Learning snowshoe buying basics

A variety of snowshoes await free use by the participants of the Winter Family Fun Day in Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Edmunds last winter. As is clear in this photo modern bindings come in different designs. All are glove and mitten friendly. Brad Viles photo
A variety of snowshoes await free use by the participants of the Winter Family Fun Day in Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Edmunds last winter. As is clear in this photo modern bindings come in different designs. All are glove and mitten friendly. Brad Viles photo
Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 6:58 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
Brad Viles displays the working parts of his snowshoes. Notice the swivel toe crampons for negotiating steep, icy slopes. Brad Viles photo
Brad Viles displays the working parts of his snowshoes. Notice the swivel toe crampons for negotiating steep, icy slopes. Brad Viles photo

Winter in Maine is made for traveling across the landscape. Snow covers terrain features like boulders, roots and rocks, actually making foot travel easier than in summer. Easier, that is, as long as you have either skis or snowshoes on your feet.

While learning to ski can take some time, snowshoeing is almost as natural as hiking. If this is the winter you’ve decided to take up snowshoeing, you might wonder how to get started.

The concept behind snowshoes is simple. With a wider footprint than just your feet, snowshoes displace the snow by what is known as “flotation.” You don’t really float above the snow as much as stay on top, while making only a slight depression in the surface.

That’s the idea, and for centuries it has worked. Traditional snowshoes were made of wood and rawhide and worked well for their time. Modern snowshoes come in a variety of styles, materials and construction. They are designed and built for uses from casual recreational, to extreme mountaineering.

With all the new styles available, choosing the right design can be daunting. Even experienced mountaineers looking to upgrade their old shoes could be surprised.

Buying the right shoe

According to Jen Sonnenberg of Epic Sports in Bangor, “The first question we ask the customer is, ‘Where will you be going with them?’ If you’re going to be using the Bangor City Forest trails or level, packed trails anywhere, you may not need a pair with an aggressive crampon.

“If you’re going to a golf course, or where there’s a lot of powder, you might want a pair that are a little longer. They give you more float. For the steep slopes on mountains, you would need an aggressive crampon to negotiate icy, snow-covered slopes.”

No matter what type of landscape you’ll be crossing, before you buy a pair of snowshoes, you need to know your weight.

“The second thing we ask is your weight, because how much you weigh is going to determine the length of the deck, which determines the amount of float you get,” Sonnenberg said. Epic rents and sells a variety of models from makers such as Mountain Safety Research, or MSR, and Tubbs. The two basic designs are made from a tubular frame of aircraft-grade aluminum. Attached to the frame with rivets is a polymer deck. Another type is made with a deck made entirely from polymer, such as MSR, Evo or Denali models or Tubbs Flex NRG.

All modern designs have a hinged crampon under the ball of the foot for traction. Some have additional traction devices along the sides. Still others have a hinged hill lifter for steep slopes. The prices for quality-built snowshoes range from around $140 to more than $250, depending on the use. Mountaineering snowshoes cost much more than recreational shoes.

Most snowshoes have a binding that attaches the snowshoe to the boot with two or more straps on the front and a heel strap around the back of the foot. While designs are similar, the binding you pick should be usable when you’re wearing gloves.

As for the difference between quality-made snowshoes and discount snowshoes, Sonnenberg has this advice: “You get what you pay for. Most low-priced snowshoes are not warranted, and once they fail, they’re done. Ours are returnable for repair or replacement and the materials are tested superior to begin with, to prevent failure.”

Once you’ve picked a pair, then all you have to do is head for the nearest untracked woods and mountains for a snowshoeing hike. But, when you go, you should practice a few techniques to make it a safe and enjoyable trek.

Plan your trip

If you plan to snowshoe for the day in a locally traveled trail network like a land trust or the city forest, get a map so you can follow the trails. If you’re heading deeper into Maine’s backcountry for the day, have maps, know the trail and realize that snowshoe travel is slower than hiking. You should consider slow travel time and definitely plan a firm turnaround time to allow for getting to your destination and back before dark.

On the trail

A lot of people use trekking poles for balance, so you might take a pair of those also, but they aren’t necessary. Dressing in layers is essential, from base to outer shell. The key to layering isn’t just what to wear — it’s when. Dress in as few layers as possible when you start off on the trail. Snowshoe to get warm. When you stop for breaks or on summits, you’ll want to put on a down jacket, vest or wind shell to trap all that heat you’ve been generating. When you start off again, take the outer layers off and stow them in your pack. Snowshoe off again to warm up.

Keep snacks handy in your pockets, for easy retrieval on breaks. I fill my pockets with granola bars, dried fruit, beef sticks, Tater Tots, etc. Eat often and drink more often — before you are thirsty. Even though heat exhaustion isn’t common when it’s cold, dehydration is. Winter air is just as drying as summer air is, maybe more so, due to less humidity in the atmosphere.

If you still aren’t sure if you want to shell out the money for an activity you’re not sure you’ll like, snowshoes are available for rent practically everywhere. Rental prices vary from $5 to $15 a day. Here are a few locales:

• Maine Sport Outfitter in Rockport, 236-7120

• Epic Sports in Bangor, 800-466-2296

• Recreation Center at the University of Maine in Orono, 581-1082

• Cadillac Mountain Sports, Bar Harbor store only, 288-4532.

• Washington County Community College, Outdoor Adventure Center 454-1060

• University of Maine at Presque Isle, 768-9401

One of the advantages to living in a rural state like Maine is having the outdoors so close to the back door. There are local trail networks practically everywhere. To explore them, just put on those snowshoes and head out.

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