Snowshoeing is a budget-friendly way to enjoy nature in the winter months. Unlike snowboarding or skiing, skill isn’t really required, and gear is quite a bit cheaper. Anyone can learn how to snowshoe, so it’s the perfect way to stay fit when it’s cold outside!
In this snowshoeing basics guide, I’ll share everything I’ve learned about snowshoeing, including how to pick out your very first pair of snowshoes, where to go snowshoeing for the first time, what to wear snowshoeing, etiquette, technique, safety tips, and much more!
Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing
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What is Snowshoeing?
Snowshoeing is essentially walking on snow when trails become impassable. Instead of sinking into the snow, snowshoes allow you to float above the powder with long “boards,” or decks. Underbelly traction and heel lifts provide sure-footed comfort and ease when trudging through deep powder.
According to the US Forest Service, snowshoeing (or “shoeski,” as they originally called it) was invented in 4000 BC in Central Asia. It was a solid piece of wood with a crude binding. Various styles of boards began to emerge, and today, thanks to modern technology, we have a lightweight, fully functional, and easy-to-use snowshoe!
Below is a graph of the differences between the traditional wood snowshoe and the modern aluminum snowshoe!
How Hard is Snowshoeing?
Snowshoeing isn’t difficult, making it a very beginner-friendly activity.
Why You Should Try Snowshoeing
Snowshoeing is an easy-to-learn physical activity that will get you outside and moving during the winter season.
The gear costs less than other winter activities such as skiing and snowboarding, and snowshoeing doesn’t require any expensive lessons.
Generally, snowshoeing is less dangerous than other snow activities, so any age group or skill level can give it a whirl.
And the best reason of all: you can venture onto any of your favorite snow-covered trails that would otherwise be impassable with hiking boots!
How to Choose the Right Snowshoe
Before selecting your first pair of snowshoes, you’ll need to have an idea of where you plan to go, how much you and your gear weigh, and what type of snow you’ll be walking on.
Snowshoes with a larger deck are more suitable for powdery snow while snowshoes with a smaller deck work better in dense, hard-packed snow.
Heavier hikers will benefit from a larger deck while smaller decks will be suitable for lighter hikers with lighter gear.
If you are unsure of these specific details, get the smallest size that will support your weight.
Verify the weight requirements before purchasing your snowshoes, but for a general rule of thumb, this chart shows how to select the right snowshoe based on your combined body and gear weight!
|SNOWSHOE SIZE||GEAR + BODY WEIGHT COMBINED|
|19″||Up to 120 pounds|
|21″||Up to 150 pounds|
|25″||Up to 200 pounds|
|30″||Up to 250 pounds|
|36″||Up to 300 pounds|
If you’re a first-time snowshoer, and you’re unsure if the activity will be something you’ll want to do more than once, consider renting from REI retailers, local rental shops, or ski resorts. They will outfit you with the correct board for your weight and adventure for a relatively low cost.
If you are confident that snowshoeing will be something that you’ll love, or you are looking for recommendations on a new pair, here are some great snowshoe choices!
- Retrospec Drifter for Men & Women – Budget option. This is the pair I own! Super affordable and lightweight.
- MSR Evo Trail Snowshoes for Men & Women – Mid-range option.
- Tubbs Mountaineer Snowshoes for Women – Top-rated option. If you want to look and feel like a professional from the beginning, go with these!
Where to Snowshoe
Any trail that you hike in the summer, fall, and spring seasons will typically transition into viable snowshoe trails.
If there are 6 inches of snow on the ground (or more), snowshoes become necessary. If there are less than 6 inches of snow, consider wearing a pair of microspikes instead and just hike the trail!
Sno-parks, winter parks, or ski resorts are good places to start for beginners. These parks almost always require a fee or trail pass, but the trails will be groomed and well-marked.
If you are a beginner, try to choose a trail that is groomed and heavily trafficked. That way, you won’t be the first person to cut the trail, and if something happens, you’ll likely run into someone who can help you.
AllTrails, Facebook groups, blog posts, and assistance from your local REI employee are all good references for selecting your first (or next) snowshoeing location.
What to Wear Snowshoeing
When snowshoeing, warmth and comfort are key. Since modern snowshoes are usually adjustable and compatible with just about any shoe or boot, you can wear your regular waterproof hiking boots! Pair those with Darn Tough socks to ensure that you stay dry.
Snowshoeing Packing List
- Trekking poles with snow baskets attached
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Merino wool socks
- Merino wool gloves
- Merino wool hat
- Merino wool neck gaiter
- Microspikes >>> If the trail turns to ice.
- The 10 Essentials!
- Avalanche safety gear like a beacon, probe, and shovel >>> ONLY if you’re going to be in the backcountry and/or an avalanche zone!
Share the Trails
Occasionally you might find yourself sharing the trails with cross-country skiers. Do not step on ski tracks; you are allowed to step off-trail when they are covered in snow.
Walk single-file on shared trails to avoid ruining the smooth skate-skiing surface. Skiers have the right-of-way on shared trails since snowshoers move slower and can safely step out of the way.
Read and Follow Trail Signs
Some places such as ski resorts and winter parks often have specially marked trails for snowshoers. Always follow signs and avoid snowmobiling and skiing trails when possible.
If you find yourself on a snowmobile or a shared ski trail, always give the snowmobile, skier, and groomer the right-of-way and safely let them pass.
Follow Leave No Trace
As always, when you’re outdoors, it’s crucial to follow the Leave No Trace principles. Pack out your trash; leave only your snowshoe prints.
Research Ahead of Time
To avoid any unexpected surprises such as closures or restrictions, always do your research ahead of time.
Never enter a fee area without paying and make sure you are following all rules.
Snowshoeing For Beginners: How to Snowshoe on Different Terrain
Snowshoeing on Flat Terrain
When snowshoeing on flat terrain, the technique is quite similar to hiking. The only difference is that your stride should be a bit wider to prevent your snowshoes from colliding.
Your hips and groin muscles will ache on your first adventure; this is normal, don’t worry!
When snowshoeing uphill, utilize those toe crampons located underneath the deck to gain traction. Use your trekking poles to boost yourself forward and gain momentum.
If you’re ascending a decent-sized hill or slope, consider using the heel life feature that comes with most snowshoes. Simply lift it up to hold your foot at an angled position so that you don’t have to work so hard for every step.
When snowshoeing downhill, keep your poles in front of you, your knees bent and relaxed, and your body weight slightly back. Plant your heel first when you walk to avoid tumbling down the hill.
On a steep slope, you may never use your toe because you might fall forward. If you find yourself slipping, sit down.
If you can’t gain enough momentum to stand back up on the hill, consider carefully gliding down the trail on your butt. Watch out for tree roots or other obstacles that might be hidden beneath the snow!
And if you do take a fall, don’t worry; you will land on snow, so it’ll soften the blow.
→ READ NEXT: Tips for Winter Hikes and Road Trips ❄️
How to Use Trekking Poles While Snowshoeing
Though they are not required to perform this physical activity, I highly recommend using trekking poles when snowshoeing. Trekking poles help you maintain your balance, offload leg strain, and transfer the effort to your arms.
Use adjustable trekking poles so that you can make the poles longer when going downhill and shorter when going uphill.
How to Avoid Falling and What to Do if You Tumble
The most common way that snowshoers tumble is on the descent or simply by tripping over their shoe decks.
To avoid falling, extend your poles on any descent, don’t over-swing your leg, and keep your weight back.
To avoid tripping, keep your stride wide, and watch your step anytime you have to break your stride, turn around, or backtrack.
If you start to slip, sit down. If the hill is too steep and you don’t want to continue snowshoeing to the bottom, glissade down the rest of the hill carefully.
If you take a tumble, use your poles to help guide you back up, and if you’ve fallen on a descent, keep your weight back to avoid snowballing further down the hill. Turn your head upslope and push up like you’re going back uphill. It’ll feel awkward having clown feet at first, but you’ll get used to it. Soon, you’ll be a pro at not only snowshoeing but standing back up after a fall!
Safety Tips for Snowshoeing
Hike With Others
Avoid hiking alone especially if you’re in avalanche territory. I’d recommend beginners stay on groomed trails where help is nearby.
Let Someone Know Where You’ll Be
Always share your itinerary with someone who isn’t going on the trip. That way, if you’re not where you’re supposed to be, someone will be able to call for help.
Carrying a satellite phone is also helpful for communicating with loved ones. It even has a handy-dandy SOS button should you need to press it.
Bring the 10 Essentials
The amount of gear might seem unnecessary, especially if you are in a groomed area like a ski resort, but believe me, they are called essential for a reason. You never know what could happen when recreating outdoors!
Know the Potential Hazards
If you’re on a backcountry trail, be aware of what dangers could be lurking beneath the snow, such as creek crossings or fallen trees. Understand avalanche risks and weather threats and research current conditions before you go. Carry an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel if you are in the backcountry, and know how to use all of those things.
Groomed trails in ski resorts and state parks are usually very well-marked, so maps can seem unnecessary. But if you are planning to venture into the backcountry, always carry a topographic map, compass, and GPS to navigate your route. I personally use the Gaia GPS app to navigate and track my route and carry the Garmin inReach Mini in case of an emergency.
Layers are crucial to survival in the winter. Carry extra clothes and socks in case yours gets wet from exertion or weather. Understand the signs of hypothermia so you can avoid it and treat it if necessary.
You can read more about hypothermia in my Ice Safety Tips For Outdoor Activities Guide! 🥶
In the cold weather, I find myself drinking very little water. This is super dangerous for the human body! Drinking water in the winter is just as important as it is in the summer. Why? Your body needs water for muscle function and to fend off hypothermia.
TIP: Drink from an insulated bottle to keep your water from freezing into an ice cube 🧊 OR wrap your regular bottle in a wool sock. 🧦
Leave No Trace
As I mentioned earlier in the post, always leave no trace when recreating outdoors. I am going to share with you some tips on how to Leave No Trace that specifically relate to snowshoeing! ⤵️
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Do your research ahead of time. Know what park or area you will be snowshoeing, and know what trails you will be venturing onto so that you are properly prepared. Consult with paper and electronic maps to help you plan your route.
Understand avalanche risk if you are going into the backcountry. Know what an avalanche is, how to avoid it, and what to do if you find yourself in one. Bring all of the avalanche tools and know how to use them.
Check the weather and current conditions before you head out. Call the ranger station, ski resort office, or park headquarters to find out what the roads and trails look like so you can be fully prepared, both with your vehicle and gear.
Know what permits, reservations, or fees are required before you go. Never enter a fee area without paying, and never enter a permitted or reserved area without a permit or reservation.
Let a friend or family member know your itinerary so someone is always aware of your whereabouts.
Take a backcountry travel course and avalanche safety course before heading into the backcountry for the first time.
Never visit the backcountry alone. Travel with at least one other person.
Repackage your food into reusable containers to avoid trash accidentally blowing onto the trails.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Stay on groomed trails wherever possible. Only venture off-trail if the snow is deep enough. Never trample on exposed vegetation or fragile plants that are off-trail.
If you are camping when backcountry snowshoeing, always find a durable surface to camp on like rock or snow.
Hike and camp away from avalanche paths.
Camp out of sight of heavily trafficked trails.
Camp at least 200 feet from any natural water source. Consult your map if you are having trouble locating what water sources might be underneath the snow.
Dispose of Waste Properly
Pack out all of your trash. Everything that you pack in must leave with you. “Pack it in. Pack it out.”
Pack out human waste if the area mandates it. If you are in an area that doesn’t require this, you can dig a 6-inch hole under the snow (so that when the snow melts, someone doesn’t stumble upon it) and re-fill the hole with dirt or rocks after pooping.
After camping, pick up after yourself and leave the site better than you found it. Verify that you didn’t leave any scraps, wrappers, or any other litter behind.
Any hygiene wipes or toilet paper that you use must be packed out. Do not bury these in holes.
Leave What You Find
Don’t take any souvenirs.
Don’t build or dismantle cairns.
Don’t alter trail markings or other signage.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Always consult with a ranger to get up-to-date information on fire bans. Though wildfires aren’t as much of a threat in the winter months, fire bans still occur in many places throughout the country.
To avoid the need for a campfire, bring a portable stove with you. Aside from cooking meals, you can use your stove to boil water for some much-needed hot tea and coffee to keep you warm on the trails!
If you must build a campfire, use downed wood. Never cut wood from live trees. Make sure the ashes cool completely and put out the fire entirely before vacating the site.
→ READ NEXT: Campfire Safety Tips 🔥
Contrary to what many people believe, some wildlife is still very active in the winter! Keep a wide distance between you and them, and never approach them.
Do not feed wildlife, and do not leave scraps behind for them to eat later. Hundreds of bears have had to be put down over the years because campers fed them once, and they continue to come back for more, causing danger to the new campers.
Consult with a ranger before your adventure to see if your food, trash, and scented products need to be kept in a bear canister.
Be Considerate of Others
Regardless of whether you are in the backcountry or at a ski resort, you need to be respectful of those around you. Avoid yelling and talking loudly.
The woods are really quiet in the winter. Do what you can to ensure that it stays that way by keeping your voices low. Listen to the snow falling, the branches crackling, and the brave wildlife scurrying through the powdery snow.
Properly yield to skiers and snowmobilers by stepping off of the trail.
Throw a hand up in a wave or toss a friendly “hello” to keep the mood lively.
Avoid snowshoeing on ski and snowmobile trails. If they are shared trails, don’t step on ski tracks.
If you need to stop, step off the trail. Never block the trail.
Ensure that dogs are allowed on the trail. If they are, don’t let your dog off the leash.
I hope this beginner’s guide to snowshoeing helped you understand the basics of snowshoeing and compelled you to give it a try!
No matter what you decide to do this winter, make sure you spend plenty of time outdoors! Fresh air, physical exertion, and nature’s welcoming presence are all crucial to your overall mental and physical health.