If you live in a snowy clime like I do, winter narrows your hiking possibilities just a bit. Mind you, all that snow is great for skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing -- but when it comes to traveling just one step at a time, you're limited to popular trails that get packed down by heavy traffic... or you can put on a pair of snowshoes and go anywhere you want. Tough choice, right?
To a certain point, hiking in snowshoes really is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. But there are a few things you should know to make your first outings enjoyable:
- Putting them on. When you first get started, putting your snowshoes on and adjusting the bindings while standing can be a real challenge. Save yourself the frustration and make sure you've got a comfortable, dry seat available the first few times you put them on. That said, try not to set yourself up for a long tromp across bare ground to get to the snow; it's hard on your snowshoes, especially the metal teeth underneath.
- Cinch yourself in. Snowshoe bindings are meant to cinch snugly around your boots. Take the time to adjust the straps so they're snug around your boots, then tuck any excess strap material back through the binding or cut the extra off if it's too long and unwieldy. (The only exception is if you're planning to share the snowshoes with a person that wears significantly larger boots.)
Once you've got the bindings adjusted to fit you, putting the snowshoes on is as simple as snapping the buckles shut around your boots (unless you use different footwear, in which case you'll need to make a few subtle adjustments).
- Hiking in snowshoes requires a wider gait. Think of snowshoes as giant clown shoes of a sort: You can still walk in them, but you have to do it a little differently. Modern snowshoe bindings pivot to allow a fairly natural stride, but you still have to account for the extra width of those snowshoes on your feet. A little practice is all it takes to get used to that slightly wider gait.
- Master one thing at a time. Stick to relatively flat trails and gentle slopes until you feel comfortable walking in your snowshoes. The next challenge is learning to go up and down slopes. Crampons or metal teeth in the bottom of your snowshoes help you dig in and maintain a grip on somewhat dense snow; you can kick or stomp them into the snow for a better grip. If the snow is loose, though, you might find yourself accidentally "skiing" downhill on your snowshoes!
Start by tackling gentle slopes, then gradually work your way up to steeper areas. If you struggle to balance when going straight up or down, try traveling the slope at an angle. Or you can always walk around to find a gentler way up. Remember, this is meant to be fun!
Start Thinking About Avalanche Safety
The great thing about snowshoes is that they make it so easy to go deep into the winter backcountry; you really don't need any training beyond the ability to strap the snowshoes on and put one foot in front of the other. That's also the bad thing about snowshoes, because without proper training it's all too easy to wander into deadly avalanche terrain.
The solution is simple: Just remember that avalanches aren't random, and educate yourself about how to avoid them. Some people learn where that fine line of avalanche hazard is so they can push the limits of safe travel as much as possible; some, like me, learn about avalanche hazards so they can stay the heck away from them. The most important thing of all, however, is educating yourself so you can make smart choices, no matter what your hiking style.