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Snowshoeing 101: What to know before hitting the snow

Posted Nov. 29, 2012, at 3:41 p.m.
David M. Fitzpatrick | BDN

Snowshoeing dates back perhaps as much as 6,000 years, but what was once a mobility necessity now survives mostly as a form of outdoor recreation. With snowshoes, you can head for the hills, traipse through your backyard, or enjoy parks or municipal trails. Snowshoeing is a great aerobic workout that’s cheaper to get into than cross-country skiing, and it’s also easier; if you can walk, you can snowshoe. But first you have to get the right stuff.

Handmade feet? Handmade snowshoes have been mostly replaced by lightweight, durable synthetics that don’t need regular waterproofing. But the popularity of quality craftsmanship of handmade snowshoes is resurging.

Shoe yourself. If you’re planning to tromp around backyards, parks, and walking trails, basic snowshoes will do just fine. But if you plan to tackle rugged terrain, look for something more robust.

Most snowshoes have metal frames with soft decking. These can cover a wide range of conditions, but the soft decking might be prone to tearing and damage on rocky terrain. Consider a brand like MSR, which make single-piece hard decks geared to withstand heavy abuse.

Size matters. Snowshoes displace body weight by spreading it out over a larger area; the heavier you are, the larger the snowshoes needed. The type of snow matters, too. Snowshoes that support you on wet snow might not on deep powder. The support capabilities of snowshoes is referred to as flotation; the heavier you are, and the lighter the snow, the more flotation you’ll need.

For varied uses, MSR offers base snowshoes with add-on extenders. The base shoes work great on wet, heavy snow, but when you need to walk on light powder, adding the extenders increases flotation.

It’s also more than just your body weight. Will you carry a pack? How heavy are your boots and clothes? If you’re close to the recommended weight limit for a certain snowshoe length, go up a size.

Rise up! If you’re planning to climb steep terrain, get snowshoes with heel lifters. During an ascent, you flip these handy devices up to elevate your heel and level your foot, taking strain off ankles and calves.

Snow trek. Trekking poles, like those popular with hikers, can offer balance and stability, and get your arms and upper body into the aerobic workout. Some manufacturers make “snow basket” attachments for trekking poles to adapt them for winter use.

Run away. If you’re a jogger who hates heading indoors to the treadmill during the winter, try running snowshoes. Vermont-based Dion Snowshoes makes specialty lightweight runners’ snowshoes in a modular style; you pick out a deck and add bindings and cleats suited to your running plans. They’re great for moving quickly and providing traction, whether you run in your backyard, at the park, or down a snow-shouldered road.

Get dressed. Don’t dress too warmly — snowshoeing is highly aerobic, and you’ll find yourself sweating in a hurry. (But, of course, bring warm gear with you in case you get stuck in the wilderness.) Have warm, dry, comfortable boots.

Pay rent. If you’re nervous about investing in a new hobby when you’re not sure of your level of commitment, try renting first. This will give you a chance to try out a few varieties in different conditions and determine what works best for you.

Inspect experts. The best first step: Ask a snowshoe expert. If you don’t know a snowshoer, visit a snowshoe retailer, and talk with a salesperson who actually snowshoes and can speak from experience.

Whether you just want to get outside for some fresh air, set yourself on an aerobic regimen, explore the Maine woods, or enjoy a trek across walking trails, snowshoeing is an inexpensive sport that can be fun alone or for the whole family.

Information provided by Matt Bishop at Epic Sports, 6 Central St., Bangor, Maine.

 

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