A journey begins with a single step, and sometimes that step is knee-deep in snow with a snowshoe attached.
Ever wanted to walk in a winter wonderland? The sleigh bells ring, the snow glistens, and there’s a snowman named Parson Brown running around asking if people are married. With snowshoeing, you can see it all.
Snowshoeing is a perfect introduction to winter backcountry travel in the mountains. It's a fun snow activity that’ll warm you right up in the coldest of temperatures. Rentals are as low as $10, no lift ticket is required, and the learning curve is quick.
SheJump's very own Shari Karber and Stacey Mates take us through the very basics of snowshoeing in the backcountry from choosing a snowshoe, to planning the route, to bringing the right gear. While nothing can replace learning from a more experienced backcountry user, this article stands as general advice for getting started and not a comprehensive guide for proper instruction.
Based in Washington, Shari spends her summers hiking in nearby mountain ranges. With the help of snowshoes, she began to enjoy those same trails in the winter and has since hosted a SheJumps event that covered snowshoe basics. In Utah, Stacey began snowshoeing with friends who didn't have the tools to slide along the backcountry in skis. Turns out, Stacey enjoyed the activity so much she became a professional snowshoe guide in the winter.
1. Get Familiar with Snowshoes
The origin of snowshoes goes back thousands of years - what was once a necessary tool for travel in the snow is now a winter hobby created in mass production.
The wide design of the shoe keeps you afloat on the snow, unlike a regular hiking shoe. “Essentially, snowshoes just give your foot more surface area so that you don't posthole - sink into the snow,” explained Stacey. “ It helps you to conserve energy so that you can push yourself to go further."
Choosing a snowshoe will be partially dependent on snow conditions. A longer snowshoe will be ideal for powdery days because it has more surface area to stay on top of the snow. On groomed or packed-down trails, a shorter snowshoe is the best choice. It’s easier to walk in for beginners and generally lighter weight.
Before committing to buying a snowshoe, it’s helpful to try various types of rentals to get a feel for what might suit your adventures best. The straps should always keep your boot attached while walking and they should be easy to put on/take-off/adjust with gloves on. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if the snowshoes aren't comfortable in the store, they won't be comfortable while hiking in the snow.
While Stacey is used to backcountry travel with skis on her feet, the switch to snowshoes took almost no adjustment. She recommends: "Walk like you normally do!” Still, it’s good to get familiar with the snowshoes by walking around in a yard.
2. Know Your Route
Planning is an essential piece of a puzzle for safe backcountry adventure. Researching trails, avalanche hazards, and weather on routes can define the difference between a fun outing and an absolutely terrible (and potentially dangerous) time.
Finding the right areas to snowshoe through can be its own challenge. The first outings Shari went on were simple walks along the roadside. Safe, but not exactly her cup of tea. “I knew there had to be better routes," she remembered. "I walked a road trail four times before I realized there were fun trails through the trees and made a figure-8 loop."
Stacey agreed. "It's a lot harder to navigate well-marked trails in snow because if you are making first tracks, you won't be able to see the trail. Try taking trails you've done in the summer, or ask a friend for a GPX track that you can download and use on your phone." A local gear or rental shop are also great places to source trail information and current conditions.
With snow comes the potential for hiking in avalanche terrain. One of the best tools to use for route planning and terrain identification is Gaia GPS. With Gaia, it’s possible to use slope angle map overlay to discover potentially hazardous terrain traps and avalanche paths. However, trails below/on steep slopes or in gullies should be avoided, especially without an avalanche education. (Read: Navigation 101 – How to Use Gaia GPS for Winter Backcountry Travel)
One of the more straightforward steps to planning is checking the weather. NOAA and Open Snow are both reliable sources for local weather forecasts, but mountain weather is volatile and can change in a snap.
3. Choosing the Right Gear
While Shari is now experienced at snowshoeing, she remembers her first time vividly. Geared with yoga pants, hiking shoes, trekking poles, and a plethora of layers, she began her first walk through the snow…then swiftly turned around after realizing there were one too many layers. "I don't think I made it out of the parking lot before taking off my outer jacket layer," she joked, noting that it's better to be safe than sorry with extra clothes.
Shari wasn’t wrong: a key to staying warm are insulated layers. A typical set-up is gloves, a beanie, base layer, puffy jacket, and outer shell to protect against the elements. The most popular method for layering is to begin hiking without an insulated jacket because of how quickly it warms up once you start moving.
To stay dry while trudging through the snow, water-resistant shoes, snow pants, and gaiters that prevent snow from getting into your boots are useful. Yoga pants can work, but jeans will cause a swift downfall on the fun scale. “When they get wet, they get heavy and tend to shrink tighter on your body,” explained Shari. Not to mention, getting wet means getting real cold in the winter.
Snow sunscreen, sunglasses, and buffs are more important than ever while on the snow. The sun's powerful UV rays are reflected off the snow, especially on a cloudy day. The exposure alone can cause sunburns on the skin and has the potential to burn the surface of the eye, known as snow blindness.
Much like a typical hike, essentials include water, snacks, a portable charger and a headlamp in case the trek goes a little too far into the evening. "Other than that, gather your friends and enjoy prancing around in the snow,” finished Shari.
4. Don’t Go If You Don’t Know
Sometimes the stars don’t quite align to go snowshoeing - maybe a storm is approaching, or the snowshoe doesn’t fit right, or you can’t find a single pair of sunglasses to wear. There’s nothing wrong with taking a step back and going on another day, better equipped for the trails.
While learning on your own is fun, Stacey noted that hiring a professional takes out the guesswork. "If you have the disposable income, hiring a guide is a great option," she said. "They are familiar with the local trails and avalanche conditions and can make sure you feel comfortable and confident for your first time!"
Photos provided by Shari Karber
SheJumps is an inclusive organization. We welcome all women and girls (transgender and cisgender) as well as non-binary people who identify with the women's community. SheJumps strives to be an ally in the fight against racism and acknowledges that our events and programs take place on traditional, unceded Indigenous lands.