Each season has it’s own popular forms of outdoor recreation, and winter in the Rocky Mountains is no exception. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing happen to be two of my favorites.
I don’t have any handy research statistics to defend my impression, but if my perceptions are correct, in snow country, snowshoeing is becoming very popular.
Where, in previous years, I saw only cross country ski tracks and the occasional snowshoe track, today I see multiple sets of what at first appear to be giant (but short strided) bear tracks.
I’ve enjoyed snowshoeing (and cross country skiing) for many years and I’ve developed some very general, but reasonably accurate “principles of snowshoeing”.
First of all, snowshoeing is not an adrenaline pumping activity in and of itself. It really is a technique for winter wilderness travel. Of course, if you go fast, or better, if you go fast downhill, then, you bet, it gets your heart rate up, and you can get a pretty good endorphin buzz. But generally, the pace is relatively slow compared to skiing. Snowshoes simply allow you to travel over an array of snow depths and surfaces more easily and reliably than you can with any other technique.
So again, it is a simple and reliable method for winter wilderness travel. And herein lies the allure of snowshoeing: winter wilderness. In a very short amount of time and space a person can access the pristine serenity and beauty of a winter landscape. Particularly in forested areas, all you have to do is walk a few hundred feet, beyond sight of the house, parked car, or trailhead, and the sense of wildness will envelope you.
This leads me to a critical second principle: leave the established trails whenever possible. You can’t find untracked wilderness if you follow in the tracks of the crowd. So while everyone else’s tracks follow that cross country ski or summer hiking trail, I recommend you just take off at a different angle and make your own. No longer are you trying to go further than others so you can find some respite from a burgeoning population, in very few minutes, you’ll be on your own. I find I am drawn to the thick brush and trees where skiers can’t maneuver.
You may even find that winter wildlife inhabits these margins of forest and stream which surround the corridor people most typically follow. Watch for tracks and sign and listen for forest birds. Of course if you encounter actual animals, it’s polite to give them lots of space, as winter is the critical time of year in their annual cycle of life and survival.
Today there is an impressive array of snowshoes on the market. Lots of color, synthetic fabrics, and belts buckles and straps, as well as traditional wood and rawhide designs. Most of these work fine. Just keep in mind that all you really need is a platform that distributes your weight over a broad surface area. This broad distribution of weight is what minimizes your sinking into the snow. And this leads me to my third principle of snowshoeing: accept that you will sink in when the snow is light and fluffy. It will take some work, but it will be worth it, particularly if the return is downhill and in the same path you just constructed. Snowshoe size is always a tradeoff of maneuverability and weight. Smaller shoes maneuver well but sink more, larger shoes sink less but are heavier and longer.
Two other aspects of equipment are also important: bindings and poles. The binding fastens your foot to the shoe. Try these out before you buy any, and examine them for weakness. Try to determine what part is most likely to break. Watch out for plastics that may become brittle and break at very cold temperatures. A good piece of safety gear to take along when you are in the field is a long piece of cord so that if your binding ever were to break you could at least tie the shoe to your foot.
Poles are good for balance, for taking some weight off the shoe when sinking very deep, and for assistance in climbing steep terrain. I prefer adjustable poles since I will frequently make one shorter than the other when traversing steep slopes.
Of course, winter is a harsh time of year. You should always be prepared for the unexpected with adequate food, water, clothing, and other survival gear.
Hopefully I’ve encouraged someone out there to take a new look at snowshoeing, or to get started. Have fun!