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Whether you’re a beginner snowshoer looking for some specific techniques on how to snowshoe or how to improve your existing skills, like snowshoeing up steep slopes, read on for everything you need to know on how to enjoy this amazing winter sport that will help you discover a beautiful winter wonderland.
I’ve been snowshoeing for over 20 years and am excited to share my experience with you, as I love it so much!
I’ve had the privilege of snowshoeing in the Canadian Rocky Mountains where I grew up, then in the Alps and now in the Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria.
But admittedly, it does take more preparation and more gear than hiking in summer does. That’s why I’ve created this guide on how to snowshoe filled with practical snowshoeing tips that will give you confidence as a first-time snowshoer.
Rent or Buy a Pair of Snowshoes
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If it’s your first time snowshoeing, I recommend renting snowshoes a few times and experimenting with different snowshoe manufacturers and styles each time. That’s how I discovered that I prefer Atlas snowshoes over Tubbs.
Plus, you’ll get access to an experienced person from your rental location. They’ll be able to find the right pair of snowshoes for you based on your body weight and the type of snowshoeing trails you’ll be exploring.
Insider snowshoeing tip: When you’re renting snowshoes, a reputable place like REI Co-op will ask the above questions. If they don’t, tell them what you’re planning on doing and ask if the snowshoes they’ve given you are appropriate for your snowshoe outing.
When you’re buying snowshoes, check out our comprehensive guide to the Best Snowshoes: How to Buy the Right Pair For You. If you’re a woman, I HIGHLY recommend buying snowshoes for women over unisex or men’s snowshoes since they’re tailored for a women’s narrower gait, which I find makes it much easier to walk in.
You’ll also want to buy the correct size of snowshoes, so choose ones where you fall in the middle of the weight limit.
You’ll also want to consider the type of terrain you’ll be covering on your snowshoe adventures.
Most snowshoes fall into one of three categories: flat terrain, rolling terrain, and mountain terrain. Recreational snowshoes (and the cheapest ones) will be the ones for mainly flat trails on packed snow, while backcountry snowshoes (also the most expensive and the ones I have and love) are designed for mountain terrain and powdery snow.
In addition, recreational snowshoes offer less floatation. That’s fine if you’re snowshoeing on groomed, established trails with snowshoe tracks, but if you plan to go into deep snow, you’ll want snowshoes that offer more floatation.
Ensure You Have the Right Snowshoeing Gear and Winter Hiking Gear
To stay warm and keep in your body heat on your winter adventure, wear lightweight layers, including a base layer, mid-layer and outer layer that’s waterproof. I LOVE Merino wool, especially as a base layer.
You’ll also want to wear waterproof boots. I use my hiking boots but spray them regularly with a waterproof spray to ensure they stay that way.
Besides your snowshoeing gear, you should also bring microspikes. You’ll often find that the snow conditions can vary a lot on a trail.
So you might start with just regular hiking, then run into icy packed snow in which you need microspikes.
Then, later on you’ll run into deep powdery snow in which you need your snowshoes.
Pick Your Snowshoeing Path
If you’re a first-time snowshoer learning how to snowshoe, look for a trail with groomed, mainly flat terrain that has snowshoe tracks.
Snowshoeing requires more cardiovascular fitness than regular hiking so it’s good to start with an easy trail and work your way up as both your fitness level and ability level increase.
You’ll also want to check for possible trail closures due to a high avalanche risk, falling ice or another reason.
Check the Weather Report
Be sure to check the weather forecast in the area you’ll be snowshoeing, not the area you’re coming from. You’ll want to do this both the night before and again right before you head out since weather conditions can change quickly in the mountains.
If you see there’s a winter storm or extreme weather forecasted, then postpone your snowshoeing trip to another day. Your safety is more important.
Get Familiar with How to Use your Snowshoes Before Hitting the Trail
Ensure that you know how to put your snowshoes on and off. The bindings should fit snugly around your boots, so they don’t slip off when snowshoeing. I like to shake my foot a bit to make sure that it’s on tight enough. But make sure it’s not too tight, or they’ll be uncomfortable and restrict your movement.
By doing this beforehand, you’ll save valuable time at the trail when it can be cold so that you’ll be able to put on your snowshoes quickly and start your adventure.
Beginner Snowshoeing Tips: I.e. How to Snowshoe
Put On Your Snowshoes
Once you’re at the trailhead or ready to start using your snowshoes. Note: often, you’ll start hiking and then put on your snowshoes later on; depending on how deep the snow is. Take time to adjust the bindings, as you did in the step above.
You should also take a few practice steps to ensure that they feel comfortable. Give them a shake to be sure they will stay on. If there’s a small hill nearby, you can also test your snowshoes on an incline.
Start Walking In Your Snowshoes
You might feel a bit like a penguin, as walking in snowshoes can be a bit awkward at first since you’re walking with a wider stance than usual. That’s totally normal when you’re learning how to snowshoe. Begin with small strides until you get the feel for it.
Then you can take longer strides over flat surfaces like frozen lakes or meadows covered in powdery snow.
How to Snowshoe on Steep Ascents
Traverse across in a zig-zag instead of heading straight up.
1) makes it easier on you physically by conserving your energy on steep terrain and
2) provides more stability and a more even weight distribution.
Take small, deliberate steps, and dig into the snow with the toe of your snowshoe. It has crampons to give you traction and prevent you from slipping on the uphill ascent. Keep your knees bent and your weight centred over your feet. Knowing how to ascent without slipping is an essential skill in learning how to snowshoe.
Use poles. Plant your poles at a 45-degree angle on the uphill side of your body. Poles provide additional support and help you maintain your balance on the uphill ascent.
I use my regular trekking poles with snow baskets at the bottom to keep them afloat in deep snow. I also recommend bringing collapsible adjustable poles so that you can fold them up and easily carry them on your backpack if you don’t need them on parts of the trail.
Side-Step. If it’s a really steep ascent, then side-step your way up the mountain.
Take regular short breaks. You’ll notice that snowshoeing an uphill ascent requires more cardiovascular fitness than hiking uphill, so don’t be afraid to take more breaks than you regularly would to catch your breath, but keep them short to stay warm.
Keep your eyes on the path ahead. You want to look for signs of avalanches, rocks or steams that you could slip into if the snow gives way or any other hazards.
How to Snowshoe Going Downhill
While many of the same tips apply for snowshoeing downhill, as I mentioned, for snowshoeing on steep slopes, instead of using your toe, you’ll want to use your heels and dig them into the snow. This will help slow you down so that you don’t go too fast.
You can also try going backwards if it’s icy to dig your toe into the snow for more traction since the toe has a crampon which your heel doesn’t.
Find a safe, non-steep slope until you know how to snowshoe safely downhill without slipping.
How to Snowshoe in Unstable Snow
While you’ll want to avoid snowshoeing in unstable snow, sometimes it’s unavoidable if there’s fresh snow or the snow conditions change due to weather.
The first thing is to look for signs where you might sink and avoid these areas. Look for signs of small streams, trees (their roots can be problematic), and indentations in the snow. If you find yourself in one of these areas, you may sink deeply into the snow, and it can be difficult to get yourself out.
Once, when I was snowshoeing in the German Alps, I sunk near a tree root by a small stream up to my waist. Then while trying to free myself, my snowshoe got stuck under the root. It took me 45 minutes to free myself, and I was exhausted by the end of it. And I already knew how to snowshoe. If this would have happened to me when I was just starting, I would have panicked.
Spread your weight. When snowshoeing in unstable snow or deep powder, try to distribute your weight evenly over the surface of your snowshoes. This will help you avoid post-holing or sinking deeply into the snow and make it easier to move through the snow.
Use a “herringbone” technique. To move uphill in deep powder, point your toes out at a 45-degree angle and kick the back of your snowshoe into the snow to create a foothold and repeat.
How to Get Back Up After a Snowshoeing Fall
Depending on the terrain you’re snowshoeing on, and how icy it is, you’ll likely fall if you’re a beginner snowshoe. Don’t worry; it’s completely normal when learning how to snowshoe.
Most snowshoe falls happen while descending.
If you feel like you’re going to fall, try to fall toward the hill instead of down the hill, in which you might up rolling down. It’s happened to me several times and wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had.
When you fall like this, your snowshoes will likely be pointing downhill with your body facing the hill with your knees close to your chest.
Try to press off the slope; poles can be handy until you’re on your knees. From there, you can push yourself the rest of the way up.
If you don’t have poles, press your hands into the snow. If it’s deep, your hands will keep sinking, so fill the holes with snow until your hands don’t sink anymore.
But honestly, it’s much easier to recover from a snowshoe fall with trekking poles, so it’s another reason why I recommend snowshoeing with them.
It’s a good idea to practice falling and getting back up in a safe place when you’re first learning how to snowshoe.
Pace yourself While Snowshoeing
One of the best beginner snowshoeing tips I can offer when you’re learning how to snowshoe is to start off slow with small steps and maintain a steady pace. Snowshoeing is much harder than hiking, so you want to pace yourself so that you don’t run out of steam.
Also, be sure to take short regular breaks as needed for a hiking snack, and bring extra food – you may find that you’re hungrier than you’d be on a normal hike.
You’ll also want to drink plenty of water and follows these tips so that your water bottle doesn’t freeze. You can still get dehydrated in the cold. But don’t stop for too long or you’ll get too cold.
Check out our Winter Hiking Tips article for more information.
Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Around
Doing any outdoor adventure during the winter months has more risk than at other times of the year. You need to be flexible with your plan if you run into any winter hazards or changing conditions.
While you’ll want to avoid avalanche-prone areas and avoid snowshoeing under avalanche paths, you still need to be on the lookout for avalanche danger.
And you should at the very least, be familiar with avalanche basics. Be aware of signs like subtle cracking noises, which indicate unstable snow or melting snow. Depending on the terrain, you may need to turn around.
Also, keep your eyes on the sky for sudden winter storms or for changing weather conditions. If you notice a sudden drop in temperature and start to feel cold, you may also want to turn around.
Predicting the weather is a big part of learning how to snowshoe for safety reasons and definitely adds another element to the experience.
While I rarely turn around while hiking in summer, I turn around while snowshoeing or winter hiking a few times each winter. Sometimes for the above reasons and sometimes because of the snow depth.
Snowshoeing in deep snow and having to make tracks is really tiring, and sometimes the route I had planned is too ambitious. That’s especially true if I thought there would be snowshoe tracks and find that I’m the first snowshoe there and will have to make them myself, which can be exhausting.
Even though I’m an experienced snowshoe, there’s always more to learn about how to snowshoe and how to predict snow conditions.
Now you have my guide to snowshoeing for beginners, along with techniques on how to snowshoe; you’re ready to discover the beautiful winter areas that snowshoeing leads to.
Share this post with someone who would love to know how to snowshoe and who you want to go with.
And be sure to check out my snowshoer’s buying guide on how to choose the right pair of snowshoes for you.