by Frank Mungeam
We stood by our car, cross country skis in hand and frowns on our faces. The shiny slopes of Mt. Rainier glared back at us. Two friends and I had come to this 14,000-foot peak in Washington state for a cross country ski trek, but the trails were icy.
We figured we'd have to spend the day exercising our elbows at the Paradise Inn bar. Then a Forest Service guide suggested we take a walk. On snowshoes!
Snowshoeing? It seemed like an odd idea, but it was better than sitting inside all day, so we rented shoes and hit the slopes. Tromp, tromp, crunch, crunch.
In no time, we were running around, veering off the main trail to explore - and generally behaving like kids. We quickly learned two great things about snowshoeing: if you can walk, you can snowshoe; and you don't need a trail, because you can always make your own. By accident, we had stumbled on a new way to enjoy wintertime.
Nearly a million people explore the snow with nothing more than the shoes on their feet. Snowshoes are back, and with a high-tech twist. Gone are the heavy, cumbersome shoes of the past. Lightweight materials and revolutionary designs are fueling a rediscovery of the winter walk.
It's no secret why. Snowshoeing is easier on the wallet - and the body - than downhill skiing. The technique is simple to learn, compared to cross country skiing, and you can say good-bye to lift lines and the limitations of the ski trail. Make your own tracks. You'll be following in historic footsteps.
The first snowshoes were created 6,000 years ago by hunters who needed to navigate the winter snowscape. Trappers were inspired by the footprints of the prey they stalked. Early snowshoes were made in the pattern of bear paws and other agile winter beasts.
A variety of designs has been tried. In fact, by the 1800s, snowshoes reached seven feet in length, considerably taller than the men wearing them. Shoe designs continued to evolve, but the real revolution has happened in the last 10 years. Wooden frames have been replaced by lightweight aluminum and webbed feet have given way to solid platforms. Today, designers have reduced the size of the shoe to less than three feet. These improvements make snowshoeing easy and enjoyable even for novices.
The fitness benefits of snowshoeing are remarkable - as comfortable as walking, as challenging as the most vigorous run. You'll burn 500-1,000 calories per hour, depending on your effort. By varying the distance, your pace and the terrain, you can create a workout to satisfy even the heartiest exercise appetite.
Best of all, you have freedom. Freedom to make your own trail. Freedom to go almost anyplace, and at your own pace.
No wonder snowshoeing is becoming a popular winter alternative, both for cross-training athletes and for adventurers seeking new ways to enjoy the winter snow.
To hit the trails, you need only a set of snowshoes and a reliable pair of warm, waterproof hiking boots. I used my cross country ski boots, and they worked just fine. Some snowshoers also use poles, for added balance and extra upper body exercise. Again, my cross country ski poles got the job done for me.
IF THE SHOE FITS
Modern snowshoes weigh as little as three pounds per pair and are as short as 18 inches. A recreational/hiking snowshoe will meet the needs of most casual participants. If you're intent on conquering more challenging terrain, consider a more rugged shoe designed specifically for backcountry trekking. If you're planning intense cross-training, check out the specially-designed sport/running shoes.
A basic recreational snowshoe can cost as little as $100. For twice that price, you can strap on a pair of asymmetric snowshoes, designed specifically for running through the snow. Add hiking boots and poles, and you're ready to go. One additional item worth the $20 investment: leg gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots.
SIZE DOES MATTER
The bigger you are, the deeper you'll sink in the snow. So if you are snowshoeing in light powder or are larger than average, you can increase your flotation - and avoid that sinking feeling - by choosing a snowshoe with more surface area.
WHAT TO WEAR
Like cross country skiing, snowshoeing will warm you up fast. Dress in breathable layers and bring a pack to stow your gear in as you heat up.
WHAT TO BRING
Liquids and fuel! Don't let the cold weather fool you. You'll work up quite a sweat, and you'll need to drink and eat to stay hydrated and energetic. Bring supplies based on how long you're going to snowshoe, not how far. You might only cover four miles, but it could take two hours, depending on the terrain. Don't be caught short of fuel.
WALK THIS WAY
On the flats: Just start walking! You'll notice two differences. You will probably need to lift your knees slightly more than normal. Also, you may want to walk with your feet slightly wider apart to keep from stepping on your other shoe. Even the narrowest snowshoe is twice as wide as your regular shoes.
Breaking a trail: If you go snowshoeing in a group, walk in a single line behind the leader. When it's your turn in front, try to take even, consistent steps to make it easy for others to follow.
Going Uphill: Kick the front of your shoe into the snow and put your weight down to compact the snow beneath the shoe. Make your next step high enough to avoid collapsing the snow over your foot.
Going Downhill: Use the heel cleat under your snowshoe for traction. Keep your knees bent slightly, lean back, and keep your weight on your heels for best control.
Walk before you run: Even if you're a fit runner, you'll be surprised by the aerobic demands of snowshoeing. Start out by walking. When you feel comfortable with your technique, jog for up to a minute, then walk again until your breathing normalizes. Alternate walking and jogging until you can maintain a jogging pace without overexerting yourself.
If you have a heart rate monitor, bring it along. Otherwise, consider stopping occasionally to take your pulse. You might find that you don't even need to run in order to get an aerobic workout snowshoeing.
Take a Hike: When you're ready for your first winter hike, select a route shorter than your normal run or cross country ski trek. Budget twice as much time to snowshoe as you would to run the same distance. Don't worry about your pace. Pay more attention to the length of time you are hiking than the distance. Believe me, you'll be working hard.
Snowshoeing destinations abound. If you can hike there in the summer, you can probably snowshoe there in the winter. Or try your favorite cross country skiing route. Just remember to share the road, and be careful not to stomp on the cross country ski tracks.
If you want to test the trails once before taking the plunge into ownership, consider renting snowshoes. Try your favorite ski shop, or the rental shop at your nearest ski area. Plan to spend between $10 and $15 on rentals. Boots are also usually available.
To find a trail near you, rated by distance and ability, check out the free listings provided online by Tubbs Snowshoes.
Frank Mungeam, an avid runner, lives in Portland, Oregon and enjoys cross-training on snowshoes.