The ABCs of snowshoeing

Above: Snowshoes at Catskill Mountain Storehouse. Photo by Tim Luby. 

Now that winter has arrived in the Catskills in earnest, it’s time to break out the snowshoes. If you’ve never tried hiking with snowshoes, read on for a guide on how to choose, size and use this winter-weather hiking gear. Remember: If you can walk, you can snowshoe.

One of the first things you need to consider is the type of snowshoes to get. Snowshoes for local parks or trails or the rolling fairways of golf courses have some different characteristics from those designed for the steep terrain of mountain hiking. Forget about those attractive wooden snowshoes with the leather lacing. They belong above the fireplace in your family room or camp.

Size matters: Many retailers or online charts will ask how much you weigh and how heavy a pack you'll be carrying. That combined weight theoretically translates into the size of snowshoe you'll wear. However, unless you belong in the waif category, that formula will have you walking out of the store with a 28-inch or 30-inch pair of foot gondolas.

Those big clodhoppers are heavy, lack maneuverability and other than for breaking trail in deep powder are a complete joy-killing chore to wear.

Resist being pushed into big snowshoes. Instead, downsize—aim for shoes in the 22-inch to 24-inch range. Shorter snowshoes are lighter, pick up less snow as you lift them between step and won’t throw up as much snow against the backs of your legs.

Many stores or outing clubs offer snowshoe rentals. Try both long and short snowshoes if you have any doubts about fit.

Construction: While most snowshoes have frames constructed of hollow aluminum, there are some very good models with durable plastic frames. Like skis, snowshoes come with different types of bindings.

Bindings: Bindings are the flexible attachments that your boots slide into on snowshoes. They vary from company to company and by model within different brands.

Historically, snowshoe bindings have been made of leather. While flexible, leather absorbs moisture and stretches, causing snowshoes to fall off boots.

Modern bindings are synthetic or rubber, making for a tighter and more secure fit.

All bindings have heel straps that keep boots firmly in the binding.

While each snowshoe company has its own designs, bindings usually fall into two categories which can be categorized as either caged or straps.

With cage bindings, you push your boot into a cup-like cage, tighten the binding down on your instep and then adjust the heel strap against the back of your boot.

With strap bindings, you tighten straps across your instep then tighten the heel strap to secure your foot to the snowshoe.

Snowshoe crampons: Crampons are spikes that hikers and mountaineers strap onto their boots for crossing ice. Snowshoes also have their own crampons, attached to the underside of the bindings. These, too, vary by type.

Recreational snowshoes have crampons that are designed for conditions where ice is infrequent and not steep. Backcountry or mountaineering snowshoe crampons are spiky and aggressive, and are sometimes arrayed on the bottom of the snowshoe frames.

If you plan on winter peak-bagging or hiking in areas with steep terrain, you'll want a snowshoe with crampons that can handle the icy rocks found on these types of hikes.

Boots, gaiters and other gear: To keep from walking out of your snowshoe’s bindings, your winter boots should have a firm exterior. With soft boots like Uggs or barn boots, the boot will “give” as you tighten the bindings. That causes the bindings to collapse causing you to step right out of your snowshoe. It's a real annoyance to have to refit the binding while standing out in the snow.

There is another piece of gear that is only second in importance to warm boots. Gaiters are snow-proof fabric sleeves that attach to your laces and hug the lower portion of your legs. There are short gaiters and tall ones that rise above the calf—my personal favorite. The primary purpose of gaiters is to keep snow out of your boots, and tall gaiters keep out the snow that the snowshoe tails throw against the back of your legs.

When snowshoeing, don’t wear jeans or cotton pants. Snow will soak cotton and there are few things that can spoil a day in the woods faster than cold, wet pants.

Walking around: There is no need to walk bowlegged or with any unusual gait in snowshoes. Take one step, then another, and before you know it you're on your way.

Although they are not necessary, a pair of adjustable hiking poles are a luxury when snowshoeing. They aid in balance and help with scrambling over a log or walking across a snow-covered stream or trail bridge. You can use cross-country ski poles, but adjustable-length poles with snow baskets are more enjoyable.

For first-timers: Get out to one of your local shops which specializes in outdoor gear and find a knowledgeable salesperson. Many stores offer snowshoe rentals. Once you determine the type of snowshoeing you intend to do, consider renting a couple of different models. A few stores to try: Kenco (Kingston), Morgan Outdoors (Livingston Manor), Rock and Snow (New Paltz) and Catskill Mountain Storehouse (Phoenicia).

Some shops will allow you to deduct a weekend rental from the cost of a new pair. Expect a pair of recreational snowshoes similar to ones at L.L. Bean to start at $120.

If you plan on backcountry or mountain hiking, take a look at MSR, Tubbs or Atlas brand snowshoes. Each of these companies offer a range of prices and features with the most rugged and suitable starting at around $200.

As for a recommendation, I like MSRs due to features such as their bindings, crampons and lifetime no-baloney warranty.

Alan Via is the author of “The Catskill 67: A Hiker’s Guide To The Catskill 100 Highest Peaks Under 3,500” and is a frequent contributor to The Watershed Post. He writes for numerous other publications, is a winter hiking trip leader and has taught snowshoe travel to hikers for over 30 years.