Snowshoes: how to use them and where to start
Walking in the snow can be difficult and very tiring, which is why we recommend you make use of a now popular tool: snowshoes.
If you do not know what snowshoes are, or you are new to snowshoeing and want to find out how to wear and use them, then you are in the right place. Continue reading this guide on snowshoes and be ready for your next winter hike.
What are snowshoes?Snowshoes are tools that attach to footwear and make it easy to walk on snow and avoid sinking.
Snowshoes consist of an aluminum or cold-resistant plastic deck, which is a frame with a wide, rounded shape, whose function is to distribute the user's weight over a large area of snow.
On the body of snowshoes, in the central area, are the “toe cords” (or “axles”), which are tilt joints with adjustable bindings into which the feet fit. The feet are attached to the toe cords at both the toe and the heel end and are held in place by straps or belts. The axles are pivoting to encourage natural flexion of the feet, but if necessary they can be secured by a blocking system that keeps the joints in a horizontal position.
Some snowshoes also have a heel lift, which is a kind of stop that halts the movement of the toe cord while walking and allows for less fatigue during uphill sections.
The underside of snowshoes, have crampons that can vary from model to model. All types of snowshoes have steel spikes to prevent slipping on ice, and some models also feature a front crampon for more grip on icy snow during the ascent. Some snowshoes may have side crampons, which are steel inserts placed longitudinally on the underside of the snowshoes to prevent sideslipping and improve stability on hard snow.
Why don't snowshoes sink into the snow?
The operation of snowshoes is very simple, and some historians believe that they were used as early as 6,000 years ago in Central Asia.
Snowshoes have a larger shape than boots, so they are able to distribute the user's weight over a larger contact area. By increasing the area in contact with the snow, snowshoes decrease the pressure exerted by the user and consequently prevent the user from sinking. In practice, it is as if the user is lighter and "floats" on the snow surface.
The crampons at the bottom serve to prevent slipping by increasing stability and grip on ice or hard snow.
The steel spikes sink into the surface creating resistance and are especially useful in sections where powder snow gives way to icy snow or harder surfaces.
Snowshoes: how to use them
No particular physical training is required to use snowshoes, making them suitable tools for everyone. Although their use may seem elementary, in reality it is advisable to be knowledgeable of how to put them on and use them during a snow hike.
How to put them on
First, it is necessary to point out that right and left snowshoes are not the same; to distinguish them, simply observe the closure of the straps or belts: the clips or buckles should always face outward. Once you have identified left and right remember that you will need to put on and adjust the snowshoes while standing.
The snowshoe binding is adjustable and fits all types of boots; simply insert the toe into the toe slot and adjust the movable part on which the heel is placed. Once the foot is in place it is a good idea to tighten the toe straps and tighten the latch that secures the heel through the instep. The strap or belt should exert slight pressure without overly wrapping around the instep.
To save time and to become familiar with the snowshoes, we recommend adjusting the heel straps at home before embarking on a hike.
How to snowshoe uphill
When walking flat and uphill, the toe cords of snowshoes should remain unblocked and be free to move following the natural movement of the foot. This makes walking on snow easier and allows for less fatigue during the activity.
When tackling an uphill slope, it is very useful to use heel lifts if the snowshoes are equipped with them. The heel lift is a metal component that sits underneath the axle and reduces its travel, fatiguing the calves less on an uphill slope and causing the user to remain more upright while walking.
In general, remember to alternate arms and legs when walking to maintain stability, try to keep a good pace and avoid taking overly wide steps.
How to snowshoe downhill
To walk downhill with snowshoes, it is a good idea to lock the toe cord with the appropriate lock and proceed with shorter steps by sinking your heel into the snow and keeping the toe of the snowshoe upward.
If surface conditions permit, you can also use snowshoes like skis by bending your knees and shifting your weight backward. However, in case you come across icy snow, it is better to walk with short strides and take advantage of the lower crampons.
How to choose snowshoes
The choice of snowshoes depends mainly on the user's needs; there are indeed many models of snowshoes on the market, which differ in:
- Materials used
- Type of deck
- Type of crampons
- Type of toe cords.
The topic of choosing the best snowshoes should be explored in a separate guide, but in this article we will focus on two other frequently asked questions about snowshoes:
How to choose the right size for snowshoes?
When we talk about snowshoe size, we do not refer to the user's foot size; in fact, boot bindings are universal and are adjustable for different lengths. The size of snowshoes refers to their length and is usually stated in inches. What is important to know is that each size corresponds to a user's weight range so in general the following scale is followed:
- 22 in / up to 70kg (154 lb.)
- 25 in / from 70kg to 100kg (154 lb. to 220 lb.)
- 30 in / over 100kg (220 lb.)
This is often overlooked, but when choosing the size of snowshoes and considering the weight of the user, it is good to remember that the weight of the backpack must also be included.
Finally, although some manufacturers make this distinction, there is no difference between men's and women's snowshoes except in terms of the length of the snowshoe and maximum weight carried.
What boots should be worn with snowshoes?
The key feature that hiking boots must have in order to be used with snowshoes is waterproofness. When you are spending a lot of time in the snow it is important to keep your feet dry,so make sure you have boots with a waterproof membrane (e.g. GORE-TEX or G-DRY), and if you get cold easily make sure to choose a membrane that also provides thermal insulation.
Another important feature for hiking boots is that they have a high cut, all the way above the ankle, to ensure stability and to provide the right protection at the adjustable strap.
Snowshoes or crampons: the differences
Snowshoes are designed to be used only on fresh snow; in other situations they would be cumbersome or even dangerous.
If you are facing paths that are already marked and have packed snow, it is not necessary to use snowshoes because there is no risk of sinking, it will be sufficient to use hiking or mountaineering boots.
On the other hand, when walking on ice or particularly hard snow, it is advisable to use crampons, which are boot accessories equipped with steel tips and designed to penetrate icy surfaces while preventing slipping. Universal crampons can be fitted to any type of boot however there are also more structured crampons (semi-automatic or automatic crampons) which are compatible only with certain mountaineering boots. In powder snow, crampons are not useful because they do not help the user from sinking.
Both snowshoes and crampons should not be used on snow-free surfaces because they can ruin the lower metal tips. When not in use these accessories can be cleaned with warm water and a soft cloth following the same precautions as with ski equipment.
Equipment for snowshoeing
A snowshoe hike is not much different from a winter trek however, you should pay close attention to what to wear and how to pack your backpack.
Clothing for walking with snowshoes
In winter, temperatures can be very low, but it is good to keep in mind that walking with snowshoes will warm you up quickly. It is therefore advisable to dress in layers and wear at least:
- Breathable base layer made of technical fabric
- Fleece or other type of second layer
- Waterproof and windproof shell
- Waterproof trekking pants
- Waterproof gloves
- Beanie or ski hat and neck warmer
- Synthetic hiking socks
It is better to avoid overly padded clothing because it may be bulky; if necessary, thermal shirts or tights can be used to protect against the cold.
Finally, on sunny days it is best to always have sunglasses with you as snow reflecting sunlight can be very annoying and can make it difficult to keep your eyes open .
Hiking poles for snowshoeing
When snowshoeing, it is essential to use trekking poles because they play a decisive role in the stability of the user. By using trekking poles, you will be able to count on two extra supports while snowshoeing and thus be able to proceed with more stability and safety.
Trekking poles, moreover, allow you to have support when going uphill so that you can push yourself with the strength of your arms, which will allow you to proceed with a more controlled stride when going downhill, avoiding slipping.
There are different types of trekking poles but for snowshoeing we recommend telescopic ones and with wide baskets.
Gaiters for walking with snowshoes
Other useful accessories in the snow are gaiters, tubulars of waterproof fabric whose function is to keep water and snow from getting inside the footwear by running down the ankles.
Gaiters are attached above the calves and have elastic bands that run under the boots so that they stay in place and cover the ankles and the front of the footwear. Winter pants with cuffs and fasteners that wrap around the top of the boots can also be used as an alternative to gaiters.
Devices to bring while snowshoeing
Walking in the snow involves certain risks that need to be taken into account during a winter hike, one of them being the risk of avalanches. To avoid being in danger, you should always walk in safe areas where the snow is stable, and you should avoid hiking when the weather conditions are not good.
Even if all precautions are followed, you can still find yourself in an emergency situation, and for this reason it is essential to carry ARTVA, a device made specifically to receive and emit signals when a hiker is swept away by an avalanche. There are several types of ARTVA on the market and they are often sold together with a snow shovel and probe, two other useful tools for rescuing someone who is hit by an avalanche.
Another risk during winter hiking is loss of orientationas snow can cover trails and signs, making it difficult to know which direction to take. For this reason it is good to have a GPS device with you, which we have discussed in a dedicated article, and always warn someone about which route you are about to take.
Finally, for completely safe snowshoeing, it is good to always have a first aid kit in your backpack.
What to pack in your backpack for snowshoeing
A backpack for snowshoeing can be organized in the same way as a backpack for a day hike. In general, then, it is appropriate to include water, food, and some spare clothing in your backpack in case those you are wearing get wet.
Your backpack can also be useful for carrying snowshoes on stretches where there is no snow; simply pair the snowshoes by turning the lower parts in contact with each other and attach them to the outside of the backpack with adjustable straps or elastic bands, orienting them in an upright position. There are also very practical backpacks specially made with webbing for attaching snowshoes.
Facts and Figures about snowshoeing
Below we have collected some interesting facts about snowshoeing:
- Snowshoes in the shape we know today, were first used by Native Americans in North America to travel and hunt during the winter.
- The oldest snowshoe was found in 2016 in the Dolomites, and dates back to about 3800 BC.
- There are several competitions involving snowshoes, one of the most famous being "La Ciaspolada," held annually since 1973 in Val di Non, Italy.
- In 1977, in Corinth, NY, the United States Snowshoe Association was founded to promote snowshoe sports competitions.
- Corinth, NY, is now considered the snowshoe capital of the world.
TOWER 2.0 GTX: the perfect boots for snowshoeingThere are several boots suitable for snowshoeing in the Garmont catalog, but one of the best is the TOWER 2.0 GTX. This model has a high cut that covers the ankle and provides stability, plus it has a Vibram APEX sole, which is stiff and very durable. The four-layer GORE-TEX Performance Comfort membrane makes this model waterproof and provides good insulation from the cold so you can face winter hiking without fearing low temperatures and snow. The TOWER 2.0 EXTREME GTX version also has an insulated membrane designed specifically for snow use even in high mountains.