Hiking in the snow is a strenuous task. It requires you to be well prepared before you set off into the white wilderness. Whilst light snow can easily be tread across with normal hiking boots with a good grip on the sole, deeper snow requires snowshoes that act as a flotation device. Hiking in the snow is something that may be new to some of you who are more used to calmer summer hikes. If you’re someone with adventure written on your heart then read on and start thinking about buying your first pair of snowshoes!
What makes snowshoes special?
Snowshoes are a flat decking attachment that you place onto the sole of your hiking boot. The snowshoe extends beyond the surface area of your hiking boots giving you a more even weight distribution. The spreading out of your weight means that you stay on top of deep snow and your feet do not drop down, causing the inside of your boots to get wet. Importantly, snowshoes minimize your chances of an injury as you are less likely to tumble if you are using them on the correct terrain. Snowshoes are not a modern invention that has been drawn up for us hikers. They are thought to have been invented 4000-6000 years ago and were one of the few common cultural accessories that all Native American tribes shared if they lived in an area that encountered heavy snow.
If you have hiked in the snow before you will be well aware that the ground you are walking on can change quickly. One minute you can be walking over a rocky area that is prone to having ice, and the next minute you are walking across a flat area that has knee-deep snow. This is the beauty of the snowshoe. Because they are an extra accessory that is easily detachable from your snow boots it means that you can alter your footwear as you like without having to take off your boots.
Features of the snowshoe
Snowshoes attach to your hiking boots through bindings. You place your boot onto a flat surface platform that contains side straps that go over your boots and hold the heel in place. There are different snowshoe binding systems that you can opt for depending on what is more comfortable for you and terrain dependent. These are often purchased separately from your boot meaning that you can customize your snowshoes depending on your hike.
There are two main types of snowshoe binding systems – fixed bindings and full rotation bindings. Fixed bindings attach the full sole of your boot to the surface of the snowshoe. These are more appropriate and comfortable when you are walking over flat terrain where the snow isn’t too soft. Full rotating snowshoe bindings allow your feet to pivot on top of the shoe when you are hiking. These are more appropriate for more strenuous hikes in the snow and put less strain on your leg muscles when hiking upwards.
In addition to the bindings of the snowshoes, there are other features to them to aid you in you when you are snowshoeing. Flat soled snowshoes provide limited amounts of traction whilst mountain snowshoes have strong crampons and cleats to provide more grip. There are various combinations of these extra features that you have depending on your boot – more commonly found on full rotating binding snowshoes. Let’s look at the finer details.
Although better crampons/spikes can be purchased as a separate item to snowshoes, more advanced snowshoes shall have crampons to give you extra traction as you hike in the snow. Snowshoes should not be viewed as a substitute to proper crampons/spikes that you attach to your winter boots, nonetheless, they contain them and are suitable for some winter terrain. Toe crampons are attached to the decking, underneath the bindings meaning that they move along with your feet and bite down as you walk. This part of the shoe is the centerpiece of your grip when ascending in the snow. In addition to this, you’ll find heel crampons to provide that little bit extra grip in the wintery terrain.
Side rails run parallel underneath the boot. The purpose of these is to give you sideways stability, keep you upright, and to top you falling on your side while traversing in the snow. Braking bars are also found in between the side rails. These dig into the snow and prevent you from going down backward when descending down slopes. Heel lifts are found underneath where your heel is placed. These are raisable and are most useful when ascending in order to give your calf muscles more support. Going uphill is far more exhausting when there’s snow on the hillside meaning that these heel lifts can turn out to be lifesavers.
The different types of snowshoes
There are three main types of snowshoes that can be of great benefit when you’re hiking in the snow. The first type is the flat terrain type as briefly mentioned previously. These are the most basic type and the same style as those that have been used by native populations for thousands of years. Being the most basic they are also the cheapest type. They are easily adjustable and can be taken off when hiking over strenuous terrain. This is their primary flaw however and they are not suitable for mountain climbing and rugged land, thus they should be used for simple snow hiking.
The second main type of snowshoe is the rolling terrain snowshoe. These are appropriate for flat and reasonable slopes. Although more expensive than your basic flat terrain snowshoe they still come at a reasonable price and are a worthy investment if you wish to hike properly in the snow. These shoes include crampons to give you a sturdy grip when the terrain is tougher making them more adaptable than the flat terrain snowshoes. The binding structure of these shoes is fairly robust and can be adapted with ease. Some o these shoes contain heel lifts for when the slopes are steeper. If not, these can be purchased cheaply online to make your hikes in the snow that little bit easier.
For those of you who are more prone to and experienced when hiking in the snow, then mountain terrain snowshoes may be more appropriate for you. These are top of the range shoes that come with an expensive price tag. They come with strong crampons that ensure your safety when overpassing rough mountain terrain. These are what are required if you plan on partaking in mountaineering in the snow.
The size of the snowshoe that you buy is not only dependent on your foot size but also on your body weight. Due to the sole of the shoe being spread out over a wide area in order to disperse your body weight evenly, this needs to be selected depending on your body weight. The size of your pack must also be considered as this shall also contribute to the overall weight you are carrying. When browsing through which snowshoes to buy, the size to weight ratio should be provided by the manufacturer. Just remember to go for a size or two higher o take your pack weight into account.
The condition of the snow you are traversing also dictates what snowshoe size you should buy. If you plan to go off the trail or the snow is a deep powder then you should opt for a larger pair of shoes due to the snow being lighter. Shorter snowshoes are more appropriate for packed snow when it is wet or hard and dense. It is also easier to navigate in shorter shoes as they are less clumsy and you’re less likely to get them caught in something, especially if the trail is narrow. When the trail is arduous and more steep, shorter shoes are also better as their grip tends to have a little bit more oomph to them.
Snowshoeing is a superb activity that means you can enjoy hiking year-round. When choosing your snowshoes, don’t cheap out on them and be wary of ones that are priced under $100. When it comes to the outdoor kit we always recommend that you go for quality due to your clothing and accessories being exposed to the elements. It’s an expensive piece of kit but if the quality is good it may be the only time you need to purchase them if you select the right snowshoes.
Snowshoes aren’t always the most optimal piece of footwear for snowy weather. Crampons provide far more grip, and if it’s super icy terrain, then nothing can beat ice fishing boots. To guarantee stability when hiking in harsh conditions we always recommend taking along a trusty pair of trekking poles for some extra stability.
Keep in mind that when hiking in the snow, snowshoes are not always appropriate for the full hike. When you come across rocky ground or ice, it may be a wise decision to remove your snowshoes and put on some proper crampons or microspikes to avoid slipping. Uphill hiking through steep terrain in the snow can be treacherous so make sure you come fully prepared especially if you plan on going out to the backcountry. If it’s your first-time winter hiking then we recommend taking it easy on a short walk over flat terrain just to get you used to hiking in your newly purchased snowshoes.
Bonus tip: Check out this video before you give your snowshoes their debut hike!