Tromping Technique: How to Snowshoe on Any Terrain

December 5, 2013
To improve your balance, use a set of hiking poles equipped for winter terrain.
Jerry and Marcy MonkmanTo improve your balance, use a set of hiking poles equipped for winter terrain.

Snowshoeing for fun and exercise in the woods and fields close to home doesn’t require a lot of preparation or skills beyond the ability to put one foot in front of the other. But when your adventures take you farther afield into the more challenging terrain of the mountains, a few simple tips and techniques will greatly enhance your snowshoeing enjoyment and safety. Phil Savignano, author of Basic Essentials Snowshoeing, offers some great advice on how to snowshoe.

Basics

“Snowshoeing is basically winter hiking with big flat things on your feet,” says Savignano. “The techniques are much the same as hiking, with the snowshoes providing the flotation needed to travel over the snow.”

Start with good-quality snowshoes that have secure, easy-to-use bindings, and good-fitting boots—hiking boots for short trips or insulated boots for longer treks, plus gaiters to keep the snow out. Choose shorter snowshoes for maneuverability; longer snowshoes are best for backpacking with a load. Add a pair of trekking poles with oversized baskets for stability and you’re ready to tackle the snowy trails.

“Position your boot in the binding so that it pivots at the ball of the foot, allowing your toe to push through the opening to gain traction,” advises Savignano. “Then it’s simply left, right, left, right.”

To turn, move in the desired direction in a small semicircle. Or use the step-turn, lifting your leading snowshoe and turning. In deep snow or steep terrain, employ the kick-turn. Lift your leading snowshoe just higher than the snow level and kick it out to the left or right as desired to make the turn.

Ascending

To climb directly up a moderate slope, lift your knee, roll your foot forward, and dig the toe of your boot into the snow. Step up and push down to create a step or platform, engaging the crampon or cleat underneath for added grip. This technique is known as stamping. Repeat the sequence with the other snowshoe to proceed.

On steeper terrain, turn your body perpendicular to the slope. Step up and sideways using the outside edge of your leading snowshoe, then push down to form a stable platform. This method is called edging. Bring your trailing snowshoe up and set it in place of the shoe you just moved above and repeat. On long steep pulls, engage the heel-lift mechanism if your snowshoes have it, to ease the strain on your calves.

On long climbs, if a route becomes too steep, or there are obstacles in your path to be avoided, try zigzagging up the slope on a rising traverse. This switchbacking technique allows you to advance forward and upward at an angle.

Descending

Savignano recommends keeping your weight centered over the snowshoes, your knees flexed, and the snowshoes level to the ground. Then plant your trekking poles out in front of you and go. On steep descents you may want to side-step downhill using your snowshoe edges. For some real fun in deep snow, weight the back of your shoes and pull up on your toes, then take longer than normal strides and watch the snow fly!

Falling

“Sooner or later you’re going to lose your balance and fall over in deep snow, and that’s when trekking poles really come in handy,” Savignano says. To right yourself, roll onto your back like a turtle, remove your wrists from the pole straps, then cross the poles to form an X on the snow beside you. Roll over onto the poles, which now form a stable platform. Grip the poles firmly and bring one knee up at a time, then stand.

Above Treeline

In the windswept alpine environs above treeline—on Katahdin, the Presidential Range, and other high New England mountaintops—you’ll often find plenty of rocks and ice but precious little snow, except in windblown drifts. Your best bet for travel in these conditions is to exchange snowshoes for crampons or micro-spikes, and secure the snowshoes to your pack with straps.

LEARN MORE

Learn the ideal head layering system for winter in this video.

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Carey Kish

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.