baskets on snowshoe poles will prevent you from "postholing" and keep you on top of the snow.

Snowshoe gators keep the snow out and your socks dry.

Is there anything else recommended?
All you really need are snowshoes and a sense of adventure. You probably already own most of the gear you'll need. Standard hiking boots or winter boots will do, and it helps if they are a waterproof variety. If you want to keep snow out of your boots, gaiters are a must. These simple "sleeves for your legs" attach over your boots and allow you to travel in deep snow without it getting in your boots and making your socks wet. For clothing, a solid winter layering system is essential in any winter activity. You need to be able to change with the weather conditions and your activity level. For more information on layering, read Some Dos and Don'ts when Gearing Up for Winter Weather. Another good piece of gear is a small daypack, where you can keep essentials like a compass, first aid kit, and water. Remember to drink, even when you are not thirsty. Proper hydration will keep your muscles working properly and also keep you warm.

Where can I go?
Depending on your locale, numerous options are available for snowshoeing. If enough snowfall is present, your favorite hiking trail, bike path, or even city park will take on a new look. Most lakes also have trails that would be perfect for a snowshoe trek. Any cross-country ski area or wilderness area is also a good option.

No matter where you go, if you have white stuff on the ground, it is a good time to go snowshoeing.