Snowshoeing for Beginners - The Ultimate Guide
Snowshoeing is an interesting sport that blends the ethos of hiking with the winter season. For all intents and purposes, it is walking in the snow. But not just one of those jaunty walks in a snow-dusted forest. No, snowshoeing takes it to a new level, and allows you to traverse deeply snowed over paths, unlocking remoteness and beauty in landscapes that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Where nordic skiing, ski touring, and split boarding serve up the ‘what goes up must come down’ experience, snowshoeing is altogether more restrained, more measured, and unique in that way. It’s not an easy task, but it does allow for a shoer to take their time. To really enjoy the tranquillity and quietude of their surroundings, free from the sound of scraping skis and panting breaths.
If you crave the solitude and beauty of the mountains, but you’re not into skiing, then snowshoeing might just be the sport for you. Take your time, pick your route, and then strike out. The true beauty of snowshoeing is that it brings the world within reach, no matter the conditions. Now, doesn’t that just sound great?
Snowshoeing For Beginners
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How Do Snow Shoes Work?
Have you ever heard the old factoid that polar bears have wide feet so they don’t go through the ice? Or that they lay on their bellies when it gets thin to spread their weight? This is the case right through the animal kingdom. And just like all great inventions, we learned snowshoeing from nature, too.
If you’ve ever tried to schlep through some deep snow, you know it’s a case of sinking up to the thighs and having to really drag yourself along, pulling your knees high, huffing and puffing. Euch, if you’ve ever got into a pickle in the side country while skiing or boarding and hiked your way out, you know this pain.
Snowshoes effectively increase the surface area across which your body weight is spread. This doesn’t make you ‘lighter’ or anything, but what it does do is put less pressure on each square centimetre (or inch, or whatever measure you’d like to use) of your footprint. The snow beneath your feet has a structure, and that structure has a measure of what’s known as ‘compressive strength’. This is the unit of measurement ascribed to any material when talking about its ability to withstand compressive force. With me so far?
If you weigh 80kg (which I do), and with each normal shoe footstep, I’m putting 80kg of force down on a piece of snow, spreading that weight across around 200cm2 of surface area. If the snow beneath my foot has a compressive strength with a low enough MPa or PSI value (that’s megapascals or pounds-per-square-inch) that it collapses, then we have two options. We either need to decrease my weight (not happening any time soon — believe me, I’ve tried), or we need to increase the surface area. If we double the surface area, then the amount of weight spread across each square centimetre is less. The larger the surface area, the less weight per square centimetre.
So while we’re not changing the weight or the compressive strength of the material, by increasing the surface area, we’re allowing more of the snow’s structure to bear less weight per measurement of area.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that snowshoes make your feet bigger, and stop you from sinking in the snow. But, still interesting to know and have in your repertoire for when there’s a quiet moment at the ski lodge. Don’t you think?
Any list of snowshoeing equipment must begin with the obvious. Snowshoes. But with all winter sports, there isn’t just one ‘type’ of snowshoe. What, you thought this would be easy? Now, the divisions between the types can be up for debate at times. But we find that breaking them up into these three main types is easiest:-
Flat Terrain Snowshoes
Designed primarily for casual/beginner users, these snowshoes usually come in at a lowe price point and offer a simplified binding system. The bottoms will have milder crampons (spikes) and often won’t offer a heel lift system.
As a beginner, you won’t be tackling long, steep, gruelling treks, and will likely stick to worn paths or gentler terrain until you know the ropes. As such, these snowshoes focus more on comfort and ease of use than all-out performance. You may also see these shoes called Recreational Snowshoes.
Rolling Terrain Snowshoes
Designed to handle a wider variety of terrain including moderate slopes in fairer conditions, these shoes can cost a little more, but the quality uptake is often worth it. These shoes will have more aggressive crampons (longer spikes) for better traction on slopes, and a sturdier, more complex binding system that allows for more range of movement.
As we start to get a little more technical, they may also feature a heel lift system — a bar that flicks up to prevent the heel from flattening all the way. This reduces fatigue and ankle/Achilles strain on prolonged climbs. These snowshoes may also be called Backcountry Snowshoes.
Mountain Terrain Snowshoes
The top-end offerings fall under this heading. These snowshoes are the most expensive and offer the most aggressive crampons. These shoes are designed for steep and icy conditions, will feature sophisticated bindings systems that are made for sturdier, snow-specific boots, and an advanced heel-lift system that accommodates steep slopes. These snowshoes also come under the Backcountry Snowshoes label.
Other Snowshoe Types
Of course, there are more. Two more, to be precise. Racing Snowshoes are separate from the recreational kind and will feature a slimmer and shorter profile. This allows for a more ‘natural’ step, but reduces the surface area. This isn’t a problem, however, as racing snowshoes are used on groomed tracks. So you won’t be sinking, anyway.
The last option then is a Women’s Specific snowshoe. Some brands are beginning to produce snowshoes directed primarily at women, which are more ergonomic. A slimmer width and lighter construction help to reduce fatigue and improve comfort, and bindings systems designed for smaller boots make using these snowshoes much easier.
Possibly the only thing more important than the snowshoes themselves is the poles. The problem with snow is that it looks smooth and flat. But often enough, you’ll find that the ground underneath isn’t. And that when your foot goes down, you won’t always be perfectly supported.
All of this together makes snowshoeing a sport of balance as much as it is one of endurance. Your poles are going to be an essential part of your gear, not only to help you maintain your balance but also to help you probe ahead for anything that might knock you off balance. They’ll also give you a way to propel yourself up steeper hills, get up when you fall down, and help navigate steeper declines. All in all, don’t go out without them!
If you’re in the market for some new ones, you’ll have the choice between fixed and telescopic. Fixed poles are usually cheaper, and have a ‘fixed’ length, while telescopic poles can extend. These can be handy in deep snow or if you’re unsure of what’s ahead of you. Well worth the extra cost if you’re going off the beaten path.
Boots are going to be much better than anything else to go snowshoeing in. A good pair of waterproof hiking boots are the best bet for most trips. However, if you’re intending to be out for longer, walk in deeper snow, or need some more warmth and support, snowboard boots can be a good option, too! A more beginner-focused pair of snowboard boots or ones with an articulated construction can be a good choice. But they can be quite expensive, too, so you’ll have to weigh this up yourself!
A good quality, highly waterproof pair of boots is a safe choice if you’re just starting out, though, and is definitely recommended (together with some good socks!) until you know where you want to invest some more money. You can (and definitely should) pair these with gaiters to keep powder off your ankles, too. But we’ll get to that, right… now.
A sturdy pair of gaiters, which are comfortable too, is a definite necessity. Using gaiters will prevent snow from going down into your boot and soaking your foot. If there’s a great way to ruin a day of snowshoeing, it’s with wet and cold feet!
A day pack differs from a normal rucksack by its technical makeup. Day Packs generally have various compartments for various things and are designed to work in more challenging environments. A day pack will often be waterproof to keep your clothing dry, will have a hydration bladder pouch, a back protector, comfortable straps, and other quirky features to keep your adventure the right kind of exciting. Upgrading your backpack is a great way to help ensure you stay happy and safe on the mountain.
When we’re gearing up for a day of snowshoeing, we’re always trying to cover all bases. But often, your clothing will change depending on the conditions you’re facing that day. So let’s run through what you could need on your next snowshoeing trip.
Base layers are an essential part of any snowshoeing wardrobe. We recommend going with synthetic material for most cases. Polyester baselayers are comfortable and warm, but they’re also breathable and moisture-wicking, meaning that sweat doesn’t build up. If you’re going to be doing very leisurely walks, and not working up much of a sweat, something like merino wool will be super cosy! But beware of cotton or wool base layers, as they may get damp throughout the day.
Snow Pants / Hiking Pants
In most cases, your skiing or snowboarding pants or bib will be fine to use for snowshoeing. And in snowier conditions, deep powder, or on colder days, the waterproof and windproof barrier they provide is preferable, to say the least! However, if you’re going to be hiking on a bluebird day, on worn-in tracks, and you know you won’t be getting wet or snowy, then a softshell hiking pant can be a good alternative. Paired with a good set of base layers and gaiters, they’ll often be warm enough and will be more comfortable, too. But, this is a choice that needs to be made with experience! So be safe to begin with, and stick to ski pants, just in case.
A mid-layer goes between your base layer and coat or jacket. They range from lightweight and thin to heavy and puffy, so you’ll have to do your own research. Generally, fleece is a great option for a mid-layer as it traps heat, but is also breathable thanks to its polyester construction! Warm for their weight, fleeces are a great choice for any trip to the mountains. But if you’re shoeing in colder climates, an insulated mid-layer jacket might be necessary. Or even two mid-layers — fleece and jacket — might be the right call. It all depends on the conditions. The good news is that you can wear one and take another in your pack, just in case!
Snow Jacket / Hiking Jacket
Ski jackets will often be insulated and will offer the best protection from the elements. But much like with the ski pants vs. softshell tradeoff, you’ll need to make the same call here. The downside to a ski jacket is that they can often be on the heavier side. Of course, there are lots of non-insulated or lightweight insulation options available, so again this comes down to the kind of conditions you expect to encounter on your trip. If you know the weather is cold and snowy, then a ski jacket may be best. If it’s a spring trip and the weather is likely to be milder and sunny, then you can take a lighter weight hiking jacket instead. Our advice? Pack both and decide on the day!
Gloves are as much personal preference as they are dressing for the conditions. Luckily, they’re small, you can take both types! A thinner, softshell glove will be ideal for better conditions and will keep your hands from growing sweaty. Sweaty hands mean wet gloves, and wet gloves mean cold hands. It’s a vicious cycle. So we always recommend having an insulated, waterproof glove, and a lightweight softshell glove on hand, and swapping them out as needed on the mountain.
While not necessary, a ski or snowboard mask can be a great choice for a snowy adventure. Masks not only protect from snow and wind, but also from the sun. They can also help warm the air as you breathe, making your day easier. Cold air can shock the throat and lungs, making it a little harder to breathe sometimes. So a mask or even a scarf can help with this if it’s something that you experience or struggle with. They’re always good to have on hand, either way, in case you need to stop, and you need an extra layer to keep warm while you do.
When it comes to hats, you can never go wrong with a classic beanie! We recommend something like acrylic for the fabric, or even a polyester fleece if you can find one. Wool will absorb moisture, and make your head cold when it gets damp. Otherwise, you can go for a winter cap which will keep the sun off your head and face. They come with earflaps and neck coverings too, a lot of the time.
We say sunglasses because when it comes to eyewear, goggles seem a little overkill. They’re fairly large and bulky, and without the forced airflow that comes courtesy of the speed that skiing or snowboarding affords, they can get warm, sweaty, and even foggy. So we definitely recommend some sunglasses (if the weather is bright), or if it’s overcast or snowy, then Nordic ski glasses can be a great choice!
Snowshoeing Safety & Safety Equipment
Before you go anywhere...
Always check avalanche risks and reports before heading out. Stick to worn paths if you’re inexperienced. And invest time and effort in learning basic avalanche safety! Snowshoeing may seem like a relaxed sport, but the mountains can be dangerous no matter what activity you’re doing! Stay safe out there guys, and remember to always bring…
Map & Compass
It’s likely that you’ll be snowshoeing with a group, or on a guided tour, but in the event that you’re striking out on your own — either for a leisurely walk or on something more ambitious — it’s always best to carry a good old fashioned map and compass. Often in the mountains — and usually at the most inopportune times, you’ll lose phone signal. And if the weather is closing in and your tracks get covered, you can always rely on a map and compass to get home. Or at the very least, to tell mountain rescue where you are!
When you’re walking in the forest, or your out in the valleys, or even when you’re tracing a ridgeline, a snow probe is going to be really useful! Following tracks is great, but eventually, you’ll want to cut your own path. And when you’re faced with fresh snow, and you’re not sure what’s under it, a snow probe is incredibly useful. From hidden ditches and streams to fragile cornices, plunging a snow probe into the powder can save you from everything from mild embarrassment to actual death. They’re cheap, their collapsible, and you shouldn’t ever be without one!
A GPS Transponder is a device that emits a signal that shows your location. If you get into trouble, having one in your pocket that you can activate will probably save your life. If you’re sticking close to the resort, it may not be necessary, but for those looking to strike out on a real adventure. Well, don’t get caught without one.
A two-way radio, or a ‘walkie-talkie’, is a simple addition to your safety gear, and one that’s always a good choice to keep around. If you get separated from your group, don’t know your way, or need to call for some help/advice, a lot of radios will have a ‘broadcast on all channels’ function, or can at least send out a distress-style call. Other than that, they’re great fun to talk to people on!
Much like the snow probe, a snow shovel can be a great thing to have around. Either for digging yourself out of tight spots or for helping others! And if by some disastrous turn of events you find yourself out after dark or unable to get home, and facing a night in the snow, digging yourself a little snow cave to sleep it can be the difference.
On a lighter note, sunburn is another thing you want to avoid. And though it may seem strange, you can also get sun-stroke, too, despite the cold. So load up on sun protection, as the snow can reflect the UV and double the damage to the skin. Ouch!
First Aid Kit
Self-explanatory, if anyone gets a boo-boo, a first aid kit is going to be essential. These should (at the very least) include a heat-reflective/foil blanket, disinfectant, blister plasters, painkillers, and self-adhesive elasticated bandages… You never know! Better safe than sorry.
Torch / Head Lamp
Night comes quickly in the mountains, and often a sunset walk can turn into a trudge back in the dark. A headlamp will let you keep your eyes on the trail ahead, and will keep you out of trouble.
A fire starter, or a flint-and-steel as they’re sometimes marketed, can be a super useful thing to carry. If you’re stopping due to injury, you need to attract some attention or signal someone, or you need to stay warm while you await pick-up or rescue, then the ability to start a fire in all weathers is something you’ll certainly be glad of.
A quick way to ruin your day snowshoeing is to have a broken one. It happens at the best of times, so having a repair kit that will allow you to at least get home again is always a good idea. You never know when misfortune will strike, but it’s always when you don’t expect it! The basic kit should include duct tape, screwdrivers/alan keys, and some extra straps for your snowshoes if you can get them!
An emergency blanket or bag is a big waterproof sack or sheet that’ll keep the snow, wind, and moisture off you. They pack down really tightly, but they’re great if you need to get out of the elements and keep some body heat. Like most safety equipment on this list, we hope you’ll never need it, but having it is a must!
Snowshoeing Fitness & Exercises
When it comes to snowshoeing, you’ll be surprised at how tiring it can be, and how taxing it is on the body. So we’ve put together a quick guide on some exercises you can do to keep yourself strong and supple, to help ease your future learning curve!
Lunged are our number one exercise as they offer both strength and conditioning, along with flexibility. Standing straight with your feet together, bring a knee up in front of you, and then step forward. Your foot should land in front of you, with your ‘back’ leg straight, the balls of your feet on the ground, and your heel raised. Don’t ‘drop’ into the lunge, just step naturally. Extension will come with time.
From this lunge position, push back to your original position, and repeat with the other leg. This will stretch your calves and hamstrings, as well as helping to add strength to your quads and shins. It also works your core! For added difficulty, you can hold weights, dumbbells, or wear a weighted vest. Doing a couple of thousand of these will definitely help your snowshoeing. Okay, okay, we’ll let you off. Start with ten, and build up.
Much like the lunges, squats can be a great way to build muscle, and you don’t need a heavy bar to do them right. Clasp your hands in front of your chin, elbows out, feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward. Now, from here, lower down until your butt touches your heels (or as low as you can go), and then stand straight again. You can widen your feet if you need to, but shoulder width is good without weight as it helps with balance, too!
To add difficulty, you can ‘spring’ up into a pencil jump, or again, introduce dumbbells, a weight, or a weighted vest.
High Knee Stretches
High knee stretches are brilliant for balance and range of movement, and are really easy to do. Stand straight with your feet a few inches apart. Raise one knee to your chest, with your back straight and use your hands to pull it into your body. This will stretch your hips, your hamstrings, and also improve your balance, which you’ll need more than you think!
Hip Flexor Stretches
Hip flexor stretches are an extension of the high knee stretch, and are a great one to introduce once you’ve got your balance down. Raise your knee as before, and instead of grabbing it, turn it to the side, like you’re opening a door. Your inner thigh should be facing forward, with your glute doing the work here. Hold it, then bring it back, and lower it as normal. This is a great way to open out your hip flexors and strengthen them. Super useful on the mountain, trust us!
Yoga Warrior Poses
Yoga, in general, is wonderful for the body, but for snowshoeing, we like the Warrior poses especially. They aid with balance and utilise the skills you learned in the hip flexor, high knee, and lunge exercises, bringing them together in a test of core strength and balance.
Move into a lunge position, and then turn your back foot over, so that the inside edge of your sole is lying on the floor. This means that your front and back foot are at perpendicular angles. You should feel lots of stretch in the groin here!
From there, face front with your body, and raise your arms to the side, straight out, like the letter ‘T’. This is halfway there, but a good start. Want to stretch the back and complete the pose? Slowly cycle your arms backwards, and then bring them up either side of your front knee, inhaling deeply as you extend them over your head, palms pointing towards each other. This lengthens the spine and opens the chest. Welcome to Warrior 1.
If you turn to face to the side, this then opens out the other groin and brings in the hip flexors. Now, lower your arms back to the ‘T’ position — one over the front knee, one over the back. Breathe. This is Warrior 2.
Now, to get into Peaceful Warrior, slowly lower your back hand towards your back knee, and stretch it down towards your back foot. Keep your breathing steady, and allow your front hand to raise up, keeping the ‘T’ shape as much as you can. This stretches the flanks, the lats, engages the core, and everything else. It doesn’t feel peaceful, we know, but it’s an excellent exercise to do for snowshoeing, and life, too! And the best part? You only did one side. Now do the other.
Best Places To Go Snowshoeing
The world is a big and beautiful place, with lots of great locations for snowshoe adventures. Below, we’ve listed some of our favourite places to get out and do snow shoeing.
Yes, yes, we know the Dolomites aren’t in the Alps. But they’re quite close. Joined, actually. And though the dark jagged peaks are replaced by rising walls stained pink by the afternoon sun, and the vibe is altogether a little more Italian than a lot of the Alps, they’re one of our favourite places to go snowshoeing. Rolling meadows mean easy terrain to walk, and the scenery? Breathtaking. Honestly, for a first trip, there’s likely not a better place.
One of the oldest resorts in France, Chamonix allows you to snowshoe in the shadow of Mont Blanc, but beyond that, its network of great trails and the access it affords to nearby resorts, along with the town itself makes it one of the best destinations for a relaxed winter holiday.
Picturesque and delightful, Grindelwald is about as scenic as towns come, and has lots of great, varied terrain, along with wonderful amenities for the whole family.
Kirchberg in Austria is a wonderfully quaint little town that offers some great skiing, but on top of that, it has a beautiful network of trails and some of the prettiest landscape in the whole of the Alps.
Lapland is the most well-known snowshoeing destination in Scandinavia. There aren’t a lot of tall mountains in Lapland, but there’s lots of wonderful landscape and wildlife to check out, and a well-maintained and extensive network of trails.
One of the more famous resorts for skiing in Scandinavia, Trysil offers a good variety of trails for snowshoers, backed by a very scenic landscape.
Surrounded by lakes and some lovely mountains, Are is a central winter sports destination in Sweden. And with a good network of trails, it’s a prime choice for snowshoers in Sweden.
US & Canada
Sunshine Valley, Alberta
Home to Banff, Sunshine Valley is a network of three resorts and has some breathtaking snowshoeing trails to sink your crampons into.
Mt. Seymour, British Columbia
A stone’s throw from Vancouver (relatively speaking), this beautiful location has everything you need for a quick getaway from the city. With varied terrain, there’s something for all ability levels.
Black Hills, South Dakota
You can check out Mount Rushmore, see some wildlife, and experience some of the best trails that the US has to offer in the Black hills. Definitely somewhere to check out if you’re in the North West.
White River, Mount Hood, Oregon
In the cradle of Mount Hood, you have everything from easy trails to difficult wilderness. For those looking to challenge themselves, there’s lots on offer here.
The snowiest region in Scotland, the Cairngorms offer some great snowshoeing. Generally fairly tame on the global scale, this area is well worth exploring on your own or with a guided group. A network of hiking trails become ideal for snowshoeing when there’s a good covering on the ground, and the views are just stunning.
Nevis Range, Scotland
Slightly less snowy than Cairngorm, but offering the best vertical ascents in Scotland, the Nevis range has some wonderful scenery and some dramatic vistas, and some great technical terrain for those looking to challenge themselves.