Snowshoes: complete guide to choice and use
Snowshoes have now become very popular among the recreational and sports activities that can be practiced in the mountains; in the most dialectal jargon they are also called Ciaspole in Italian.
If you have never practiced this sport, you may legitimately ask yourself: why go with snowshoes?
To begin with, it is a way to stay in shape, even when the snow falls and it can seem difficult to do sports outdoors; Snowshoeing is excellent aerobic exercise and allows you to extend your hiking and / or running season.
Being a not too technical activity, it allows people of all ages (or abilities) to enjoy sport together in nature, even during the winter season.
Last but not least, if the prices of equipment and ski passes for skiing, snowboarding and ski touring require a fairly large budget, you will be happy to know that snowshoeing has a significantly more reasonable price.
The equipment needed for this activity includes: snowshoes, poles and clothing suitable for snowshoeing.
To better explain the natural simplicity of this sport, just one sentence is enough: if you can walk, you can snowshoe!
Obviously, walking in the mountains, on the snow, requires some organizational precautions, so attending a course or taking a guided tour is a great way to learn the basic concepts, which will allow you to venture out on your own in this activity.
Excursions and routes to do with snowshoes
As mentioned, using snowshoes is not difficult at all, but you must pay close attention to the choice of routes and excursions for snowshoeing, especially when you are a beginner.
A good solution is certainly to rely on guides, capable of offering inspiration and suggestions for snowshoeing destinations.
In general, however, the following options are best when getting started:
- Sign up for a tour or snowshoe lesson, where you can learn basic techniques;
- Go to the ski / cross-country ski resorts. These areas very often have safe paths adjacent to the slopes.
- Consider the areas where you routinely hike in the summer, as long as you are able to assess the risk of a winter hike.
Also very interesting is the opportunity to participate in one of the many night snowshoe hikes, organized both as a sporting activity and for their indisputable beauty. A night snowshoe hike has a truly incomparable charm.
Snowshoe safety tips
The first rule for safe snowshoeing is undoubtedly connected to your common sense: do not go beyond the limits of your knowledge and physical training, do not venture into unknown environments or without equipment (even worse if poor).
It uses marked and safe trails, many ski areas have them. Following tourist routes brings you closer to potential help and reduces the risk of avalanches.
Avoid snowshoeing alone, at least when possible. Regardless of the size of your group, always inform a responsible person about the path you intend to take, and also let them know when you plan to return. Obviously, do not deviate too much from the established itinerary.
Here are some additional tips:
Check your equipment: always leave prepared with the appropriate equipment (you will find our recommendations below), including spare clothes, food and water.
Be aware of the risks: in particular be aware of the environment around you. The most frequent dangers include: the collapse of stream crossings, a sudden change in weather conditions, the threat of avalanches and the danger of falling into a tree or rock. All these risks increase in the case of off-piste.
Make sure you are able to orient yourself: If you plan to venture far from a patrolled area, make sure you and your companions are prepared. Bring a topographical map of the area, a compass and possibly a GPS, of course make sure you know how to use them before you leave.
Stay warm and dry: dress in a layered fashion to manage body temperature and bring extra clothing with you, especially extra underwear (long underwear) in case the one you’re wearing gets wet from exertion or bad weather.
Learn to identify the signs of hypothermia so that you can recognize them on yourself and your team members.
Stay hydrated: It is just as important to drink during activities in the cold, just like it is done in the summer. Water not only keeps your muscles running, it also helps your body fend off hypothermia.
If you are using a water bottle, it can be important to have a backpack with an insulated sleeve. If you’re using a bottle of water instead, avoid freezing by using an insulating cover. A vacuum bottle of hot drinks or soups can help you stay hydrated and warm.
Know the safety rules in case of avalanches: if you intend to tackle off-piste, make sure that each member of your group brings an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel; and that everyone knows how to use them.
Check avalanche forecasts and snow conditions before going out, and always avoid avalanche-prone slopes. Pay attention to the signs of unstable snow and change course or be ready to turn back should you encounter them.
What you need to go snowshoeing
Here are some tips for your first snowshoe walk:
- Buy or rent the most suitable snowshoes for your weight, terrain and snow conditions and adjustable pole holders with snow wheels;
- Wear warm, waterproof boots;
- Dress in layers with clothing that can withstand cold and wet conditions.
How to choose snowshoes
If you’re new to snowshoeing, renting gear is a great way to start. The rental shop will provide you with snowshoes adapted to your weight and the conditions in which you will be snowshoeing, as well as poles.
If, on the other hand, you are considering buying your first snowshoes, flat snowshoes are an excellent choice. These are in fact entry-level models that also guarantee a good level of activity. They are designed for easy walking on flat or rolling terrain and are ideal for beginners.
Be sure to check the maximum recommended load for your snowshoes (your weight plus the weight of your fully loaded backpack should not exceed the recommended load) and consider the type of snow you plan to hike on (snow fresh for example requires snowshoes with a larger surface to make you float above the snow).
How to dress for snowshoeing
Previously we have already made some mention of clothing for snowshoeing, now let’s see some more in-depth tips.
- Wear suitable footwear and socks: snowshoes will fit virtually any type of boot or boot. So your main concern must be wearing something that keeps your feet comfortably warm and dry. Insulated waterproof winter boots with thick sole and rubber (or leather) upper are ideal; but sturdy waterproof hiking boots are fine too. Sweat-retaining wool or synthetic socks are indispensable; it is useful to bring a couple more in case those worn get wet.
- Dress in layers (not in cotton): We said this before, it is always a good practice when practicing outdoor activities. Dress in layers so that you can tailor your clothes according to activity level and weather conditions. Avoid cotton because it can make you feel wet and cold, instead go for technical or wool fabrics because they absorb moisture and retain heat even when wet (cross-country ski or ski touring clothing are designed for aerobic activity winter and can be used as snowshoe clothing).
- Functional Underwear: Choose a light or mid-weight base layer based on your temperature forecast and your activity level. A zippered top allows air to circulate while you are in activity and wraps to keep warm during stops.
- Intermediate layer: soft shell jackets and pants are excellent insulating intermediate layers because they retain heat even when wet, make you move freely, breathe during training and are already an excellent protection against wind and weather. Polyester fleece mid-layers can also be a decent alternative, as long as you have a soft shell or padded mid-layer in your backpack.
- Outer layer (shell): For your outer layer, choose a waterproof and breathable jacket and pants to keep you dry and protect you from the wind. The ventilation zips are a good idea for greater air circulation, because doing activities you will tend to sweat and you will not want to feel overheated.
- Accessories: Keep your head and hands covered to prevent loss of body heat and to protect yourself from sunburn. A wool or synthetic hat, headband or balaclava retains heat during cold and windy days; a hat with a visor can shade the eyes on sunny days. Waterproof ski gloves or mittens are a must to keep your hands dry and warm. It is also possible to combine waterproof / breathable shells with wool linings or light fleece gloves. In milder conditions, basic thermal gloves may be more than enough, but also bring a spare waterproof pair with you, just in case.
- Sunglasses and sun protection: they will protect you from UV rays, which are more intense when reflected from the snow, and can cause both sunburn and vision problems.
- The gaiters: keep the snow out of the boots. For deep snow, you need a tall model with waterproof and breathable fabric, especially if you don’t have adequate pants already equipped with internal gaiters.
How to use snowshoes: basic techniques
Although using snowshoes is not a very difficult activity, it is important to underline some basic differences, mainly concerning the type of terrain and its slope.
So let’s see how to use snowshoes in case of flat land, uphill and downhill.
How to walk with snowshoes on flat ground
Walking on flat or slightly undulating terrain is quite intuitive. Your stride should be wider than it does for hiking in order to avoid stepping on the inside of your snowshoes. For this reason, you may experience mild muscle pains in the hips and groin muscles, especially after the first few times you walk with snowshoes.
How to use snowshoes uphill
As you ascend a slope, use the tip and crampons present for traction. Always put your feet firmly in the snow, the poles in front of you. You can use different walking techniques, depending on the conditions.
In powder snow, move your foot as if you want to kick the toe of your boot into the snow to create a groove. It will take multiple attempts to build a solid enough surface to stand upright. If the ground and snow conditions are such that this mode simply ends up creating deep holes, then don’t insist, just look for a different path.
On frozen and rigid snow, obviously you will not be able to practice the above technique, so you will have to rely only on the traction of crampons or poles. Again, if the slope is too steep, try to find an easier route.
On moderate to steep slopes, use the heel lift feature found on many snowshoes. This mechanism causes the foot to assume a neutral position when moving uphill and makes it easier to sustain a long ascent.
How to go downhill with snowshoes
During the descents, keep the poles planted in front of you, knees bent and try to move the center of gravity of the body slightly back. Walk trying to avoid hitches and always place your heel first when walking.
The poles provide additional balance and control when descending, but be sure to adjust them a little longer for such a slope.
If losing your balance you start to slip, sit down.
How to cross with snowshoes
Crossing is often the solution to avoid entering excessively steep or difficult terrain. Maintaining balance during the crossing is the key.
Push the side of each snowshoe up the slope to create a stable plane as you move. Keep your weight on the top of the snowshoe.
If there is someone more skilled nearby, follow their movements and try to imitate their posture.
Use your sticks to help you. Extend the pole in case of a descent and shorten it when going uphill.
How to use snowshoe poles
Optional for flat terrain, poles come in handy on many other snowshoe hikes. Not only do they allow for better balance, but they also help train the upper body better.
The adjustable poles are the best solution, because they can be shortened for walking uphill and stretched for going down. (Also, as previously mentioned, they can take on varying lengths when traversing.)
To set the pole length for flat ground, flip the pole down and grab it just below the wheel. Adjust the length until your elbow is positioned at a right angle.
Use the special straps when you need to relax your grip to give your hands a few moments of rest.
How to get up after a fall with snowshoes
It doesn’t happen often, but you can – and probably will in the beginning – fall while wearing snowshoes. This eventuality is more frequent during the descents.
When you feel you are about to fall, try leaning to one side if possible. Before you can get up, you need to take your hands off the straps (if you have one) and move around until your head is in the up position and your feet are straight down. You must be able to push up the slope until you are upright on your knees; then you can shift your weight onto the snowshoes and stand up completely.
If you have sticks: slide them under your chest, parallel to the slope, and then use them to push yourself up. If you fall in deep snow on flat ground, you can make an “X” with your poles in the snow in front of you, then use the midpoint as a brace as you move upright. If you don’t have poles: open your hands and press down, which will likely create holes in the snow. Fill the holes with more snow, then press down in the same spots again. Repeat until you’ve built a solid foundation of packed snow that you can use to push yourself up.