This article is an introduction to snowshoeing and winter activities in general. Besides snowshoeing, this article works well for any endurance activity in the winter (such as winter backpacking, backcoutry skiing, etc.)
Introduction to Snowshoeing Basics
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. ~William Blake
The dangers of overheating
What to wear while in the backcountry in winter
Clothing to bring on a backcountry winter trip
If you day hike, you probably already have the basic clothing you need for winter activities and are aware of what to bring. With the exception of few extra items, you should be all set. To those new to the outdoors (or just want a bit of a refresher) read on:
The quick and dirty rule of clothing to bring on a snowshoe trip is NO COTTON (this means no blue jeans!) While cotton is comfy, it can make for an unpleasant trip. Cotton, when wet, loses all insulating value and will actually take the heat away from your body, possibly causing hypothermia. Additionally, sweaty or wet cotton clothes can cause severe chafing (your “tighty whities”, blisters (your cotton gym socks) and all around “icky-ness”. Try putting on a cotton t-shirt sweaty and damp from the previous day. Talk about a wake-up call! Imagine walking in wet, heavy and cold clothing in winter ?!?!?!? Ack! ( There are exceptions for winter use, but that is better for much colder and/or stationary activities. )
In winter, it is very important to use layers of clothing. Rather than one bulky garment (that alternately will leave you sweating and then cold when you take it off), it is better to wear a few different layers that you can take on and off as conditions warrant.
The basics of the layer principle for winter:
1) Wicking inner base layer
2) Middle layer to retain body heat
3) Outer shell layer to keep out the wind and snow
4) What I call the “puffy” layer – a down or synthetic filled jacket
The wicking inner layer is sometimes wool but is usually synthetic. Think of this layer as your “long undies”. Typically the synthetic underwear is known by such names as Polypropylene, CoolMax, DuoFold, etc. This layer will move the sweat away from your body, helping you to regulate your body temperature. This layer is a very important one for keeping you warm and dry.
The middle layer is usually a fleece jacket or a wool sweater.
- Wool, Fleece or Acrylic Hat: Your standard winter hat. Too cold? Thrown on a hat! Too warm? Take it off! Your most important piece of winter gear in my opinion for regulating body temperature.
- Balaclava : AKA the Ninja Ski Mask. Not to be confused with a delicious pastry… A very versatile piece of clothing. I find a lightweight one to be the most useful. Roll it up for a light hat, roll it down for a neck warmer, roll it over your ears to be worn with a ball cap, wear it normally for more warmth and protection in the high winds and cold.
- Sun Hat: When it is not cold out, or you just need light headgear, a simple ball cap will keep the sun off your face. Some people like a broader brimmed hat in the winter.
- Neoprene face mask: In very cold and windy conditions, the combo of a winter hat, a balaclava and this mask is very useful. I keep it stowed in my pack at all times “just in case”.
- Goggles: When the wind is blowing fierce, esp if you are in an area with little-to-no tree cover, the goggles make sure you can see! You don’t have to buy anything fancy, even used $10 work well for most people.
Note: For the beginner backcountry winter enthusiast, who is probably sticking to lower elevation trails, a standard winter beanie and possibly a sun hat are fine.. As you go to higher elevations or places with more exposure, you’ll definitely want some more items to make a more weather resistant and versatile system!
- Pac Boots (Sorel Caribou being the most well known) . Very warm, but heavy and bulky. I find they work best for winter backpacking with more camp time and less hiking time
- Winter hiking boots. Many companies now make insulated boots designed for winter hiking/snowshoeing. Similar in size, style and weight to fabric hiking boots, but with insulation. Not as much insulation as pac boots; this choice works well for the typical day snowshoe outing and winter camping
- Insulated hunting boots also work well. Even if you don’t have visions of being Elmer Fudd, these boots are a little higher (keeps out snow!) than hiking boots and tend to be highly water resistant. They are often (but not always) less expensive than winter hiking boots and are avail at such places as the Sportman’s Guide, surplus stores and any other stores that cater to the Field and Stream crowd. Remember, many hunters are out all day in the snow and often track their game in off-trail conditions. These boots are little heavier and less flexible than winter hiking boots, but can be warmer. Hunting boots can be a nice compromise between the warmth of pac boots and the lightness of winter hiking boots.
- NNN-BC Ski touring boots. Similar to the above winter hiking boots, but meant for skiing. The advantage of the ski boot versus winter hiking boots is that you can use them for skiing, too. 🙂 They easily fit into the snowshoe bindings. These types of boots are often found used in many places and can also be a good alternative for someone on budget and/or a person who also backcountry skis with that type of gear
SIDE NOTE: Wool vs Fleece (or Wool vs Synthetics)
There has been a bit of resurgence in the use of wool for backcountry use (esp in base layers). So what to use? It honestly does not matter for most people; it comes down to personal preference. As long as you do not use cotton, you should be fine. Many people use a combo of wool and synthetics (esp in winter). If you are curious of the pros and cons of each, here is my personal take:
Synthetics or Fleece
So what do I use?
For winter use, when I am more concerned about warmth than weight (and I am wearing most of my layers), I tend to favor wool base layers (except for the liner socks) as it is more forgiving of sweating I find. In the cold and dry conditions of Colorado, I find wool works very well overall.
In three season backpacking, when weight and bulk is a chief a concern (and most of my layers are stowed), I tend to wear synthetics. Any moisture in spring through fall tends to be rain (or very wet snow), so the quick drying properties of synthetics comes in handy.
Overall, you may find one combo works better than another based on your budget, availability of what you may already have or just personal preference.
Check out this great website for a lot of info as well….
SUNSCREEN!!!!!!! – The UV radiation in Colorado, esp. at higher elevations, can be fierce. Bring a small amount of sunscreen. A sun hat is also suggested for similar reasons.
SUNGLASSES!!!!!! – For similar reasons to the above, be sure to wear sunglasses. Do not need anything fancy. As long as they have 100% UVA and UVB protection. Even the $15 drug store glasses offer this type of protection now. Most ski goggles offer this kind of protection as well. But, unless it is very windy, sunglasses are better suited for most snowshoeing conditions. I am big fan of safety glasses.
HYDRATION AND FOOD
- Headlamp: Yeah, no one plans to stay out at night, but it does get dark early in the winter. Take one just in case
- Map/Compass: Don’t need to add too much info on why to take these items!
- Duct Tape and Zip Ties: Useful for all kinds of repairs and emergencies for winter equipment
- Pocket Knife: See above
- Here’s my a take a repair kit I take for skiing. Works well for snowshoeing, too.
- First Aid Kit: See above..but the “equipment” is your or your friends! 🙂
- Snow shovel: A small shovel (often breaks down into two pieces) is a good thing to take in winter. You can dig an emergency shelter among other things
- Lighter Some people bring one just in case, others wonder how to start a fire with wet wood. YMMV
- Poles: Not absolutely necessary, but poles help for the same reasons for hiking: Easier on the ups and downs, esp with powder. Your hiking poles will work fine IF you swap in some snow baskets. Used backcountry ski poles also work well
- Racing Snowshoes – Very light, not much of a crampon for a grip. Meant more for snowshoe runs on well packed trails. Most people into snowshoeing from a hiking background can probably skip this type
- Day Use snowshoes – Generally ~8″x25″ (or similar size +/-) and holds up to 175 lbs of person AND gear. The most useful, all around size. Good for all but the deepest “fluffy” powder and with the crampons found on most of these, can go up all but the steepest slopes
- Backpacking Snowshoes – About 9″x30″ +/- and can hold up to 225 lbs of person AND gear. If you winter backpack, are a heavier person or going into very deep “fluffy” powder, you may need to use these snowshoes. There are even larger ones available. These snowshoes are typically much heavier and awkward to use then the day use ones
Winter recreation etiquette
- Dogs –If you bring your furry friend, I strongly urge you to keep the dog on a leash. Esp where there are skiers, a dog off leash can run into people and cause an accident. Very few dogs can resist chasing someone moving downhill at a fast pace. For the skiers’ safety, and your dog’s safety, please be honest about your dog’s behavior and keep a dog on the leash if it is one to wander off and/or chase people. Also, remember when the trail signs say NO DOGS or DOGS MUST BE ON LEASH the signs really do mean NO DOGS or DOGS MUST BE ON LEASH.
- Breaks – Again, something to really keep in mind in mixed-used environments: Please try to not break at the bottom of a hill on a narrow trail. For obvious safety reasons, it is not good to be in the way of people coming down a narrow backcountry trail. Move to the side of the trail and a little aways from the bottom of a hill if you need to stop. Better yet, try to make your breaks at the top of a hill and off to the side.
- Snowshoeing/Ski Trails: Some skiers are more of a stickler about this than others, but in heavily used areas, it is nice to walk on the side of the trails and not in the middle (where ski tracks usually are) of the trail. Deep in the backcountry, I honestly don’t think it is an issue. (Others my disagree). In popular areas, everyone can agree it is a nice gesture not to put snowshoe-shaped potholes in ski tracks. 🙂
- Skier Only Trails: In some popular areas, there are SKIERS ONLY trails. Please be courteous and do not snowshoe on skier only trails. Often times, there will be parallel SNOWSHOERS ONLY trails in these areas, too.
- Snowmobiles: I am not a big fan of snowmobiling to say the least, but if they are in an area legally then simply step aside, let them pass, and give a wave and a smile. In an emergency situation, guess who hauls the people out? 🙂
- Yielding: Snowshoes are generally easier to control, more maneuverable and slower than skis (or snowmobiles). Overall, it is easier for a snowshoer to yield to a skier (esp when you are going uphill and the skier is going downhill on a narrow trail) than the other way around. When it is “snowshoer to snowshoer” on a narrow trail, it is like hiking or running – those going downhill should yield to people going uphill.
Snowshoeing check list
Clothing – Worn
_ Long underwear top
_ Long underwear bottoms
_ Shell pants
_Wool or fleece hat
Clothing – Packed
_ Shell Jacket
_ Light fleece pants/ exp wt long underwear (optional; mainly if you get cold easily)
_ Down or synthetic filled “puffy” jacket
_ Shell Mittens
_ Thick Wool/Fleece mittens
_Small tube of sunscreen
_ Pocket Knife
_ Water and food
_ Small first aid kit