Snowshoeing: Getting started and having fun
Buying the correct equipment is half the battle
November 18, 2010
Snowshoes afford the most efficient way to travel through the boreal forests on deep, unconsolidated snow, the snow type most likely encountered as the Paleolithic hunters followed migratory herds across the Bering land bridge and down the mountain spine of North America. The snowshoe is an ancestral part of Amerindian culture, where Europeans first encountered it in the sixteenth century. The snowshoe is considered one of the oldest forms of civilized conveyance, older than the ski, older than the wheel itself. Perhaps our ancestors got the idea from observing winter animals such as the snowshoe hare and the lynx, both of which evolved large hairy feet that enable them to travel on top of the snow.
Snowshoeing is the natural way to travel in deep snow. It requires nothing more than a pair of snowshoes, warm footwear and clothing, and a pair of ski poles to help with balance. You can go just about anywhere there happens to be snow on the ground. In fact, the more snow the better.
Early snowshoes were made of wood and animal hide. The foot binding was a system of lacing using hide straps and thongs. Making traditional snowshoes was a craft often associated with the Native Americans of the North Country. As snowshoes came into wider recreational use around the turn of the century, manufacturers began to produce shoes in factories. Walter Tubbs started manufacturing snowshoes in Norway, Maine in 1906. Tubbs used bent ash wood for the frames and rawhide for the lacing. Tubbs produced over 100,000 pairs in the early 1040s, many used by the Allied forces in World War II. The Tubbs Company moved to Brandon, Vermont in the 1940s, and still makes snowshoes under the Tubbs brand name.
I purchased a pair of Tubbs Green Mountain Bear Paws in 1970, complete with the Tubbs patented leather binding. I used those Tubbs snowshoes throughout the 1970s, and still own them today, though they've been relegated to the back shelf.
The problem with wood and rawhide snowshoes is that they are heavy and require frequent maintenance in the form of coating the frames and lacing with varnish to make them water proof. When the varnish wears off, the rawhide absorbs water and the shoes get even heavier. I remember a trip in the southern Green Mountains in late winter when the snow started out crusty, then turned warm and slushy. The crust wore my varnish off, and the slush and warm weather turned my shoes into tools of torture.
In the early 80s I bought a pair of used metal frame snowshoes. At that time the only metal frame shoes were manufactured by Sherpa, a company run by the Prater brothers in Washington State. Their snowshoes revolutionized the sport. Not only were the frames made of aircraft grade aluminum, but the decks were made of reinforced neoprene attached by nylon lacing. No more water absorption; no more coats of varnish after every outing. Sherpas were bomb proof. There are pairs still in use today.
Sherpa started the modern trend of making snowshoes from durable, man-made materials. Tubbs introduced metal frame shoes in 1989 and the rest is history. Today the market abounds in metal frame snowshoes from manufactures such as Atlas, Redfeather, and Tubbs. In the mid 90s, the outdoor equipment company MSR introduced the one-piece injected plastic snowshoe with a riveted, full-length metal crampon. The full-length crampons greatly improve traction on crusty surfaces, particularly when traversing steep hillsides common in the White Mountains.
The MSR Ascent snowshoes have become the standard in rental shops, which often sell off their stock at season's end. Many people are introduced to the lightweight, maintenance free recreational snowshoe by buying a pair of used rental shoes. I have a pair of MSR Denali Ascents I purchased in the late 90s, and I still use them today. I have replaced bindings and straps, but the shoes are essentially original. These shoes have detachable tails of four and eight-inch lengths, allowing for adjustment to snow conditions. Without the tails they are 22 inches long and can be attached easily to the outside of a small backpack, making them standard equipment for all my winter hikes.
Last season I purchased a new pair of MSR Lightning Ascent 25s, which I used a few times but not enough to know whether they're as reliable as the old Denali Ascents.
Before you buy snowshoes, talk to a few experienced snowshoers to get their input and advice, especially with regard to sizing and style. Snowshoes come in a variety of sizes, and it's important to match your weight and intended use to the correct size. A good way to find out about snowshoes is to rent or demo a pair before you buy. Most outdoor equipment retailers rent snowshoes, as do X-C ski centers.
Where can you go?
ONCE YOU HAVE snowshoes in hand, where can you go? Obviously, summer hiking trails might be your first choice. Keep in mind that deep snow and new snowshoes are going to require some getting used to. Choose an easy trail for your first outing. Jaunts around Echo Lake or to Diana's Bath in North Conway are good starter hikes. As the winter deepens, you'll find that some popular summer hiking trails get "bare-booted" into deep trenches that defeat the use of snowshoes. If you find such a trail, go elsewhere; you'll have a better time. Breaking trail in deep, new snow is hard work but very good exercise. If you go out with other trekkers, alternate the lead to share the heavy work.
If you're not comfortable going off into the winter woods on your own, try the X-C ski centers, most of which offer snowshoe specific trails for a modest trail user fee. (Please don't snowshoe on groomed X-C trails.) Snowshoe trails are marked and generally free of blow-downs (trees knocked down by the wind). X-C centers also offer guided tours where you will receive instruction and advice for pursuing the sport.
If you live in an area with nearby woods or fields, make your own routes. My wife and I have an established a trail around the perimeter of out house lot. After a new snowfall, we pack out the trail, then, enjoy it as a fitness trail, often doing laps with headlamps or in moonlight. We're fortunate in having a lot that's close to the National Forest boundary, enabling us to deviate off our home trail for longer bushwacks onto the mountain behind our house.
Snowshoeing is as easy as walking.
Once you get used to walking with big shoes, the rest is skill development. Climbing, descending, side-hilling, stream crossing, all come with practice and experience. Books can help, and there are numerous good books. My two favorites are "Snowshoeing" by Gene Prater, edited by Dave Felkley (1997) and Snowshoe Hikes in the White Mountains" by Steve Smith (2000). Books will help you polish your skills and show you where to go next.
Wherever you go, you'll quickly realize the advantages of snowshoes. Unlike skis, which tend to slip from under you, requiring constant attention and effort to maintain control, snowshoes allow you to cruise along at your own pace, observing and savoring the subtle undulations of the land, the habits of the winter creatures, and the drama of winter weather. There's nothing as exhilarating and mysterious as snowshoeing through a dense stand of woods in the midst of a snowstorm at dusk. It's just you and the whisper of falling snow.