Snowshoeing - Introduction to Hiking

 

Learning to use Snowshoe opportunities in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

 

 

When autumn hiking trails give way to winter snow, hiking is replaced by snowshoeing and every form of skiing known to person kind.  For those living near the Rocky Mountains, there is an opportunity for variety few people have the opportunity to enjoy without lengthy travel and significant expense.

 

Lower Kananaskis Lake Snowshoe - Kananaskis Country Alberta, Canada

 

This post will address the easy-to-master sport of snowshoeing.  If you have not attempted snowshoeing, it is worth a try.  

Snowshoeing is a lot of fun, excellent exercise, amazingly refreshing and winter scenery is absolutely breathtaking beautiful.  A good dose of intense reflected sun on snow can be therapeutic during the short, dark days of winter.  Serious eye protection is important.

Snowshoes: One way to travel over snow is on snowshoes.  The size (think length) and type of snowshoe you will need is largely determined by three factors.

 

Factors to Consider when Renting or Purchasing Snow Shoes


 

Body Weight:

Body weight is a major factor in determining the size of the shoe.  Every manufacturer provides a recommended shoe size to weight range.  Take body weight and add 13 kg (30 lbs) to compensate for clothing and pack.  If you are going to make a mistake, make it on the high side.  The trade-off is this.  You want the smallest practical shoe for maneuverability, combined with a shoe that will provide sufficient support (flotation) on the type of snow most commonly navigated.  Simple.

 

Trail Surface:

On a well trodden, packed snowshoe trail the size of the shoe required will be smaller than those required for plowing off trail through 76 cm (30 inches) of fresh powder.  Many snowshoe manufacturers provide a grid of snowshoe size required for various types of terrain.  The objective is to find a balance which will be the best fit for the majority of  anticipated experiences.

 

Technical component:


 

Snowshoe Tread

Flat, packed trails will require a significantly less sophisticated snowshoe tread than off-trail experiences with significant ascent or descent elevation.  It is the technical component of the shoe.  The people who are doing technical work will have learned from experience what they need to stick themselves onto the side of a significant slope of possibly mixed terrain.  They are willing to pay the expense to have the specific gear they need. 

The beginner does not need high performance snow shoes.  Most people will be well served by a less expensive, recreational snowshoe.  Older people could potentially benefit from an upgraded grip on the tread for better stability.  Shoe size is seldom an issue.

 

Harnesses

Commonly, snowshoes are worn over a hiking boot.  A hard boot is much better and more comfortable than a soft boot. 

There is an advantage to a simple-to-operate harness which will gain advantage proportionally as temperatures decline.  A harness that can be adjusted with gloves on is a major advantage.  What is good for one person is not necessarily ideal for another.  Wear your boots to the store and try on the snowshoes in the store.  A firm boot is generally superior to a soft boot.  It helps to have some insulation from the straps.

Some snowshoe harnesses have strap (spring-loaded) suspensions.  Others have pivot mount suspensions.  Know the difference and choose the one which suits you the best.  Pivot mount suspensions would be the best choice to reduce snow flying up from behind.

So, in there somewhere is a sensible decision that will serve you well most of the time.  Get help from your sporting goods store.  It is best to spend enough time to make a qualified decision.  It is not about buying a snowshoe that looks the best, or is the most expensive, or the least expensive.

It is wise to take a course or choose a trail and initially rent snowshoes.  Test their performance on and off trail in a variety of snow conditions.  If you navigate well on a packed trail but disappear in a deep drift of fresh powder you may want to consider a larger shoe.  Try to learn in the company of a more experienced person, or with a club.

 

Rules and Hints:

When you strap your snowshoes onto sturdy boots for the first time, the buckle or adjustment mechanism on each snowshoe should be on the outside of the leg.  If they are on the inside you have the shoes on the wrong feet.  The straps on the inside may trip you up, so take the time to get them on the correct feet.

Wear gaiters or do whatever is necessary to keep snow from getting into your boots.

Do not turn around and talk to someone while snowshoeing forward.  The odds are high you will cross one shoe on top of the other and perform a humiliating face plant. Stop to admire the scenery.  Gawking around while snowshoeing, for the newly experienced, often results in shoes crossing over and causing a trip and humiliating face plant.  If you stop and wish to turn around, it is best done in small increments until facing the chosen direction.  With experience you will intuitively learn to reduce the increments by making outward sweeping motions with the outside leg.

Do not walk too close to tree wells.  The adjacent wall can collapse and you may become one with the tree as you fall in.  It is often an upside down experience with snowshoe clad feet twitching in the air.  Your snowshoeing partners will help you get out immediately following a few minutes of snow rolling, hysterical laughter and the obligatory short video which will later appear on YouTube and Facebook.

Use poles.  Use hiking poles with powder baskets attached.  Po[es will need to be lengthened because the bottom of the pole is no longer the carbide tip; it is the bottom of the basket.

Take a map and a photocopy of the instructions.  It is easier to get lost on snow, particularly in a labyrinth of trail possibilities.  Remember turns you have made.  Flagging tape can be helpful. Always keep the areas of most body heat loss insulated.  They are head, neck, hands, feet and crotch.  Carry extra layers, just in case, and always, always have an emergency kit in your pack.

Wear serious eye protection.  It can get very bright out there.  Even on overcast days there is a deceiving amount of light bouncing around.  Reduce the risk of cataracts in later life. 

Sunscreen on exposed skin is a good idea.  Reduce the long-term risk for wrinkled skin and skin cancer.

Avoid avalanche risk.  There are plenty of trails with no avalanche risk.  Twelve starter snowshoe trails are listed later in this post.  When you gain experience and wish to take advantage of more aggressive trails which may include minor avalanche risk, please, please, please, get some serious avalanche training (classroom and practical), acquire appropriate gear and know how to use it before setting foot within avalanche terrain.  Many people die every year.  Many of them lose their lives because they do not know the difference between a snowball and avalanche terrain.  Stay safe.  Think.  Observe.

Exercise your adult common sense.  Be well-informed.  Carry a few plastic, electrical cable ties in you winter pack to act as an emergency snowshoe fix if something comes apart.

 

Reference section:

 

A Dozen Beginner Trails Within Easy Reach of Calgary and Canmore, Alberta.

From the Kananaskis Country Snowshoe Trails Brochure:

 

 

The Penstock Loop, Canyon Trail, Lower Kananaskis Lake Trail, Marsh Loop and the Elkwood Loop are interconnected in close proximity to the Peter Lougheed Visitor Information Centre.  You may wish to combine two or more of these short trails to enhance and lengthen your snowshoe experience.  Start easy and ramp up as you learn and gain expertise.

Ask for the brochure at any Kananaskis Country Visitor Centre. It is also available, free of charge, from many outdoor adventure stores.

There are a wide variety of excellent snowshoe experiences in Canmore and Banff National Park. There are so many opportunities, it is impossible to list them here.  Pick a place with good snow and stop at the local Visitor Centre for a current recommendation.

 

Guide Books

  • Three Snowshoeing Books to Get You Started - Snowshoe Magazine
  • A Beginners Guide to Snowshoeing in the Rockies - Andrew W. Nugara
  • Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies - Andrew W. Nugara
 
 
 

Snowshoe Rentals

 

Popular Snowshoe Rental Locations include:

  • Norseman XC Ski, Hike and Climb Shop
  • The Calgary Outdoor Centre
  • Mountain Equipment Co-op
  • Sports Rent Calgary
  • Kananaskis Village - Kananaskis Outfitters
  • Gear-Up Mountain Sport and Rentals - Canmore

 

 

Snowshoe Trail Etiquette

 

  • Dogs are not permitted on many trails for sensible reasons.
  • Wilderness toilet protocol always applies.
  • Do not litter.  Pick up, bring back and properly dispose of litter.
  • Keep the trails clear for passage of other winter sports enthusiasts.  Step off to let people pass.  Have lunch or rest periods off-trail.  Be aware of where your poles are.
  • Always yield to skiers.  They are much quicker and often have reduced lead time and more difficult maneuverability than a person on snowshoes.
  • Step carefully over cross-country ski tracks without touching them or impacting them in any way.  The safety of other people depends on due diligence, common sense and courtesy.

 

 

Avalanche Training

To enter avalanche territory without training is like crossing city streets with total disregard for traffic signals.  It is foolish, dangerous and irresponsible.  Where there are avalanche risks there are courses given by qualified instructors.  You need to know the nature of an avalanche zone, how to recognize an avalanche zone, the gear you need to protect yourself and your team, and how to use that gear if necessary.  Check for education in your area.

In Calgary  The Calgary Outdoor Centre services the need expertly.  At the very least, read, study and remember quality avalanche safety information.  Two of my favorite reference books are:

 

  • Backcountry Avalanche Awareness - Bruce Jamieson
  • Backcountry Avalanche Safety - Tony Daffern

 

If you plan to snowshoe or ski in canyons in winter, or even shoulder seasons, be very aware of what is above you on slopes you cannot see.  Exercise thorough due diligence.  Avalanche safety knowledge and applied practice is very powerful.  If you understand and follow the rules, it is unlikely you will ever encounter a problem.  Stay safe.

 

Snowshoe Manufacturers:

  • Louis Garneau Snowshoes
  • Atlas Snowshoe Company
  • MSR Snowshoes
  • Faber Snowshoes
  • Snowshoe Manufacturers - Snowshoe Magazine

 

 

 

 

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Comments

It is a great way to enjoy the winter wonderland. We are very fortunate to have such diversity. I use a pair of Atlas SpinDrifts and I am quite happy with them. Prior to that I snowshoed on a pair of recreational Faber snowshoes for nearly two decades. They were excellent and stood up to a lot of challenging terrain. I still see people using traditional wooden frame and gut shoes but not too often any more. Most have switched to the advantages of the narrower, more stable, and lighter snowshoes. Thanks for your comment, Charlie.

Thank you for your comment, D. Yes, there have been many technical advances in snowshoe construction. They can be strong, light and relatively narrow. They can also get expensive as the technical capability increases but the majority of people just need a good recreational snowshoe.

Great information Barry :) I have been thinking of snowshoes since my December Jasper trip. I never thought of all the suggestions you gave. It will be very useful. :)

Great informative post Barry! Just revisting this as its time to get a new pair of snowshoes. They sure have changed over the last forty years. D

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