The need to get outside and break free from our homebound life is acute this winter. If you’re living in a snow-bound world or plan to drive to one, a pair of snowshoes can open up new doors of exercise, adventure, and escape. It’s a booming pastime—early numbers are showing a dramatic increase in sales of new snowshoes; indeed, by late October REI was experiencing snowshoe sales four times higher to date than in 2019, a trend that’s likely to continue (hint: shop early!).
If you’ve purchased your first pair of snowshoes—or would like to—here’s what you should know to buckle in and hit the trail quickly and safely:
As the old saying goes, if you can walk you can snowshoe. Today’s user-friendly designs make it simple to strap on a pair and instantly hit the snow without problem. Conditions do factor into the use of snowshoes, though: If the snow is over your ankles when you walk, a pair of snowshoes benefits you by reducing the amount you sink. If you’re on a packed trail, snowshoes are usually overkill; you’ll move more efficiently without them.
If you purchased a pair of snowshoes (or want to test them out at one of AMC’s lodges) you can sign up for one of three guided snowshoe hikes this winter at the Highland Center. Highlights include: an overview of snowshoes, followed by some easy to moderate hikes to stunning views of Crawford Notch, gorgeous frozen waterfalls, or serene lakes, plus some tips on reading signs of animal activity, understanding winter ecology, and identifying the plants and animals that thrive in winter. If you prefer a small, private group, you can also customize your own snowshoe hike with one of AMC’s trained guides.
Snowshoes won’t make you float on the snow, but you will sink in much less. A snowshoe’s so-called “flotation” directly correlates with the amount of surface area you have underfoot. Longer and wider snowshoes provide better flotation but can be more cumbersome to maneuver in steeper or more variable terrain.
Most snowshoes come in different lengths designed to match recommended weight ranges for the user and their gear. You’ll want to choose a snowshoe length that best matches your weight, though some models allow you to add an additional tail (sold separately) to the back of the snowshoe for extra flotation as needed.
As an added benefit, snowshoeing is also killer exercise—you’ll burn anywhere from 400 to 1,000 calories an hour out there, depending on terrain, conditions, your bodyweight, and how fast you’re moving. Steeper slopes, deeper snow, and a higher bodyweight all rapidly up the calorie burn; increasing your walking speed from just two miles per hour to three miles per hour on gentle terrain roughly doubles your energy expenditure as well.
The first question to ask is where you intend to snowshoe: Are you tromping in the rolling woods around town or heading into the mountainous backcountry?
Snowshoe styles and designs vary depending on their intended use. Less expensive recreational styles (roughly $120 to $180) are designed for easy to moderate terrain and typically feature easy on-and-off bindings and moderate traction underfoot (the metal teeth, or crampons, you’ll find on the bottom of the snowshoe).
Styles meant for more rugged, steep, and sometimes icy conditions—common in the winter mountains of the Northeast—usually feature extensive traction underfoot for maximum grip, a more tapered design for increased maneuverability, and extra-secure bindings to keep your feet locked in place no matter the terrain. These tend to be more expensive ($180 to $300-plus).
If you are heading into the backcountry on a longer adventure, another key feature to consider is packability, or how easy it is to secure the snowshoes to your pack when they are not needed. Designs with binding systems that lie relatively flat when not in use make this much easier.
Often the larger challenge of snowshoeing isn’t walking, but securing and adjusting your feet to the snowshoes in the first place. Binding systems—how your boot attaches to the snowshoe—vary widely across brands and styles. You’ll want something that’s easy to put on, take off, and adjust, especially while wearing gloves or mittens. You’ll also need to consider if you have large feet or will be using bulky footwear such as mountaineering boots; some snowshoe binding systems aren’t sufficiently large to accommodate them.
Snowshoes these days use a wide range of materials and designs, from plastic to foam to metal, though all are built to last for many seasons of regular use. For a review of the best 2020 offerings, check out the latest snowshoe reviews from Gear Lab, which once again crowns the venerable MSR Lightning Ascent ($320) as a top pick for backcountry use.
Don’t forget these add-ons
What else do you need to tackle the snowy wonderland? A few additional items will go a long way toward ensuring a blissful, warm, and balanced journey. First, keeping your balance (especially in deep snow) can be challenging at times; a pair of poles with snow baskets will help keep you on your feet and allow you to probe the snowpack around you. To keep your feet warm and comfortable, you’ll want a pair of stiff, insulated boots for toasty toes and to prevent your feet from over flexing and tiring out. Lastly, add a pair of gaiters to keep snow out of your boots in deep conditions—you definitely don’t want to stomp around in soaking socks.
And, of course, never forget to bring the joy and enthusiasm that the winter wilds brings to us all.