Gearing up for a new activity can be a mystery, as snowshoeing was for us when we first started. The good news is: getting outfitted to enjoy a trek through the freshly fallen snow is not that complicated. In this post we list the basic items we take with us on our snowshoe trips. If you’ve done any outdoor activities in the past, you probably have many of these items, so getting into snowshoeing might be easier than you originally thought.
There are lots of types and brands of snowshoes, and while it would be nice to have a pair for every kind of snow/ice condition, that would be impractical for most people. My snowshoes were made by Atlas; Karen uses MSR Evo snowshoes. We’re both happy with how they perform in the snow and have no complaints. That said, if I were shopping for a new pair, I would consider several factors before buying: flotation, grip, and incline assist.
Flotation refers to how easily you’ll sink (or not sink) into soft snow. The style of snowshoe affects the flotation—some have a firm plastic base, while others are more traditional with a perimeter frame and fabric stretched across—but the surface area is the main determinant of flotation. The more surface area, the more flotation. Generally, your bodyweight and snow conditions dictate how much flotation you’ll need, thus what size of snowshoe is right for you.
Grip refers to the aggressiveness of the metal spikes on the bottom of the shoes. Generally, the icier the conditions, the more grip you’ll want. Most snowshoes have enough grip to get you through the occasional patch of ice with minimal slipping while some are designed specifically for firm snow or ice.
Incline assist – Some snowshoes have a device behind each heel that makes climbing up hills easier. The type I’m most familiar with has a metal bar that flips up and fits under your heel, thus helping your feet stay level on inclines. This may seem like an unnecessary feature (and it is if you only snowshoe on mostly flat trails), but on steep inclines it’s a God-send.
Karen always uses trekking poles when snowshoeing; I rarely do. They are most useful on steep downhills, side hills, or when you fall in deep powder and need something to help you get back on your feet.
Some people use ski poles, which work just fine. Others—like Karen—use trekking poles that are designed primarily for hiking. The advantage to using hiking poles is that they usually telescope down to a smaller size for storing. If you go the hiking pole route, be sure to attach the baskets that came with them on the ends. Trekking poles without baskets are next to worthless when snowshoeing in deep snow.
Often, I wear my ankle-high hiking boots for snowshoeing and I don’t ever remember my feet getting cold. However, on extremely frigid days, I’ll wear a pair of Sorel boots that give my feet extra insulation.
If you have well-insulated boots, your sock selection can be more about comfort and blister protection than warmth. If you feel the need to wear thick socks, consider wearing two pair of regular-thickness socks rather than one pair of very thick socks. I’ve found that the two-pair method does a better job of insulating my feet and if they slip at all inside my boots, some of the wear and tear is absorbed between the two pairs rather than causing a blister on my feet. Some sock models are actually two socks sewn together, with a thin layer next to your skin and a thicker layer on the outside for this very reason.
Maybe it’s just me, but my legs never seem to get cold when snowshoeing, so I usually don’t wear a pant base layer. Of course, if it’s really cold out, I’ll throw them on; I’d rather be too hot than too cold.
A top base layer is a different story; this may be the most important item you wear. Your body will naturally prioritize keeping your vital areas (chest and head) warm over your extremities. Often the reason your hands and feet get cold is not because they aren’t protected from the cold, but rather your body is using all of its energy keeping your vital areas warm instead. Therefore, when your body doesn’t have to work so hard keeping your chest and head warm, it can afford to send warm blood to your extremities.
Base layers come in a variety of materials: silk, synthetic, wool, blend, etc. as well as thicknesses. I prefer to wear a thin, synthetic layer next to my skin and, if I need them, I put on progressively thicker layers on top. Wool and wool blends these days are virtually itch-free and make a good choice for a second layer or even next to your skin.
When the snow is dry, you can wear just about any type of pant that gives you a comfortable range of motion while you snowshoe. The wetter the conditions, the more moisture protection you’ll want. We wore our ski and snowboard pants when we first started snowshoeing. They worked fine but we found them to be a little too wide (flared) at the boot level; this caused a lot of unnecessary swishing as we walked. I now wear the Klash model of Kuhl pants. What I like about the Klash is the small patches of friction-resistance fabric on the inside bottom of the legs. This fabric can take the extra beating that happens if I bang my showshoes against my ankle areas as I walk.
Gaiters cover the tops of your boots and lower legs to protect them and to prevent snow from getting into your boots. They’re not a must-have piece of gear, but there’s nothing worse than post-holing your leg into a deep drift, and filling your boot with soft, fluffy snow. That snow quickly turns to an ice chunk the shape of your ankle and stays with you for the rest of the hike. Gaiters are easy to put on and take off, so I’m now in the habit of wearing them whenever we shoeshoe.
Usually I’ll wear a medium weight, long-sleeved, wool/blend top with a high collar and half-zip. This way I can zip it all the way up when I want protection around my neck and unzip it when I’m getting warm and need some core ventilation.
On top of my half-zip I’ll wear a micro-puff or nano-puff, full-zip vest. On top of the vest I wear my weather resistant winter coat. My current outdoor activity, winter coat has a small bungie on the back of the hood. When the wind is fierce, or I need extra protection against the cold, I can pull the hood over my head and synch the bungie, so the hood stays tight around my head at forehead height.
The type of gloves you’ll need are dependent on the temperature and your personal preference. I like wearing a thick glove when snowshoeing. I’d rather error on the side of my hands being too hot rather than too cold. Karen has found that when she holds her trekking poles tightly, the pressure limits circulation to her fingers and causes them to get colder more quickly. If this happens to you, consider taking regular breaks to flex your fingers vigorously and/or placing hand warmers inside your gloves.
Hat and Scarf
I wear a simple, unlined beanie when snowshoeing so it can breathe as I sweat. If the temp is very cold, I’ll wear one with a fleece lining. When the conditions become brutal, I always have the option to pull the hood of my coat over my hat and synch it down to keep the wind and cold out. Regardless, I always carry at least one extra beanie with me so that if the one I’m wearing becomes wet with sweat I can swap it out. If you’re not wearing a mock or turtleneck and your neck is exposed, you should definitely consider wearing a scarf or buff. Buffs work great to keep your neck warm but are harder to remove or adjust than a scarf if you heat up while snowshoeing.
Always have sunglasses with you when spending time in the snow. Even on cloudy days, you may feel the need to protect your eyes from the glare. They are an absolute must on sunny days. Sunglasses also protect your eyes from blowing snow and sleet. You could wear skiing/snowboarding goggles, but I’ve never felt the need for that much protection when snowshoeing and, to me, they feel cumbersome. On dark, overcast days, I’ll also carry a pair of clear safety glasses in my backpack in case I feel the need to protect my eyes from blowing snow and sleet but don’t want to wear sunglasses.
Backpack and Misc.
A simple daypack is all you’ll need for most snowshoe outings. The size depends on how much extra stuff you want to carry with you. In my pack you’ll find the basics: snacks, a small dry bag with a couple of extra shirts and beanie, map, GPS, snacks, headlamp, small first aid kit, emergency blanket, and more snacks. If I bring a thermos of hot tea or cocoa with me, I put it on the outside of my pack in the water bottle pocket. If I’m carrying water in an un-insulated Nalgene bottle, I put that inside my pack to keep it from freezing. Strapped to the outside of my pack is usually a small Therm-a-Rest seat pad just in case we take a break and my only seating options are covered in snow, which is every time we snowshoe.
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