"Let's Make Tracks: Looking At That Other Winter Sport"
Recreation News, December 1992.
The intense celestial blue fights the blinding hot-white snow for attention. As soon as the eyes adjust to the splendor, they are able to focus on the immodest and steady evergreens, their shoulders burdened with snowy cargo. The overhead candy cotton demands, "Look at me! Look at me!"
If I don't absorb the overwhelming impression immediately, I'll lose my chance. Biffing each other on the shoulder and kicking up fanned sprays, the other snowshoers will be over the crest all too quickly.
What a day! What a mountain! What a sport!
The word "snowshoe" calls forth romantic visions of trappers and dog sledders fighting the elements for survival in 70 below blizzards. Recently, however, snowshoeing has been gaining popularity as more and more people discover the exhilaration, the challenge, the peace, and the sheer joy of the sport.
Without fail, whenever I meet cross-country skiers on the trail or in the back country, they always want to know more about snowshoeing and say that they have always wondered what it would be like. By answering some of the questions I hear the most, maybe I can introduce you to a thrilling sport that many winter folk already love and enjoy from the first flake of late autumn to the last melt of early summer.
Even though space does not permit a complete discussion of important details such as safety technique, you should get an idea if this is a sport you might like to try.
What is it like?
Snowshoeing is unlike many other winter sports. It serves as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. The point is not how well you shoe or how your stamina and skill hold up. Instead, the sport allows you access to incredible natural beauty. It is your ticket to an experience not available to other winter travelers. Each person finds his or her own level of expertise and enjoys it in a very personal way. The added facet of the camaraderie of special friends makes it an amazing experience. People of different abilities can have fun together in a way not found in many other sports.
The anticipation of planning a trip with friends is exciting. We plan a general route, but we know that the whim of the moment or the mountain might change the plan later. We pile out of the car, unload the equipment and supplies, layer clothing, shoe up, and take off. We might start off on a cross country trail or we might choose to take off into the woods immediately. Because our shoes are much shorter than skis, we can go places the skiers cannot. Even though their downhill progress might be faster, we are able to trek through dense forests and steep ridges.
When the snow is reasonable, we scrabble about willy nilly. As the going gets tougher in deeper snow, we tend to organize ourselves to conserve energy. walking in a line, we pick our way through more difficult areas. The lead steps aside after five or ten minutes and allows the line to pass. He takes the tail and turns over the path-breaking responsibility to the next one. She keeps the lead for five or ten minutes and then steps aside. In this way, a brisk pace can be maintained. The path as the tail is extremely easy. The difficulty increases as we move forward. Knowing that our rest is coming, we are willing to work hard for the group as lead.
Stopping for lunch is grand. We often trade lunches to see what other outrageous high energy goodies people succeed in creating. As with other sports, water is extremely important. Dehydration is a consideration.
The opportunities for photography are limited only by the area itself. Some days we take photo safaris. We reserve other trips for our own uninterrupted enjoyment.
The end of the day finds us pleasantly tired, but not exhausted. Some mulled wine or hot chocolate and a great plate of pasta sounds mighty good.
What level of athletic skill do I need?
Snowshoeing allows for a variety of levels of physical fitness. If you can walk, you can shoe. A disparity of abilities within one group can exist and not jeopardize the fun. Since we always adopt the pace of the slowest member, no one is ever fatigued, out of breath, or on the verge of not having a good time.
The style of walking is surprisingly like that of a stroll down the mall. You are lifting your legs higher in some areas. But since the shoes do not extend far from the instep, lifting outward is not needed extensively. Even with occasional steep inclines, I feel as if I have climbed a few flights of stairs, nothing more. If I have flatlander friends on high altitude walks, I remain aware and sensitive to their being unaccustomed to thin air.
This sport seems to take a little less adaptive behavior for some handicaps. I am blind. I ski, sail, tap dance, and generally find a way to do almost anything I want. However, I find the incredible stability of snowshoeing very comfortable. The trees are still there, but walking into them is a lot less threatening than flying into them on downhill skis. I need less guidance, and that makes me more relaxed. I impose less on friends by being able to walk long stretches without guidance. I still enjoy skiing, but it is a completely different feeling. I suspect that some handicaps could not be accommodated. I have seen some amazing things in therapeutic recreation, though, so nothing would surprise me.
Where can I go?
Anywhere there is snow. In fact, the snow conditions can vary widely in one trip without endangering pleasure or safety. I have seen everything on one day including deep powder, ice, windslab, snarly marshes, and dirt patches. My shoes and I take it all in stride. The ice-gripping claws on the bottom help out in slick areas. The width and length of the shoe help; out in deep snow. None of the features of the shoe seems to hinder when they are not needed.
Snowshoers find different ways to enjoy the splendors of Alaska, the western coastal mountains, the Rockies, the midwestern plains, and the eastern mountains. Each area offers a different joy and challenge. We often hear of vacationing skiers taking a day off from the slopes of the cross country trails to sneak in a snowshoe trip. It is also a good way to combine different levels of ability and include all friends and family members in one activity.
What kind of equipment do I need?
As with skiing or any other winter sport, we choose our equipment according to the conditions of nature and what we want to do. There are four basic styles of snow shoes with individual brand variations within each style. Snowshoes can be rented. You might need to scout around. They are not available at all ski rental shops. Also try hardware stores and mountaineering shops. They are relatively inexpensive to rent. Since there is no lift ticket involved, snowshoeing emerges as an affordable sport.
The Yukon snowshoe is long an narrow with a thin tail extending far behind. It is good in open country, especially in deep powder. Its narrow design is useful for traversing slopes and for descending in open country. This style is not recommended for mountain travel.
The beavertail is similar to the Yukon in general shape, but has only a short tail and much less shoe extending behind the foot. It is used by Eastern climbers and is especially good for long uphill hauls.
The bearpaw is rounder with almost equal amounts extending beyond the foot in all directions. Its design is helpful for descents, especially in deep powder.
The Western snowshoe has the general proportions of the foot with relatively little extending on all sides. This smaller shoe serves well in soft but firm snow, especially in mountain areas. Its light weight and superb traction make it a favorite for people scrambling across the western snow belt.
Bindings and lacings vary widely. The choice is based on terrain, presence of ice, and snow conditions.
Each style also has a variety of sizes. You choose the size according to snow conditions and how much weight you are carrying. For example, if I am planning to have a short hike in dense spring snow and will carry only a light pack, my shoe should be smaller than if I were planning to do some powder busting and snow camping. When I first started shoeing, I was surprised at how small the shoe could be and still be effective. The shoe will always sink into the snow, but how far it sinks is determined by the weight I carry and the moisture content of the snow.
Local tradition will help guide you in the selection of the style. Experts will help you choose the size, lacing, and binding. Regardless of your choices, conditions might be variable in the area through which you are trekking. Your happy-go-lucky, steady, zip over the crust of a wind slab could be abruptly interrupted by some deep postholing through uncooperative powder.
Although they are not absolutely necessary, ski poles are helpful in maintaining balance. Most rentals include poles in price.
Water, food, clothing, and emergency equipment can be carried in a well-fitting backpack. Having checked the weather forecasts, we are aware of the general weather pattern. That never precludes the sudden blizzard or other emergency, however. Our packs are always prepared for the basics of winter safety, even if we are only traveling a short distance. The extra weight is a small price for being prepared.
Plenty of water and high energy food is essential. Trail mixes of nuts and raisins, fruit, and grain muffins figure in our choices. We also carry extra clothing for that unexpected wind or wet fall. A rope, knife, space blanket, matches, flashlight, folding shovel, and first aid kit complete the pack.
I have seen storms come up so quickly that no one even saw them hit. I have seen someone step through thin ice and get wet to the thigh. In cases like these, a little extra food and dry socks are a welcome sight.
As in all winter sports, having the correct equipment makes the trip not only safer, but also a lot more fun.
What kind of clothes should I wear?
Layering is the key. Trapping air between lightweight layers of warm clothing is the most efficient. Snowshoeing ranges from a brisk walk in the sun to heavy aerobic activity in a blizzard. Layers keep you prepared for both. You don't want to be so encumbered that you feel like a slug with four sausages sticking out. We have often started with jacket, sweater, turtleneck and long underwear. After a few minutes of walking, we start The Big Peel-Off. Even in extremely cold weather, we might end up with little more than toasty thermals, jeans, turtlenecks and a windbreaker. We are very thankful to have the other layers when we stop for lunch or a photo session.
One of the things I like about this sport is that I don't feel that I have to wear the right colors or the newest style. Even though I don't see colors, I know that I would not love the screaming neon greens, yellows or pinks. This is a sport where fashion is not a necessary factor to the thrill.
Snow goggles or good sun glasses with UV filters are essential. In combination with a good sunscreen, they will protect eyes and skin from high altitude burn. It creeps up on the unsuspecting shoer, even on the cloudiest of days.
Is there any danger?
In all winter sports, there are dangers imposed by weather, terrain and the elements. Avalanche, rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and high altitude dangers are present in the same way they would be for the cross-country skiing. Paying attention to avalanche danger reports, weather reports, and forest service reports helps one to be informed of possible problems. Adequate clothing, survival equipment, and sound winter safety techniques ensure a healthier, happier crew. Carrying a few extra pounds of insurance will be appreciated if a blizzard appears or someone falls ill. If you are inexperienced and are not with anyone who is, thorough investigation would be the smart road.
I have often been on treks where the only danger has been idiot makers. Those are the great globs of heavy snow falling from branches at great heights. They can knock you on your buns and make you feel the fool. With those aside, the possibility of danger should not keep you from snowshoeing. On the other hand, a cavalier, invincible attitude could mean trouble.
What if I want a real challenge?
Snowshoeing can be combined with other winter sports. For example, we could strap out cross-country skis on, hoist our backpacks with complete winter camping gear and attach our shoes to the pack. When the going gets too rough for skis, we exchange our boards for our shoes. In this way, we can reach beautiful, out-of-the-way regions not normally available. We can camp or snow cave and use our most advanced outback skills. Experienced, safety-conscious adventurers have a whole new world open to them with shoes.
Where can I find more information if I want to try it out?
We hope you do try a snowshoeing trip. It's habit-forming, though. Every trip is so incredibly different and holds wonderful surprises. You'll get to know your friends a new way. You will also meet and understand natural beauty that has been lost to many. Join us for a great day . . . a great sport!
For your information:
Manning, Henry. Backpacking: One Step at a Time. Random House: New York, 1980.
Osgood Prater, Gene. Snowshoeing. The Mountaineer: Seattle, 1988.
United States Snowshoe Association
The Savory Palette
© 2006 by Deborah DeBord. All Rights Reserved.