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Snowshoeing 101

Written by Will Kilburn
Posted Jan 02, 2009
Many new-school winter sports, such as ice climbing or backcountry skiing, come with high price tags and/or steep learning curves. Not so with snowshoeing, a sport which has been transformed thanks to modern yet still relatively inexpensive equipment.

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” says Linda Weiner, general manager of Joe Jones Wilderness House in Allston. “All you’re really doing is putting on a different kind of boot, but you’re basically just hiking in the woods.”

These days, the new technology has opened up the sport to day-trippers—and even hour-trippers—who flock to local parks and conservation areas even when there’s as little as four inches of snow. For this, Weiner says that beginners just need to know how to operate their bindings, and after tripping over their feet a few times, they’re all set.

“The biggest thing when going up higher is your stamina, and also being on side slopes can be a little bit tricky, a little tough,” says Tim Bray, adventure programs manager at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center in Bretton Woods, N.H., near Mount Washington. “But if you did a couple weeks of shorter, easier, flat hikes and then worked your way up, you could go up a 4,000-footer by midwinter, no problem.”

While the Highland Center does offer its share of peak-bagging trips, guests and visitors can also start off a little more conservatively with a one- or two-hour introduction on flat ground, which begins with a short clinic on getting in and out of the snowshoes.

As with the skill set, the amount of investment required to get into snowshoeing is also fairly moderate. Steve Brownlee, owner of Umiak Outdoor Outfitters in Stowe, Vt., says that a good pair of snowshoes can be had for between $100 and $200, with models at the higher end of that scale equipped with better bindings for the feet and better traction on the bottom. Brownlee adds that many people opt for trekking poles (up to $100 or so) and gaiters to keep snow out of their footwear—which, unlike other winter sports, is a part of the equipment package that you probably already own.

“People are always asking ‘What footwear should I be using for my snowshoeing?’” says Brownlee, who says Umiak puts 5,000 people on snowshoes every winter. “A lot of that matches to where they’re going and what they’re doing: The guys who are running are using lightweight running shoes with a gaiter over the top to keep their foot dry; the guy who’s mountaineering is going to use a pretty hefty, warm boot for that. But the average snowshoer just uses a good-quality hiking boot.”

Like the Highland Center, Umiak offers a range of activities from beginners on up, all of which focus on exploring the local sights, from a half-hour intro which ends at the nearby Ben & Jerry’s factory, a longer jaunt out to a repurposed maple-sugaring shack, or night tours where the guides point out animals and their tracks—sights which would be invisible other times of the year. And whether the goal is to do a winter ascent up north or, like Weiner, get out to the Arboretum for a couple of hours with the dog, snowshoers don’t ever seem to mention the physical challenges.
“It’s such a great feeling when you can step onto the snowpack that may be three feet deep,” says the Highland Center’s Bray. “But you’re floating on top of it.”

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