Snowshoe tips

There are a lot of types of snowshoes, including “racing” snowshoes. I’m going keep this simple and put snowshoes into three terrain categories to cut right to what matters (the differences that can save your life):

snowshoeing

Use the right snowshoes for the terrain.

There are snowshoes for flat terrain, rolling terrain, and mountain terrain. For alpine terrain here in the Pacific Northwest, I use snowshoes designed for mountain terrain. How are mountain terrain snowshoes different?

Flat terrain snowshoes provide support but have little traction on the underside. This allows you to go faster on flat terrain but making them a potential high-speed death sled on mountains. Rolling terrain snowshoes have more traction, but only mountain terrain snowshoes have the added traction plus pop-up heel lifts that give your calves a break on steep terrain. Many mountain terrain snowshoes also have removable extensions or flotation “tails.” If you are looking to acquire mountain terrain snowshoes, look for these three basic features:

  1. Long sidewall traction bars
  2. Pop-up heel lifts
  3. Removable extensions

Also, look at how easily you can get them on and off. I prefer a single pre-adjusted strap over the front of the boot, leaving only one strap on the back heel to secure. You may no longer be able to find single-front-strap snowshoes because most have three straps, but you can still pre-adjust them. Some snowshoes are available in different widths based on gender and different lengths for different body weights, such as (22 in/180 pounds, 25 in/220 pounds, 30 in/280 pounds). Get the length suitable for your weight.

Finally, consider the weight of the actual snowshoe. You will most likely have to occasionally carry the snowshoes on your backpack some of the distance. Most snowshoes will add around 4lbs (1.8 kg) or slightly more to your pack. Keep this in mind when you are putting your gear in your car and heading out to the trailhead. Once you arrive at the trail, you may need to carry the snowshoes for the first few low-elevation miles. This means you need to also have a way to attach the snowshoes securely to your backpack. I use two accessory straps (which can also be used in First-Aid and for other purposes).

Side Traction

If you are hiking on terrain like the slope shown in this photo, you need good traction, which means snowshoes designed for mountain terrain. To understand the difference, look on the bottoms (see photo below) and look for long side walls or side rails for traction.

Snowshoe types
Snowshoes (bottom view): Flat terrain (left) and mountain terrain (right). There are different kinds of mountain terrain snowshoes, including aluminum ones that have a “side rail” (such as the MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes and MSR Revo Ascent Snowshoes). It doesn’t matter which model as long as it is designed for alpine or mountain terrain.
Snowshoe sidewalls
Notice that the flat terrain snowshoe has only a very small sidewall for traction. That’s fine for some place flat such as Kansas, but dangerous in places such as the Cascade Mountains.  Notice how the mountain terrain snowshoe have long sidewalls—almost the length of the snowshoe.

Heel lifts

Snowshoes designed for mountain terrain also have a heel lift. Look at the back of the snowshoe for this feature. This takes the pressure off your calves making the ascent much easier—kind of like walking up stairs.

snowshoe heel lift bar in up position.
This photo shows the heel lift bar in the up position supporting a boot.
snowshoe heel lift
The back of a mountain terrain snowshoe has a bar that pops up to support the heel of your boot.

Snowshoe extensions

Snowshoe extensions
Some snowshoes will allow extensions or “tails” to be added on.

Snowshoe extensions or flotation tails can also be useful. Personally, I have never needed them and would not want the extra weight. It all depends on your body weight and the snow conditions. You will need the flotation tails if you are heavy and you are hiking in deep fresh snow (especially common conditions in fall and early winter). I have seen heavy guys struggle in deep snow even with the extensions. Without tails, they would not have gotten far.

TIPS & SAFETY

When pre-adjusting your snowshoes, adjust them so that the ball of your foot fits over the axle or pivot point. The pivot point attaches the bindings and front or toe crampon to the frame and decking.

It is not enough to have the right snowshoes. You need to understand different snow conditions and common dangers, such as tree wells. Pick your route carefully, carry the essentials, and before you even head out, check the weather and  avalanche forecast.

If you have not used snowshoes before, look around and signup for an expert guided snowshoe trip. You can learn important tips such as how to get up if you fall over in deep snow (make an “X” with your trekking poles on the snow, place your hand in the center of the X and push up). These are sometimes offered in National Parks and forests. Some provide snowshoes. You can learn important safety tips and find out if snowshoeing is for you.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically for correction, etc.

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