Although it's okay to fudge your weight on your driver's license, it's important to be accurate when sizing yourself for snowshoes. The more you weigh, the more surface area you need for optimal flotation in the snow. With the proper size, you'll still sink into fresh powder, but not nearly as deeply as you would in boots alone.
Snowshoes typically come in a variety of lengths between about 20” to 36”. The heavier you are, the longer your snowshoes should be. The width is proportional to the length, so a lighter hiker's snowshoes will be narrower to match their narrower gait. Calculating your weight plus any gear you’ll be carrying will help you determine what size to buy. Check out the chart below to get some guidelines.
If you’re in-between sizes, think about maneuverability and traction — a smaller snowshoe will offer more of both. Smaller snowshoes are also better for steep slopes, thick forests and wet snow. On the other side of the spectrum, larger snowshoes will provide better flotation in powdery, dry snow.
Snowshoe styles can be broken down into three main categories: Recreational, Backcountry and Race. There are also women-specific snowshoes that come in multiple styles.
A great place to start, recreational snowshoeing allows you to explore the gently rolling terrain and packed trails found in your own backyard or a city park. Easy-to-use bindings and less-aggressive crampons work well on moderate hills and fairly deep powder. If you enjoy hiking, you'll love recreational snowshoeing. Recreational snowshoes usually have a wide, rounded Western tail for better flotation. Trekking snowshoes may have a tapered tail for faster hikers interested in an aerobic workout.
Backcountry snowshoes are designed for 'shoers who enjoy multi-day hut trips, winter camping and exploring deep into the wilderness. Made of highly durable materials, backcountry snowshoes are lightweight and perform well in the deepest powder and on the steepest slopes. Secure, durable bindings support every step, and aggressive crampons grip into icy pitches. These snowshoes have plenty of surface area and a rounded Western tail to let you navigate easily through unpacked snow.
Serious aerobic athletes will want to look at snowshoes designed for speed. Race snowshoes are ultralight and designed for moving fast. On a groomed trail or race course, flotation is not the main concern. Instead, you need reliability and a lightweight design. You'll find both in race snowshoes, which have a shorter length and tapered tail. Most race snowshoes will be branded as such, and are usually in the 25-30” range.
Regardless of style, some snowshoes are designed just for women. Why? Women have a different body shape and stride than men. Most women will find that these snowshoes, with their unique bindings and slightly slimmer frames, are easier to use than unisex snowshoes.
Trekking poles or adjustable ski poles are invaluable on snowshoeing excursions. They add stability and balance, and help you muscle your way up slopes and control your descents. Telescoping poles with large baskets are best. Plus, you can use the same poles for Nordic skiing and summer hiking.
Warm, waterproof snow boots or pac boots are a good choice for off-trail snowshoeing. Their insulation and height will keep your feet warm and dry. Almost any waterproof or water-resistant boots with adequate insulation can serve as snowshoeing boots. Alternatively, some snowshoers prefer to wear waterproof hiking boots and gaiters to protect their lower legs.
Outerwear is what keeps the wind and falling snow from ruining your day. It needs to be at least water-resistant and should cover your entire body. Our Head-to-Toe Winter Dressing Guide expands on features to look for when buying outerwear.
Layered clothing items like wool or polypropylene socks, moisture-wicking long underwear and insulating layers are essential for an enjoyable day of snowshoeing. Our Layering Guide will give you tips on dressing for the weather and your activity level.
Hats, gloves and other accessories that cover your extremities should always be on your person when snowshoeing -- even if it's warm and sunny when you start out.
Be sure to properly strap into your snowshoes. First, place the balls of your feet over the top of the hinges. Next, tighten the front strap, then the heel strap, and finally the instep strap. Adjust straps to fit snug only — don't over-tighten them.
Once your snowshoes are on, start out by walking on packed snow or dry ground to get comfortable with them before you plunge into fresh powder. Just walk like you normally would -- there's no need to take bigger steps, although your stance will be slightly wider than you're used to.
In deeper snow, it’s important to lift your knees higher to avoid dragging your feet and potentially tripping. When you head up steeper slopes, aggressively dig the front crampons in. When you head downhill, avoid leaning back onto the tails of the snowshoes, instead keeping your weight over the center fo the snowshoes. This allows the crampons to grip the snow and prevent sliding. When you traverse side slopes, stand upright, take short steps and lean into the hill.
Turning 180-degrees in snowshoes is probably the most difficult maneuver. If you forget your shoes are on and try to quickly turn in deep powder, you can easily get caught up and tip over. If you must abruptly turn around, be sure to lift your knees very high and clear the entire shoe free of the powder before you turn your foot.
Although the slow, controlled nature of snowshoeing means you're less likely to have an unpredictable accident compared to other winter sports, there are a few things you need to remember for a safe trip:
· Be mindful of what's under the snow, especially when you’re blazing your own trail. Just because the snow looks smooth and unobstructed doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a branch, tree stump, rock or other object just beneath the surface. Look out for barbed wire fences or air pockets in buried deadfall.
· Always carry extra water, food and emergency supplies, in case you become stranded or injured.
· It’s much easier to become disoriented in snow-covered terrain. If a storm or high winds pick up, you may not be able to follow your tracks back to where you started. Bring along a compass and keep navigation in mind before you head out. Always tell someone where you'll be going and when you plan to return.
· Never walk over frozen water unless you’re absolutely certain it offers a safe thickness. Even though it may take longer to go around a body of water, it’s always the safer choice.
· Avalanches don’t only happen in high-elevation alpine terrain and extremely steep grades. If you plan to head off-trail, learn to recognize potential avalanche danger spots and avoid hazards. Check out avalanche.org for more detailed information.
· Be prepared for any weather eventuality. Check out our Guide to Winter Dressing for the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. You’ll also find useful advice on how to layer.