Winter Travel: Snowshoes

This post on snowshoes is the third in a series on winter camping. If you missed the first two posts, start here and then here.

I trudged along, carefully placing one snowshoe in front of the next. My legs felt heavy after bushwhacking for six hours the day before. The next thing I knew I was face down in the snow, weighted by my backpack, instructor behind me trying not to laugh. Guess I failed to see that very visible tree root poking out of the snow.


While I was down on the ground anyway, I gracefully (yup, about as graceful as a hippo) rolled over and cleared the clumps of snow out of my snowshoes’ crampons. The increasingly warm morning had made the snow sticky and all of us felt as if we were walking on reverse stilettos. For the kind of tramping around that we were doing, I wouldn’t have wanted anything else on my feet. Here is some basic information about snowshoes:

– They help you float on the snow. You can hike in a good pair of insulated boots and a pair of gaiters to keep the snow out, but if the snow is deep you’ll expend too much energy to get where you’re going.

– You can strap into a pair of snowshoes with your hiking boots. Just make sure you have good insulation and that pair of gaiters mentioned in the last point.

– Snowshoes are typically sized for weight – not just your weight but the combined weight of you and the pack you’re carrying.

– There are five main components to the snowshoe itself:

a. The decking makes up the surface area of the snowshoe, allows you to ‘float’ on snow, and is the component to which the other four pieces attach.

b. Heel lifts are typically the metal or hard plastic bar that can flip up from your snowshoe and do just as you’d expect – lift your heel. They help reduce fatigue if you’re climbing a lot of hills.

c. The harnesses strap your feet into your snowshoes. They take a lot of wear and tear and I find when I rent snowshoes, this is the feature I have to check most frequently to make sure they’re working properly.

d. Bindings connect the harnesses to the decking. They also allow your foot to pivot in the snowshoe.

e. Crampons are the spiky pieces on the bottom of the snowshoes (the parts that gummed up with snow up above).

– Modern snowshoes are generally rectangular and made of hard plastic and metal. Traditional snowshoes were designed in the style of animal paws (or parts) and thus carry names like beavertail and bear paw. They are made of wood, leather, and sinew.

– If you will be carrying a fair amount of weight or may be trekking up and over hills, consider a pair of trekking poles to help balance you. They are the one piece of equipment I wished I’d had on my first winter expedition.

I have only traveled in winter on snowshoes, carrying my backpack. My balance and forward motion on cross country skis are improving but I’ve limited my travels to day trips with a light pack of extra layers, water, and a snack. Something to experiment with in the future! Stay tuned.

Intrigued? Join us on a trip!