Snowshoeing for Beginners: The Essential Guide
Snowshoeing is one of the fastest growing winter sports in North America. I suppose that’s fitting. The sport has North American roots (by way of Asia). Before snowshoeing became widely known as a winter hobby, it was the primary means of transportation for indigenous peoples in Alaska, Canada, and other parts of North America. What started as two wood planks evolved into fairly sophisticated designs by the Inuits and others throughout the ages. Some compare the invention of snowshoes to the wheel in terms of transportation unlocks in an area covered in deep snow.
Fast forward to the modern era and snowshoeing is growing rapidly in popularity. In late 2020 snowshoeing exploded as an activity that was safe during the height of the pandemic. After we spent so much time indoors, snowshoeing offered a relatively inexpensive escape. Over 60% of respondents to a recent SIA (Snowsports Industries America) report said they spent more time snowshoeing during covid than before. Our own sales of snowshoes more than doubled and we couldn’t keep Sawtooth or Delano snowshoes in stock for much of the season. We think it will be similar this year, but because of ongoing supply constraints.
Unlike skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing requires less skill and a smaller investment to get started. Here are some tips to help you think through a plan to experience winter hiking.
Equipment can be broken down into 5 categories: snowshoes, footwear, layers, poles, and packs.
How to Choose a Snowshoe
First decide on how many days per year you might venture out. If it’s once or twice, consider renting. If it’s once or twice a month, invest in your own pair. Snowshoes come in several sizes with a few different configurations. Here’s the best way to think about it:
- Your weight determines how large your snowshoe needs to be.
- Will you be snowshoeing in leisurely conditions or hiking technical backcountry terrain?
- What is your budget?
All snowshoes are designed to help you float higher on deep snow. How much you weigh typically determines what size to choose. For example, our Delano snowshoes come in 2 sizes: 22” and 28”. The cutoff weight for 22” is 160 lbs or less. If you are over 160 lbs (like me) you want the larger size. Surface area is the primary driver of snow flotation.
Types of Snowshoes
There are different types of snowshoe constructions. Some have full hard resin decking throughout the entire design, while others use aluminum frames and soft decking. Or a combination of those. In addition, snowshoes now feature dual crampons under the front and heel of your foot. If you plan on encountering some uphill travel those crampons come in handy. For leisurely snowshoeing you will be ok choosing a shoe with any of the above features. If you plan on technical terrain, pay extra attention to the binding design.
Bindings range from newer, more advanced step-in bindings to simple straps. The more technical the terrain, the more important it is for snowshoes to stay in place. In addition, technical terrain requires more traction so dual crampons and even side crampons can help. Finally, the weight of snowshoes can make a slight difference in comfort (and cost).
How Much do Snowshoes Cost?
The cost drivers in snowshoes are the decking/frame and bindings. If you want something leisurely the price should vary between $80-$120. Something more technical can run over $200-300. Our snowshoes are designed for beginner to intermediate terrain. Our Delano model offers a nice combination of hard resin decking, dual crampons and binding security. The classic Sawtooth snowshoe is perfect for beginners and users who snowshoe 3-4 times per season.
Next, determine what boots you plan on wearing. Snowshoe bindings accommodate a variety of boot types. Winter boots, snowboarding boots, and even hiking boots can work. Make sure yours fits in the snowshoe binding. Keep in mind that snowshoeing is an active sport. You are hiking in deep snow sometimes for hours. Wear something comfortable and broken in. Your boots should be warm and waterproof. I typically use a single pair of wool socks. The thickness depends on temperature and type of hike I’m doing. Everyone has a different preference.
The key to staying warm and maintaining the ability to cool down is layering. Like skiing, snowshoeing may require snow pants, jacket, gloves, mid layers, and a warm hat like a beanie. Unlike skiing you won’t have the luxury of riding ski lifts. This means most of the time you are moving and working. My layering system typically looks like this:
- Thin wool legging
- Waterproof snow pant (just a shell if its early/late season and insulated during Jan/Feb)
- Non-cotton tshirt or tight, long-sleeved wool mid-layer
- Lightweight down jacket
- Waterproof jacket shell
- Neck gaiter
At any time I can go from just a tshirt to fully dressed depending on how hot it is or how hard I’m working.
To pole or not to pole? Not everyone likes poles, but they are useful. If you already have adjustable ski poles, those are suitable for snowshoeing. A pair of lightweight carbon fiber or even aluminum poles with snow baskets will work just fine. Walking through deep snow is much easier with poles. They also help give you leverage up and down hills. For simple, flat terrain where snow isn’t too deep you may decide not to use them. Generally it’s good to take a pair with you. Something collapsible that can be stored in a pack is best.
If you are hiking for a few hours bring a pack. I use a 20L or 30L pack with a hydration bladder. I’ll use it to stuff layers I'm not using, some food, first aid, head lamp, and water. If it’s REALLY cold you might consider an insulator around your hydration pack so water won’t freeze. Generally the same packs you use hiking can be used here as well.
When do you actually need snowshoes? I love hiking in the winter. Trails can sometimes be easier than summer with rocks and roots covered up. Heavily trafficked trails are packed out and the snow is hardened. I chuckle when I see snowshoes on those trails. Snowshoes are designed to float on top of snow, but they don’t add much value if the snow is completely packed. Waterproof hiking boots and some crampons will do wonders for you instead. Besides, half the fun of snowshoeing is not needing a specific trail! Find some deep snow and go play!
This brings me to my last point: the backcountry presents a risk of avalanches. If you are going to the backcountry you need to be avi certified with proper avi gear and other experienced hikers. Know the area you are going to and understand the places and conditions to avoid.
Snowshoeing is an awesome activity to pass the winter. Experiencing new places or even old ones with new features is fun. Get out and try it. You might just get hooked.
Check out our snowshoe models HERE.