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If you can walk you can snowshoe – no ifs, ands or buts.
As hikers we enjoy walking and snowshoeing can add a new dimension to winter. It allows us access to places in winter that deep snow would normally keep us from. Cross-country skiing is an excellent way to enjoy winter activity but it requires special equipment and a level of expertise that snowshoeing does not. Snowshoeing only requires a pair of snowshoes (assuming you have other hiking stuff, like boots). After a morning on your new snowshoes you will qualify as an expert.
Snowshoes have evolved from the wood frame and gut to hard “plastic” and aluminum. There is a wide choice available in outdoor stores and some outfitters will rent them as well. The simplest ones work best and when trying them on you want a binding that is easy for you to use. Remember you will not always be in a store but rather bending over with fingers that may be a little cool. I use a pair of MSR snowshoes [Mountain Safety Research found at www.msrcorp.com] that are fairly narrow and therefore my walk in snow is quite natural. They have a “claw” under the toe that digs into the snow when going uphill – an advantage over the older types that would slide back on hills. Mine have a 4-inch tail extension that can be added or removed depending on snow conditions. MSR also has 8-inch tails. The best snowshoe for you is the least size suitable for your weight and what you will carry. The larger the snowshoe the more it can support but the larger snowshoes are more awkward to walk in.
The clothing that we would use for a winter’s hike works just fine for snowshoeing. Start with a synthetic layer such as polypropylene next to your skin, top and bottom; this provides a dry layer. A fleece provides the warmth and a Gore-Tex, or similar material, coat provides wind protection. No cotton in any of these layers as it holds the moisture and the cooling effect will be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst (hypothermia). A hat is a must and I like one that I can pull over my ears, wool or synthetic. Gloves separate the fingers and are therefore cold, one or two layers of mitts work well. A neck gaiter, again synthetic, works well and it can be put on or taken off easily. Winter tights work quite well for both men and women. In most cases you will not need long underwear under them.
The traditional “snowshoer” would wear mukluks. However our sturdy hiking boots work just fine. The Right Stuff article on “Boots and Socks” applies here. Boots, not tight, with your sock-and-half system, polypropylene liner and Smart Wool sock are good. A pair of gaiters will help keep snow out of your boots and help keep the legs warm.
Winter walking is always treading a fairly fine line. You want to walk fast enough to keep warm; however, you do not want to sweat too much. As soon as you sweat too much you become uncomfortable pretty quickly and potentially unsafe. If you start to sweat, adjust your clothing or your level of exertion.
To use poles or not is a tricky question. I like two poles when I hike and of course two when I cross-country ski. Some say that poles add more stability when you snowshoe. Some say that poles add power, as I am not usually out “power walking” I find I do not need the extra push. Poles have made my hands cold. It is a personal choice. To warm up those cold hands make a windmill with your arms, one at a time.
Food for the trail will be as for your winter hikes. Most of us have to drive to a place to snowshoe and therefore have eaten breakfast a few hours before we start. Take a few minutes and have something to eat like a muffin with peanut butter before you start out. On the trail you will need to eat, complex carbohydrates work better than sweets. The advent of the stainless steel thermos was good news for winter activity enthusiasts. I use two, one with tea and the other with soup. Miso soup that is easily made with miso paste and hot water works well. A “sit upon” of closed cell foam works well for rest stops. Our rest stops are usually shorter as we cool off when we stop.
The Bruce Trail provides many fine opportunities to snow shoe – try to pick an area with few stiles. The areas where cross-country skiers have developed a trail are not the place to snowshoe. Snowshoes mess up the cross-country ski tracks.
Winter days are usually shorter and care must be taken to be out well before dusk. Night snowshoeing can be fun but pick an open area that you know well. Your winter pack should contain a few extras such as an extra layer, a flashlight, matches or windproof lighter, first aid kit, a change of socks and extra food. A map of the area and a compass (and the skills to use both) adds to your safety. New GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers are now easier to use and if you choose to be more adventurous are worth the cost and time to learn them. They will track your route and more importantly give you direction back.
You will generally find that your snowshoe outings are quite different from your normal hikes. Snowshoeing can be highly aerobic and a great workout but most likely your outings will be shorter and more to explore the winter landscape than to walk a specific number of kilometers.
Snowshoeing allows us the chance to “walk through winter”, an opportunity not to missed. Take your camera and enjoy!