Snowshoeing is a great way to exercise while embracing the beauty of winter. It’s an activity that doesn’t require much equipment, and compared to other winter activities, it’s relatively easy to learn. Still, there can be some frustrations in starting any new sport.
Here are some tips on how to get started with snowshoeing, from purchasing the right snowshoes to selecting a good trail for beginners.
Select your snowshoes carefully
Snowshoes come in many styles, and their prices vary, too. Shopping for them can be overwhelming, whether you’re pursuing online shops or visiting an outfitter in person.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Do any of your friends or family members have a snowshoe style or brand they’d suggest? Also, one of the best sources of information can often be the sales associate at a local outfitter. You could even call local shops by phone to ask about their selections.
Different styles of snowshoes are designed for different activities. There are snowshoes for mountaineering that feature aggressive metal teeth to grip ice and snow on steep slopes. There are snowshoes for more even terrain, designed for comfort. There are even snowshoes for running — which have smaller frames and more flex.
Some styles of snowshoes come in different sizes, which are fitted to people based on their weight and the snow conditions they expect. In general, the heavier a person is, the larger their snowshoe size because it will offer better floatation on the snow. Also, if you expect to be snowshoeing in deep, fluffy snow, you may opt for a larger snowshoe than if you expect to be snowshoeing on shallow, packed snow.
Here’s more about how to select the right snowshoes for your winter adventures.
Don’t forget your poles
Like skiing, snowshoeing is most easily done with the help of two poles. Snowshoe poles are interchangeable with the trekking poles that some people use while hiking, but with one added feature: snow baskets.
Snow baskets are simple, circular devices that attach to the end of trekking poles so they catch on the surface of the snow rather than sinking down to the ground. They’re like snowshoes for your poles. Snow baskets are usually low cost and sometimes break, so it may be wise to carry an extra set.
Staying warm and comfortable is key to having an enjoyable snowshoeing experience, so put some thought into what you wear outside. In general, you’ll want to wear wool or synthetic clothing — not cotton, which holds onto moisture like sweat, sapping your body heat. It’s also important to dress in layers so you can remove or add clothes to regulate your temperature.
A base layer or long underwear — top and bottom — is a good first step to creating a warm snowshoeing outfit. Made of synthetic fabric or wool, base layers help wick moisture away from your skin. Warm, thick, dry socks are also important. Snow pants or insulated pants and a couple of top layers — perhaps a fleece coat and a down jacket — would also go a long way in keeping you warm on cold days. Don’t forget mittens or gloves, a winter hat and warm boots (though on mild winter days, thick socks and hiking boots may be warm enough).
One special piece of gear, gaiters that wrap around your ankles, is especially useful. Gaiters bridge the gap between your boots and pants, preventing snow from invading your boots.
Once you start snowshoeing, you may be surprised at how quickly your body warms up. If you notice yourself overheating and sweating a lot, you may want to take off a layer of clothing and store it in your backpack. And when you stop for a break, you may find your body cooling down. That’s when you can pile that layer back on.
Practice at home
Get a feel for your snowshoes by tromping about in your backyard or at a local park. Walking in snowshoes is awkward at first. Snowshoeing usually requires a wider stance than regular walking because snowshoes are fairly wide. Also, depending on snow conditions, you may find the snow to be slippery or cumbersome because it’s wet, sticky and heavy. Don’t forget to use your poles and arm strength to maintain balance and propel you forward.
While snowshoeing, don’t expect to float on top of the snow perfectly. In most conditions, your snowshoes will sink into the snow and you’ll need to lift your feet up, bringing your knees high with each step. This is especially true in fluffy snow. But that doesn’t mean your snowshoes aren’t working. Snow compacts beneath your snowshoes and keeps you afloat much more than if you were simply wearing boots. Don’t believe it? Step out of your snowshoes and see how far you sink.
Pack a backpack
No matter how easy or short your snowshoe adventure is, it’s important to pack a few things to take along with you. Your backpack should contain the items you’d carry on a hike, such as plenty of water, snacks (preferably food that won’t freeze), a headlamp, first aid supplies and emergency items. You may also want to throw in an extra pair of thick socks (which can double as mittens if you’re in a bind), chemical hand and foot warmers and an insulation sleeve for your water bottle. A neck gaiter to shield your neck and face may also be handy on especially cold days.
For ideas about what to pack in your winter backpack, check out the Appalachian Mountain Club winter gear guide.
Start with an easy trail
When it comes to any winter activity, it’s best to start small and work your way up in difficulty. For your first snowshoe hike, select an easy trail and consider snowshoeing with a family member or friend for added safety and fun.
Many hiking trails in Maine make for good snowshoeing trails, but do your research ahead of time to make sure the road leading to the trail and the trailhead parking area is plowed. To avoid getting lost, opt for a trail that is well marked and maintained — or a trail that you’ve hiked several times in other seasons. Also, keep in mind that trails that travel over open terrain, such as exposed bedrock, may be challenging to follow when covered in snow because the trail markers on the ground may be buried.
Opt for shorter trails or calculate a turnaround time (the time when you need to turn around to reach the trailhead before dark) and stick to it. Snowshoeing is usually slower and takes more energy than hiking without snow. Plus winter days are short.
If snowshoeing alone, leave a written plan — exactly where you’re going and when you plan to return — with someone who will check in to make sure you’ve gotten home safely. Always keep safety in mind, but have fun. The Maine wilderness is a lovely place to explore in the winter.