January 17, 2022

Is it hard to snowshoe?

If you can walk, you can snowshoe!

Snowshoeing is a wonderful activity that should be tried by every outdoor enthusiast at least once! It’s perfect for little ones and is a great way to see your favorite landscapes in a different season.

It does take much more energy than hiking, can double your normal hiking time, and require avalanche training depending on where you go. Yet if you stay out of avalanche country snowshoeing can be a peaceful, family friendly winter sport.

I’ve found that while mountain-view snowshoe adventures are great, the lower land waterfall snowshoes trails are just as stunning.

Get The Most Out Of Your Money

  • Classes are not necessary to start snowshoeing.

I personally think snowshoe classes are not worth your money, if you don’t have the money to spend on them. They usually run around $100.00 through REI. If you do have the finances and that’s something that interest you, then go for it!

Do you have any friends or family members that could take you out and show you the ropes? Are you part of an outdoor group? Perhaps someone there could help you. If you live in Oregon, I’m always willing to teach people as well up on Wy’east (Mount Hood), Loowit (Mount St. Helens) or Pátu (Mount Adams).

  • If you’re going to pay for a class, pay for an avalanche awareness one.

The most important and crucial skills to have while snowshoeing is avalanche awareness (identifying risky places and conditions) and knowing how to navigate. For more avalanche class information and locations, read the Avalanche Classes section below.

  • Brand new snowshoes are not required.

Don’t be afraid to look at used snowshoes. Check for used gear at Next Adventure’s Bargain Basement. I purchased my very first Atlas snowshoes (flat terrain) for $10.00 from there. Locally owned consignment stores like Foster Outdoor and Play It Again Sports can be good options.


Everything You Need To Know About Snowshoes

Renting Snowshoes

When you rent snowshoes, they only have one type, but most places rent out MSRs. So there’s not much to worry about. I recommend renting snowshoes at least once before investing in an expensive pair.

Most rentals cost anywhere between $15.00-$40.00, depending on where you’re renting from.

You can rent them at…

However, as you get more experienced, you’ll want to venture farther out and need different snowshoes.

Types of Snowshoes

Different terrain requires different snowshoes so you may end up building a collection depending on what your first purchase.

Different types of snowshoes:

  1. Flat terrain and gentle inclines/declines.
  2. Rolling terrain.
  3. Mountain terrain.
  4. Running.
  5. Snowboard and ski boots for those who want to earn their turns, but don’t split board/tour.
    • Recommended for experienced riders only.

Things to keep in mind:

  • There are more snowshoe brands other than just the ones listed below.
  • Length of the teeth on the snowshoes.
  • The longer the teeth the better the traction.

FLAT TERRAIN

Most flat terrain snowshoes have easy-to-adjust bindings and shorter teeth.

  1. Perfect for beginners.
  2. Designed for flat terrain & gentle hills.
  3. Ideal for casual snowshoers.
  • I have Atlas for my flat terrain snowshoes. Found at Next Adventure in their bargain basement for $10.00, normally priced $250.00. Always check the used section first.

Xplore Women’s Snowshoes – $134.95 from Tubbs or Flex STP Women’s Snowshoes for $99.95 from Tubbs.

ROLLING TERRAIN

The bindings and teeth are definitely bigger on these snowshoes. Most of them have heel lifts/climbing bars, which make all the difference on a hill.

  1. Hiking steep terrain.
  2. Can work on some icy conditions.
  3. Ideal for snowshoers with some experience or know they want to stick with the sport.
  • MSR Evo snowshoes are the brand most rental places rent out. MSRs have a composite frame with a hard-decking material and you can add on a 6” tail for deep pow.

MSR Evo Snowshoes– $139.95 from REI.

MOUNTAIN TERRAIN

  1. Ideal for mountaineers, advanced hikers and backcountry snowboarders/skiers.
  2. Designed for icy, steep terrain and blazing trails.
  3. All the ones I’ve seen have climbing-style crampons.

Best options:

  1. Adventure Research Ascender Pro Snowshoes – $199.95
  2. MSR Lightening Ascent – $329.95.

What I Have:

  • Research Cascade Snowshoes and absolutely love them.
    • I’ve worn both the MSRs and Research Cascade Snowshoes and both perform equally well. EXCEPT that Next Adventure sells the Research Cascade snowshoes for $88.95 on sale. If they aren’t in stock your next best bet are the Adventure Research Ascender Pro snowshoes.

MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes – for $329.95 from MSR.

RUNNING

Unless you plan on trail running and/or racing in snowshoes, you won’t need these. Running snowshoes work best on groomed and semi-groomed trails – they are not made for deep snow or un-groomed trails.

  • Small
  • Very lightweight
  • The heel completely lifts and lets your foot flex naturally side-to-side
  • Pointed tail, not a round heel
  • Regular tennis shoes or hiking shoes are ideal with this snowshoe
  • You won’t be needing these unless you plan on snowshoe racing.

I’ve heard Atlas is the go-to brand for running snowshoes.

Atlas Run Snowshoes – for $249.95 from Atlas.

Climbing Bars/Heel Lifts

Climbing bars/heel lifts make going uphill so much easier. Some snowshoes have climbing bars/heel lifts, but most flat terrain snowshoes do not. If you find a pair of snowshoes that you like with heel lifts, buy them! Trust me, you want them if you plan on going uphill.

Snowshoe Bindings

The 2 most common types are:

  1. fixed bindings
  2. floating/rotating bindings

1. Fixed bindings usually have heavy-duty rubber bands and don’t offer much pivoting

  • These bindings make stepping over things and walking backwards easier, but they do kick up a lot of snow. Which can soak your legs if you’re not wearing waterproof bottoms

2. Floating or Rotating bindings attach under the balls of your feet making walking up hills easier. They also offer movement that’s similar to how you naturally walk

  • These bindings make it easier for you to kick your toe into the slope on steep hills

There are also 5 other types of bindings that can be found on snowshoes:

Webbing Strap Bindings

  • Nylon straps that cross across the top of the foot
  • Woven through the binding
  • Usually a single pull tab and buckle to tighten and release

Polyurethane Strap Bindings

  • Similar to the straps on backcountry riding gear
  • Used on many snowshoes
  • 2 – 3 straps across the top of the foot
  • Easily replaceable

Boa Bindings

  • Most user friendly

Ratchet Bindings

  • Common on beginner, recreational snowshoes
  • Easy to use

Wraparound Bindings

  • Strap wraps around the inside of the foot, and latches at the top

*I prefer floating/rotating bindings more. The kick up snow from fixed bindings really bother me. 

One Type I Would Avoid

  • YakTraks

They are not the same as snowshoes. YakTraks also don’t have the same traction as micro spikes. I think that YakTraks are best used when walking around the city over your sneakers or everyday footwear. *Micro spikes are not the same as snowshoes are will not work in deep or soft snow.

Snowshoe Sizing

General Rules:

  • More weight and the drier the snow = more surface area required.
  • More surface area is required on powder snow to stay afloat.
  • Guy snowshoes are designed for large boots and heavy load.
  • Women snowshoes tend to be narrow and have smaller bindings.
  • I have no information on child snowshoes, sorry!

Different Sizes For Different Types of Snowshoes:

  • Sizes also differentiate between aluminum-frame snowshoes and composite snowshoes.
  • Some overlaps in sizing, but it’s not an issue.

Different Brands Also Offer Different Sizes:

  • Aluminum-frame snowshoes come in different sizes.
  • Composite snowshoes (like MSRs) are only one size and allow you to add tails.

Weight Range and Length of Snowshoes:

  • 80 – 160 pounds / 21 – 23 inches
  • 120 – 200 pounds / 25 – 27 inches
  • 150 – 260 pounds / 30 inches
  • 180 – 300+ pounds / 35 – 36 inches

Recommended Load / What Size of Snowshoe You Need:

If you don’t plan on doing long trips or carrying extra gear (ice axe, crampons, a board) you won’t need to size up that much.

It’s really not that complicated though I promise, and whoever is helping you out at the store will point you to the right ones!

  • “Recommended load” = your weight + your equipment weight.
    • This helps when determining what size snowshoe you need.
    • Find this info online or sometimes on the tag in the store.

*I got my minimum size by taking my weight + 35 pounds. My pack is heavier because of extra gear and extra food/wine.

Different Trails and What Snowshoe Works Best

Keep in mind that more compact snowshoes are easier to move in. Try to get the smallest size that works.

Compact snowshoes work best on…

  1. Packed trails – example: Trillium Lake.
  2. Forest trails – example: Umbrella & Sahalie Falls.
  3. Steep terrain – example: Silcox Hut.
  4. Icy terrain – example: Loowit (Mt. St. Helens) Summit Winter Route.

Wider snowshoes work best on…

  1. Open meadows.
  2. Deep pow.

How To Snowshoe & Tips

Snowshoeing Techniques

While snowshoeing is the easiest winter sport, there are techniques that make it easier.

Jim Joque wrote a great piece for Snowshoe Magazine, “Snowshoeing 101: Technique With a Short Learning Curve.”

It’s literally the best resource I’ve ever found. He goes over all the basics of snowshoeing. Like getting up and turning around, stride and breaking trail, stamping and edging, ascending, descending, traversing and switch backing and even glissading.

You should definitely read it.

Snowshoe Basics:

  • Going uphill use your toe or instep crampon. Place your feet firmly on the snow with your poles in front of you.
  • Going downhill keep your knees bent, body weight back, poles in front and plant your heel first, then your toe.
  • To back up, go through deep snow or turn sharply, pick your feet up higher.

Different conditions require different techniques, which you can read about in “Snowshoeing 101: Technique With a Short Learning Curve.”

Tips:

  • Be sure to stretch before getting started as well – Your muscles work much harder during snowshoeing than hiking.
  • Keep in mind your hiking speed and your fitness level.
  • If you are taking it easy then you’ll want to start your hike warm.
  • If you plan on doing a more difficult trail you want to start cold, since you’ll heat up.

Snowshoe Terms

Familiarizing yourself with snow terms is also a good idea before getting started.

  • Avalanche.org has an avalanche encyclopedia with definitions for things like corn snow, cornices, anchor, etc.

Snowshoe Etiquette

A lot of the trails are shared with cross-country skiers.

Therefore, you want to make sure you don’t walk across the ski track and keep to one side.

  1. Try to make your own trail or use already made snowshoe tracks as much as possible if sharing a trail with XC skiers.
  2. Avoid using the ski track that the cross-country skiers have made.
    • It’s polite since you have more ability to create a path than they do.
    • Plus, it can be dangerous for XC skiers if there are postholes or deep snowshoes track in their track. I’ve fallen or my pole has fallen in a couple and almost messed up my knees and ankles.
  3. Skiers have the right-of-way on the trails since it’s easier for snowshoers to step off to the side
  4. Just like hiking etiquette: try to yield to the uphill snowshoers.
  5. When it comes to snowmobiles, I’m not 100% sure what the polite move is, but I assume it’s letting them have the right-of-way.
    • It seems easier for me to move to the side than a huge snowmobile, so that’s what I do.
  6. Before bringing the furry lovebug be sure to check if the trail allows dogs.
    • Dogs are sometimes discouraged or not allowed to use cross-country trails because they puncture the snow, and holes in the track are dangerous for XC skiers.

Washington State Park’s Code of Ethics and Trail Etiquette Tips:

CODE OF ETHICS

Maximize your winter enjoyment by following this Winter Recreation code of ethics:

  • I will respect all public and private property and the rights of all winter recreationists to enjoy the beauty.
  • I will park considerately without blocking other vehicles or impeding access to trails.
  • I will keep to the right when meeting other winter recreationists and yield the right of way to downhill traffic.
  • I will slow down and use caution when approaching or overtaking another.
  • I will respect designated areas, trail use signs, and established ski tracks.
  • When stopping, I will not block the trail.
  • I will not disturb wildlife and will avoid areas posted for its protection or feeding.
  • I will not litter and I will pack out everything I packed in.
  • I realize that my destination and travel speed are determined by my equipment, ability, terrain, weather, and traffic on the trail. In case of an emergency, I will volunteer assistance.
  • I will not interfere with or harass others, recognizing that people judge all skiers or snowmobile riders by my actions.

TRAIL TIPS

  • Leave dogs at home.
  • Don’t walk on a groomed trail.
  • When stopping, move to the side of the trail.
  • Allow right of way to skiers coming downhill.
  • Obey all signs and ski within your ability for safety’s sake.
  • Improve technique to increase your enjoyment.
  • Ski in single file to the right of the trail.
  • Sound a pleasant warning when passing a slower skier.
  • If you fall, fill your hole.
  • Ski only in the direction marked by arrows.
  • Don’t litter.
  • Most importantly, have fun!

You can see the ski tracks on the left

Left: snowshoe tracks. Right: XC ski tracks.

Other Gear Needed

Hiking Poles

Just like with hiking, if you need poles – use them. If you don’t need them then you don’t have to use them!

  • I always bring mine with me just in case. I find them helpful with my bad knees when I’m descending and ascending. In fact, I usually only use one pole.

If you can get adjustable hiking poles I would.

Adjustable poles are extremely helpful.

  • You can shorten them for going uphill, lengthen them when descending and they also help when traversing.
  • Your pole should be adjusted so your arm is at a right angle.
  • Put your hand through your pole straps from below so you can rest your hands if needed.

*Shop around at the smaller stores/mom & pop shops before dropping more than you want at a bigger retail chain. Some poles are over $100.00, but I found a brand-new pair (not adjustable) at Just Play It Again for $40.00. My second pair (adjustable) is from Next Adventure, which I bought for $50.00 on sale (normally $100.00).

In Your Backpack

You will still need the ten essentials when snowshoeing, plus a little more.

  • Portable shovel is important in case you need to dig someone out or build a shelter.
  • Headlamp or flashlight since there is less daylight during the winter. Snowshoeing in the dark can be dangerous.
  • Invest in an avalanche beacon after taking avalanche courses, and if you plan on going into avalanche country.
  • Emergency blanket or sleeping bag is a good idea just in case you get stuck out there.
    • You can find small emergency blankets at any outdoor store.
  • Extra clothing isn’t a bad idea either in case the weather changes suddenly.
    • I always bring extra layers. The mountain weather is nothing to mess around with.
  • Extra food and water. Snowshoeing takes more energy.
  • Whistle/signaling mirror can be crucial to have in an emergency.
  • Slope meter and snowpit analysis kit is a good idea if you’re going into avalanche country.
  • Snow probes/avalanche probes are a must in the backcountry and avalanche country. These can save a life in an avalanche.
    • They are much more compact than your hiking poles and can slide through the snow better.
    • After you locate where the victim is buried with the avalanche beacon you use this to pinpoint their exact location. If you have their exact location you can dig straight to them, eliminating their time underneath the snow. THIS IS WHY AVANLANCHE CLASSES ARE SO IMPORTANT.
  • Ice axe is required if you ice climb, summit a mountain or high-trek.
  • Having a route description is also highly recommended.
  • We carry duct tape, cord and pliers in our packs in case something breaks.
  • Quick-dry towel is also not a bad idea in case you need to wipe something up.
  • Hand warmers are a great idea if it’s a super cold day.
  • sitting pad is super helpful when it comes time to stop and eat.
    • I have two from Next Adventure: small pad that was 99 cents & a blow-up that costs $10.00 on sale (normally $20.00)
  • Matches or a lighter.
    • Consider getting a container that you can store your lighter or matches in.
  • dry bag to store your items in your backpack can also be useful.

In The Car

Having extra stuff in the car for after the adventure can make all the difference on the way home. Riding home in wet, cold clothes is never fun for anyone.

  1. Extra clothes.
    • Yoga pants/sweats, etc.
    • Sweatshirt/sweater.
    • Outer coat.
    • Shirt.
    • Socks.
    • Underwear.
    • Sports bra/bra.
  2. Food.
  3. Water.
  4. Extra Shoes or Slippers.

Staying Warm Outside

What I Wear

If it’s super cold and/or snowing I wear:

  • Mid-weight (sometimes lightweight if the hike is steep) polyester long underwear or fleece mid-weight pants.
  • Snow pants.
  • Dri fit t-shirt.
  • Mid-weight long underwear top.
  • Fleece zip-up.
  • Waterproof/breathable jacket.

If it’s sunny I wear:

  • Fleece mid-weight or light-weight pant.
  • Snow pants or hiking pants.
  • Dri fit t-shirt.
  • Fleece zip-up.
  • Lightweight rain jacket.
  • Synthetic filled vest.

I always wear my:

  • Gloves.
  • Face mask/buff.
  • Synthetic/thermal ear gear.
  • I always bring a hat – in my bag or on my head.

TIP 1: Wear thin thermal clothing beneath your bulkier clothing so you have full range of motion.

TIP 2: Another thing to keep in mind is that you lose heat from your neck and head the most.

How To Layer

It goes… 1) base layer 2) insulating layer then 3) outer layer.

  • Need more information on how to layer and what kind of materials are needed for base, insulating and outer layers? Check out the Staying Warm in Winter – Layering 101.

My Layers

For Base Layers –
  1. Leggings – moisture wicking
  2. Lightweight “jacket/sweater” – waterproof
  3. Long-sleeved shirt – moisture wicking

*remember to avoid cotton. This material will not dry if it becomes wet and wet clothes out in the snow is never good.

For Insulating Layers –
  1. Fleece zip-up – polyester fleece
  2. Fleece sweater – polyester fleece
For Outer Layers –
  1. Vest and/or Jacket – waterproof
  2. Snow pants
For Headwear –
  1. wool or synthetic headbands.
    • I have a lot of (unbelievably) thick hair and run hot, so this is a good option for me
  2. Face mask to protect my face because you never know if the wind will pick up.

Other options for headwear are…

  • Baseball cap/Brimmed hat.
  • Beanies.
For Hands –
  • Shell gloves that are waterproof or water resistant.
    • My favorite shells are the Arc’teryx Alpha SL Gloves ($99.00). The fabric is windproof, breathable and repels water. Fleece is on the inside, keeping your hands warm.
    • Another good, cheaper option are the Outdoor Research VersaLiner Gloves ($55.00). They have pockets on the side to store hand warmers in and are water resistant. There are 2 gloves: an insulating layer and a water-resistant shell. Plus, they have touchscreen compatible finger tips!
  • Liners underneath my shell gloves on cold days.
  • Liners only on sunny days, but I still pack my shell gloves just in case.
For Eyeballs –

I have a few different sunglasses to choose from, but you will be okay with 1 pair.

  1. I buy cheap sunglasses for lower elevation adventures because polarized lenses aren’t necessarily needed.
  2. When I go on high-trek elevations I throw on polarized sunglasses.
    • It’s smart to have the best vision possible up there. I also pack my goggles.
  3. If it is snowing hard and sideways, I wear my snowboarding goggles.
    • They work best in that type of weather for me.

Keeping Your Feet & Calfs Warm

Footwear

1. Boots

Having dry feet and warm shoes will make all the difference. Here are some options:

  1. Boots that are stiff and warm.
  2. Insulated and waterproof boots.
  3. Thick rubber soles.
  4. Leather, waterproof hiking boots.
  • I use my waterproof hiking boots if it is a short hike outside of avalanche country, and it’s warm that day. My snow boots are used for backcountry and deep pow trekking.

2. Socks

Keeping your feet warm is important, so here are some good choices:

  1. Wool socks.
  2. Synthetic socks.
  3. Liner socks are also another thing to consider wearing and go great under your hiking socks.
    1. Be sure to get liner socks that are breathable, moisture-wicking and have a quick-drying barrier. You can find them for under $10.00 at REI.

Gaiters

You might want to consider getting gaiters for keeping the snow out of your shoes. It’s not totally necessary if you wear snow pants. I don’t wear them, but half of my friends do, so it’s a personal preference.

There are different sizes depending on what you want and need.

They make gaiters that

  1. go just above the ankle
  2. to the lower shin and upper shin
  3. to the knees

Sizing Tips:

  • The deeper the pow the longer the gaiters you’ll want.
  • Women will want to go 1.5 shoe sizes smaller if buying men or unisex sized gaiters.

Fees and Passes

Be sure to check if you need a Sno-Park pass at the trailhead, winter time doesn’t mean free parking! Get all the information over on my All You Need To Know About Oregon & Washington Sno-Park Permits.

  • The Sno-Park passes are valid from November 1st through April 31st

Where To Go

Finding places to snowshoe isn’t too hard. If it’s not on private property, you can most likely snowshoe there when there is snow.

  • National Forest.
  • National Parks.
  • Parks.
  • Sno-Parks.
  • State Parks.
  • Wildlife Refuges.

Beginner Snowshoe Trails

I have a couple snowshoe trail descriptions that are beginner-friendly already up on the blog:

  • Tamanawas Falls – 3.6 miles with a waterfall on the east side of Wy’east (Mt Hood).
  • Mirror Lake – 2.9 miles with a lake and view of Wy’east (Mt Hood) right off HWY 26 in Government Camp, Oregon. One of the most popular snowshoe trails in the area.
  • Grouse Mountain – Multiple trails, different levels and miles. In Vancouver, British Columbia with views overlooking the entire Vancouver city and water. There are Christmas lights strung throughout the trails and a frozen pond you can also skate on! It’s actually really awesome and if you can visit I would.
  • Panaroma Point and Glacier Point at Rainer N.P. – Multiple trails start from Paradise at Mount Rainier. Panaroma Point is a moderate 4.5 trail, and Glacier Point is an easy 3 miles trail. Still travels through avalanche country – only adventure here when avalanche conditions are no-risk.
  • Trillium Lake – 4 miles with a lake, a view of Mount Hood, and hills. Another popular snowshoe trails around Wy’east (Mt Hood). Great beginner trail. Despite what others are doing, you are not allowed to sled here (there are signs at the TH).
  • Edin Lake – 2.7 mile lollipop loop with a view of Wy’east (Mt Hood) on a clear day.
  • Silcox Hut – 2.6 miles, straight up, and a little over 1,000′ of elevation gain – but the views are worth it. This is right next to the ski runs, so make sure to stay on the snowshoe trails and watch out for split boarders and skiers. The parking area is also shared with Timberline Lodge, this can become a very busy.

Avalanche Classes

If you plan on going into the backcountry or on trails through avalanche zones, you need avalanche training.

Look up training classes in your area

About the Author Koa Hughes

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