It's the second day of summer, 2017 and here we ae talking about snowshoes. Well, why not? It isn't like winter isn't going to come. This is Canada, after all. Cold weather will be coming. Snow will be falling. What better time to start thinking about a new pair of snowshoes, PLUS, yo may even be able to pick up some deals for off-season product from your local hiking gear store.
All you need is your regular hiking gear, a pair of snowshoes, a bit of planning and you’re ready to roll.
Snowshoeing is one of the least expensive winter sports I can think of that can get you into the great outdoors. In comparison to skiing, boarding or even hockey, snowshoeing is very affordable. Snowshoeing is easy to learn with almost no learning curve. It’s a great way to get in a workout during the cold winter months. Moderate snowshoeing in a few inches of powder snow can burn up to 550 calories per hour, help tone muscles and provide a good cardio-vascular workout. But, don’t overdo it and don’t forget a healthy diet. Of course if you have any health concerns you should always ask your doctor if snowshoeing is for you.
How to Dress
Another nice thing about snowshoeing is that you don’t need a lot of specialized clothing. Starting with your feet, my preference is Merino wool socks, not too thick. Merino wool is ultra-fine wool taken from Merino sheep, raised mostly in Australia and New Zealand, and to a lesser degree, Spain. Merino wool is the finest and softest of all the wools with fiber diameters down to 17 micron, which is almost half the diameter of most wools and the fibers are much longer and softer. Merino wool pulls moisture off your skin, does not itch and is slow to pickup any odors due to its anti-microbial nature. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling wet or losing its shape. If you have a history of heel blisters, try using an ultra thin sock-liner on your foot first, then pull on the socks. This allows the sock and liner to rub against one another, saving your skin.
Lightweight hiking boots will be fine – preferably mid-height or full cut. No need for a stiff heavy boot. Waterproof is my preference, but you can also treat regular boots with special sprays to help repel water and wet snow. The lower legs will be showered with a constant spray of snow, kicked up from the snowshoes, so, you’ll likely want gaiters which fits over the hiking boot and wraps the lower leg with a snow-proof material to keep your pants dry and snow out of your boots.
Pants, which shed snow easily, are a great idea. Nylon or a “soft-shell” material will work perfectly. They both breath, dry quickly if they become damp and shed snow easily. Two or four-way stretch construction is ideal for improved comfort and mobility. If you want couple of brand names, I use Fjallraven (out of Sweden), Marmot and The north Face. Try to avoid cotton and jeans.
If it’s going to be quite cold then long underwear or “base layer” will be necessary. The base layer pulls moisture off the skin and transfers it to the outer layers where it can evaporate away without making you feel clammy and cold. Again, my preference is Merino wool, although some synthetics such as Capaline® nylon or CoolMax® polyester, can work quite well.
For your upper body, try to dress with layers. This way you can remove a layer if you get too warm or add a layer when you stop for a rest and begin to cool. Start with the long sleeve base-layer; add a “mid layer” like a medium weight sweater (synthetic or wool) and a lightly insulated, snow-shedding, breathable outer layer, like a soft-shell material. Remember, snowshoeing can be quite a workout, so be cautious of overdressing.
Hats and gloves are a must.
Finally, don’t forget sunglasses to help protect your eyes from the glare off the snow and the harmful UV rays from the sun. No point in a case of snow-blindness if you can avoid it. You might also want to bring along - and use - a 30+ sunscreen. Winter rays can be quite strong and sunburned skin a real possibility.
Snowshoes have come a very long way in design and materials over the past 20 years. Wood frames have been almost entirely replaced with aluminum, plastic and carbon fibers. Lighter, stronger and more durable, these new materials have revolutionized the sport and helped bring it from a “cottage experience” into the mainstream of major winter sports.
Frame – the outermost component of the snowshoe to which all other components are attached. Usually made of aluminum or carbon fibers.
Deck – the component that allows you to “walk” on the snow. It’s it attached to the frame and forms the base upon which the binding or harness is attached. Usually made from durable, cold resistant plastic.
Binding or harness– the component that binds your boot to the snowshoe. Adjustable to fit various boot sizes and styles. Most now have quick release buckles to ease donning and doffing of the equipment.
Crampon – the “teeth” on the bottom of the binding or harness that allows for greater bite on hard snow or ice. Teeth may also be built into the frame or deck. Depending on specific application the teeth may be quite aggressive or almost non-existent.
Heel Lift – a specialized component that can be activated to ease the strain on calf muscles on long, uphill climbs.
There are basically three categories of snowshoes; backcountry, recreation and racing.
Backcountry models will be more heavily built, have features specific to mountaineering and priced accordingly. If you will be in situations where you’re life will, literally, depend upon your equipment, then these models will be necessary.
Recreational models (often referred to as “trail” models) will be suitable for the vast majority of us regular folk. Still, within this category there is a lot of variation. These models assume you’ll be mainly on designated trails with excursions into the woods with deeper snow and that you may be carrying a pack for extended trips. At the higher end of this range there is some crossover into the backcountry models.
Racing/Fitness models are ultra light, small and striped down for speed. They are designed for use exclusively on prepared trails with lightweight trail running shoes or even regular running shoes. They will not stand up to the rigors of regular, off trail use.
Then there is the matter of size. All things held equal, a larger snowshoes (size of frame and deck) the more floatation they will provide – or the less they will sink in deep snow. But larger also makes the snowshoes more difficult to wield in tight spaces, such as broken rock fields and dense forests. All manufacturers will offer a sizing chart which will balance your weight against intended use.
Walking or Hiking Poles
Taking along a pair of telescoping hiking poles is very much a personal choice. Walking along a relatively well-defined, flat trail in a few centimeters of fresh snow, it’s unlikely that you’d need the benefits of poles. On the other hand if you’re traveling with a heavy pack on difficult or steep terrain, then poles have advantages – everything from helping with balance and walking rhythm to testing the depth of a snowdrift. One of the major advantages of using poles is on a long traverse across a hill. Adjusting the uphill pole shorter and the downhill pole longer, will help control your balance, especially with a heavy pack.
When leading or breaking trail for a group, keep in mind the slowest member of the group and set your pace with them in mind. When following, try to stay in the track to help conserve your energy and better define the trail for those behind. Whenever possible, trade leads on a regular basis as leading can be physically demanding work and quickly lead to exhaustion, especially in deeper snow and difficult terrain.
What to Take on a Day Trip
This really depends on the weather and terrain, but here are a few basics to drop into your daypack; food and snacks, extra sweater, water (about 250ml + per hour), first aid kit, lip balm, sunscreen, map, emergency blanket (thin reflective Mylar type is good), whistle (to signal for help – three short blasts is the universal call for assistance) water-proof matches and a small pocket knife. Extras might include, flashlight, telescoping shovel, camera, hand warmers and cell phone. Always prepare to spend longer in the outdoors than you had planned.
Outdoor Clubs Around Toronto
Outdoor Club of East York
During the winter, the Club runs a full program of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing including one coach trip every weekend, as well as weekly evening skating at local arenas.
Toronto Outdoor Club
The Toronto Outdoor Club (TOC) is a volunteer-run organization for adults, featuring outdoor activities, social events, and travel excursions in and around the Toronto area. The TOC's mission is to provide our members with fun experiences, the opportunity to network, and the ability to learn about and participate in local outdoorsy/active pursuits.
High Park Ski Club
HPSC is a not-for-profit club exclusively managed by member volunteers who are dedicated to pursuing the love of downhill skiing, snowboarding, X-Country (nordic) skiing, and snowshoeing.
About the Author
Ed has been hiking, skiing, snowshoeing and paddling throughout Ontario and Alberta for nearly 45 years. He’s an avid photographer, cyclist and outdoor enthusiast.
He’s the founder of Friends of Dieppe Park and past member of the Harbourfront Parks and Open Space Project, in Toronto.
Ed is also the founder of Canadian Outdoor Press - a digital first publishing company specializing in books about Buddhism and the natural world.
All outdoor activities occur in a changing and unpredictable environment, so there is always an element of risk, injury even death. Rain, flood, erosion, extreme weather, heavy snow and dozens of other variables can combine to create hazardous conditions. Always exercise caution and discretion.