The Beginner's Complete Guide to Snowshoeing

When the snow starts to fall, one of the best ways to continue your photography adventures in the backcountry is by snowshoe.

If you spend most of the winter hibernating (I used to!), you are missing out on an amazing opportunity to photograph spectacular winter landscapes.

If you’ve never been snowshoeing and are looking to get started, or if you are relatively new to the activity and want to learn more, this guide is for you.

Here you will learn:

Guide to Snowshoeing

What is Snowshoeing and Why Should You Try It?

Snowshoeing is a winter activity that is almost the same thing as hiking.

If you can walk, you can snowshoe.

The only major difference between snowshoeing and hiking is that snowshoeing involves hiking over snow while wearing snowshoes.

Snowshoes are a special type of winter gear for your feet that allows you to walk on deep snow by distributing your weight over a greater surface area.

This allows you to walk over deep snow without sinking in.

Think of snowshoes as floatation devices for your hiking boots.

Snowshoes also give you better traction than hiking boots alone.

When you are equipped with the right set of snowshoes, you will be able to explore hiking trails that would otherwise be inaccessible due to snow.

Why You Should Try Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is one of the best ways to explore the backcountry, especially if you are a landscape photographer or someone simply seeking solitude in the wintertime.

Not only will it help you avoid the busy ski resorts and tourist filled crowds, but it is also a great way to maintain your hiking fitness for your summer adventures.

To top it off, it's extremely easy to learn and won’t break the bank in terms of gear you will need.

All you need is a pair of snowshoes and some basic skills to get started.

When You Need to Wear Snowshoes for Winter Hiking

Before you find the perfect snowshoes and take them out for an adventure, it helps to know if you need them in the first place.

The truth is, when you are out hiking in the snow, you don’t always need to wear snowshoes.

If the snow you are trekking over is packed down and doesn’t sink more than an inch or so when you step on it, then you probably don’t need snowshoes.

However, if you are walking over unbroken snow and the snow comes up to the top of your boots when you step down, you are better off using snowshoes.

For hard packed snow, you may not even need any gear on your feet to hike over the snow.

For icy, hilly terrain, consider other winter traction devices such as microspikes or crampons instead of snowshoes.

How to Choose the Right Snowshoes

Once you understand the different functions for each component of a snowshoe, you be able to make a more informed decision about which snowshoe is right for you.

There are six main variables that you should take into consideration when choosing a snowshoe. Ranked from most to least important, they include:

  1. Terrain
  2. Quality of snow
  3. Your total weight (including pack weight)
  4. Your speed
  5. Your foot size
  6. Your gender

Terrain

The type of snowshoe you choose will largely depend on the type of terrain that you plan on snowshoeing across.

There are three different types of terrain that should be taken into account during your decision making process:

  • Flat Terrain: For flat terrain, a minimal crampon (i.e. just a toe crampon) is usually enough. Snowshoes with fixed or minimally rotating pivot points are best. These are the most simple snowshoes and recommended for beginners.
  • Rolling Terrain: Choose snowshoes with a rotating pivot point and moderately aggressive crampons.
  • Steep Terrain: Choose snowshoes with a more aggressive crampons and a rotating pivot point. Also, opt for smaller snowshoes (unless the snow is powdery - see next section) as these are easier to walk in on steep slopes. Some models come with heel lifters so take the strain off of your calves. These are the most expensive snowshoes and not recommended for beginners.

Quality of Snow

The type of snow that you plan on encountering on your trips will affect the size of the snowshoe you choose.

There are two general types of snow you will encounter:

  • Deep, powdery snow: If you plan on trekking over this type of snow choose larger, longer snowshoes. Snowshoes with a large decking will distribute your weight over a large surface area and increase flotation of the snow.
  • Shallow, densely packed snow: For this type of snow, you will not have to worry as much about flotation. Choose snowshoes with a smaller decking because they are easier to walk in.

Total Weight

Your total weight, meaning your body weight combined your pack and other gear weight, need to be taken into consideration in order to avoid sinking into the snow.

The heavier your total weight, the larger the snowshoe you will need.

Greater decking will provide more surface area to distribute weight and create sufficient flotation on snow.

The best way to determine the right snowshoe for your weight is to look at the recommended weight range designated by the manufacturer. This should be on the snowshoe’s packaging.

Most weight recommendations are divided into only two loads: 190lbs and below, and 190lbs and above.

As long as your total weight is not heavier than the snowshoes’ recommended load, you should be fine.

Speed

Depending on how fast you plan on snowshoeing, the shape and weight of your snowshoe will become important factors.

For faster walkers or runners:

  • Snowshoes that taper toward the back will be easier to move quickly in and are better for runners.
  • Choose snowshoes made with lightweight materials, such as ones with aluminum frames.

For moderate to slow walkers:

  • Snowshoes that are more oval shaped and heavier are better for walkers not concerned about speed.
  • These shoes are usually more affordable.

Foot Size

While most snowshoes will allow you to adjust the bindings to fit a wide range of shoe sizes for a single pair of snowshoes, you may find that some snowshoes come in different shoe sizes.

Usually these are general shoe size ranges such as small or large.

If a snowshoe is designed for a specific shoe size, you will see it designated on the packaging.

When choosing a snowshoe that fits your foot size, make sure that the bindings securely hold your shoe/boot so that you foot doesn’t slide or move around in the binding.

Also, make sure that the bindings don’t rub or pinch your foot, as this could cause blisters and pain.

Always wear the boots you plan on snowshoeing in when trying on snowshoes to make sure they fit the bindings correctly.

Gender

Snowshoes come in men’s, women’s, and unisex variations.

While there is not much of a difference between these categories, women’s specific snowshoes are generally narrower and come in shorter sizes than men’s or unisex variations.

Narrower, shorter snowshoes are typically easier to walk in and sufficiently buoyant on snow for smaller bodied people, which is why these adjustments are made for women.

Women’s specific bindings may also be narrower and smaller to better accommodate smaller feet.

Final Tips for Choosing Your First Snowshoes

Here are a few guidelines that will help you avoid wasting time and money when choosing your first pair of snowshoes.

  • If you have the option, rent your first pair of snowshoes before buying them. Ideally, rent the pair you are interested in purchasing. This will help you figure out the best snowshoe for you before spending your money on the wrong pair.
  • Beginners should start snowshoeing on flat or mostly flat terrain. Simple, flat terrain snowshoes are great to start with.

What to Wear: Layering for Winter Activities

Like for most other outdoor activities, the best way to dress for snowshoeing is to layer functional clothing suited for the environment, activity level, and other factors specific to you planned excursion.

The layering concept is a simple framework that will help you choose the best clothes to wear in the backcountry.

The “best” clothes to wear on an outdoor adventure are those that will help you regulate your body temperature within a comfortable, safe range (i.e. so you are not too cold or not too hot).

The basics of layering involves choosing three types of layers:

  1. Base Layer: This layer is designed to keep your skin dry by transporting, or “wicking”  sweat and moisture away from your skin.
  2. Middle Layer: This layer functions to insulate your body and prevent heat loss. Sometimes you may need more than one middle layers in very cold conditions.
  3. Outer Layer: Also called a shell, this layer is designed to protect you from the elements such as wind, rain, and snow.

A key aspect of winter layering is that your layering system must function to keep you dry.

It is critical that you stay dry in order to stay warm.

Water conducts heat away from your body 25 times faster than air, so you will lose body heat (your most precious resource while in the cold) very quickly if you are sweaty or get your clothes wet from melted snow or rain.

Hypothermia can strike within minutes if your body is wet and you are in very cold temperatures.

For this reason, the layers that you choose to wear snowshoeing should be designed to keep you dry by keeping moisture out and transferring sweat away from your body.

Here are some guidelines for choosing each type of layer for a day of snowshoeing:

Winter Base Layer

Synthetic fabrics (e.g. fleece) and wool are the best materials for your base and middle layers.

Synthetic materials dry quickly, and wool is a warm material that will keep you relatively warm even when you are wet.

Both of these fabrics wick moisture away from you body to keep you dry.

My all-time favorite winter base layers are the Smartwool 250 Crew, which I wear for my coldest trips where I know I will have a low to moderate intensity of activity, and the Smartwool Intraknit Merino 200 CrewBase Layer for days that I will have higher, more intense activity levels and I know I will be sweating a lot (e.g. a sweaty early morning hike up a 14er).

Winter Middle Layer

Synthetic fabrics, wool and down are the best materials used for winter middle layers because they are efficient at insulating body heat.

It is common for people to combine different types of layers made of different fabrics in order to find the “sweet spot” for regulating their body temperature.

Everyone and every trip is different, so it will take some time and experimentation to find which middle layers work best for you.

Based on my own personal experience, these are my all-time favorite middle layers (ranked from warmest to least warm):

  • Arc’teryx Cerium SV Hoody: This is an extremely warm and versatile jacket that is usually the only midlayer I ever need in very cold conditions.
  • Patagonia Nano Puff Insulated Hoodie: On warmer days and/or when I will be exerting a higher level of energy, I use this jacket instead of Arc’terxy Cerium. This is because it is synthetic (meaning it will dry relatively quickly) while still remaining light and very packable (like a down jacket). It is less insulated but still keeps you warm.
  • Patagonia R1 Pullover: This is an ideal layer to wear just above your base layer but under a down jacket. It is warm, synthetic, and extremely light. I wear this layer when I plan on exerting a high level of energy, such as running or climbing a mountain.
  • Patagonia R2 Jacket:  A slightly warmer version of the R1. I wear this layer over my base layer on colder days when I don’t plan on exerting a high level of energy.

Note: down is NOT ideal for wet conditions because it loses its ability to keep you warm when wet and it doesn’t dry easily. I would only recommend wearing down if:

  • You are in a high altitude environment where the air is very dry (like Colorado where I live).
  • You also have a waterproof shell (see next) to protect you if there is precipitation or other potential exposure of your down jacket to water.
  • You will not be significantly sweating (i.e. you don’t plan on sustaining a high level of activity for a long period of time).
  • Choose at least one middle layer that has a hood. I recommend that it is your warmest, outermost layer (e.g. your down jacket). This will give you the option to retain even more heat if necessary.

Additional Clothes to Wear

  • Warm fleece or wool beanie: You can lose a significant amount of heat through your head, so always have a warm hat with you.
  • Thick waterproof or water resistant gloves or mittens: Ski gloves work great for snowshoeing.
  • Neck gaiter: This will help your neck warm and give you the option to cover you nose and mouth if it it gets very windy and cold.
  • Sweat wicking hiking socks: Merino wool socks work great. I recommend Smartwool or Darn Tough socks. Always carry an extra in case your feet get wet because they probably will.

Snowshoeing Footwear

Snowshoes can accommodate virtually any type of footwear.

I’ve seen people snowshoe in everything from running shoes to cowboy boots (which I highly recommend against!), but there’s really only a few types of footwear that work best for snowshoeing.

Insulated winter boots or thick, sturdy hiking boots are the best shoes to wear for snowshoeing.

Ideally, you want your boots to be waterproof or water resistant.

You can waterproof the boots you already have with waterproofing solutions such as Nikwax Fabric and Leather Waterproofing for Footwear.

Final Tips for Layering in the Cold

  • Wear clothing that has zippers that allow you to vent body heat when necessary. Choose layers that zip down at least to the bottom of your neck or chest so that you can vent and release heat as the temperature and/or activity level rises.
  • Avoid getting sweaty by venting your clothes, reducing your activity level (i.e. slowing down or resting) and removing layers as necessary.
  • A waterproof, breathable hard shell is the best outer layer for winter sports because it will keep you dry from snow and allow moisture to escape from your body to the environment.
  • Carry a backpack big enough to hold your extra layers when you are heating up.

For more information on layering, check out my detailed guide to layering for outdoor activities here.

What Gear to Bring

Most of the gear you will bring snowshoeing will be the same gear that you already should be carrying while hiking.

In addition to the clothing described above, consider bringing the following pieces of gear with you:

  • The 10 essentials: In order to stay safe in an emergency (see “how to stay safe” below). Learn more about the 10 Essentials here.
  • Adjustable poles with snow baskets (optional, but recommended): poles help you keep your balance and let your upper body take some of the work away from your legs. Having adjustable length poles is necessary as you will need to make them shorter when going uphill and longer when you go down. When you are walking on flat terrain, adjust your poles so that your elbows are at a right angle.
  • Leg gaiters: These wrap around the lower part of your legs from your ankles to just under your knee. Gaiters are great to wear because they prevent snow from getting into your boots and they can protect your pants from getting torn up from crampons and other spikey winter traction footgear. Look for abrasion resistant gaiters (sometimes called “crocodile” gaiters) if you want the best protection from crampon damage to your legs. I wear these Outdoor Research Women’s Crocodile Gaiters and love them.
  • Camera and camera gear (if you plan on shooting): Learn about special considerations for winter photography here.

Before you head out the door for a day of snowshoeing, check out this complete snowshoeing day trip packing checklist, which you can view and download here:

How to Find the Best Places to Snowshoe

So where is the best place to go if you want to spend the day snowshoeing?

The answer is simple.

Pretty much any trail that is a hiking trail in the summer can be used as a snowshoe trail in the winter.

You can also find dedicated snowshoeing trails at ski resorts and parks.

I recommend using snowshoeing guidebooks (like this one), as these will provide you with the best snowshoe trails in the area you plan on adventuring in.

Hiking apps such as All Trails will also give you detailed info, including recent trail conditions, for popular winter hiking/snowshoeing trails.

Find a more heavily trafficked area and start with small mileage (2-3 miles).

For your first few snowshoeing trips, stick to relatively flat trails that are clearly established (i.e. the snow has already been broken).

On popular trails that see lots of snowshoers, the trail will be visible as packed snow. This is ideal, as it will help you follow the established trail and allow you navigate more easily.

You will also want to choose a day where the weather forecast is clear, as a snowstorm could seriously ruin your first trip.

Snowshoeing Techniques

As a beginner starting out on flat terrain, snowshoeing requires very little technical skill.

Snowshoeing on flat terrain is as simple as walking forward as you would without snowshoes.

You will likely, however, find yourself traveling over different types of terrain that will require you to use a few simple techniques.

The following is a brief introduction to the main techniques that will help you become more efficient at walking in snowshoes.

General Technique

In general, it will help you while walking to:

  • Lift your knees higher than you normally would since you will need to lift the entire snowshoe through your stride. The deeper the snow, the higher you will need to lift your knees and feet.
  • Keep your feet wider than you normally would, slightly wider than hip width distance apart.
  • Try to keep you feet parallel so that your snowshoes won't clip each other.
  • Avoid walking backwards - you might fall over if you do!

Standing Up

If you fall over, roll onto your stomach and then press yourself up so that your are on your hands and knees (i.e. table top position as its called in yoga).

Then, lift one foot under your body and shift your weight onto your standing foot. Bring your other foot parallel to your standing/weighted foot.

Turning

The easiest way to turn around is to walk in a small semi-circle.

To turn around in a smaller radius, lift one foot and rotate it 90 degrees. Then step your other foot parallel to the already turned foot. This will help you avoid clipping the back of your snowshoes when turning.

Going Uphill

When snowshoeing uphill, face forward toward the hill and step forward, placing the majority of each step in your toes so that the toe crampon grips the snow.

Also, it really helps to use your poles when going uphill so that your upper body can help you lift your weight forward.

When snowshoeing up a steeper slope, you can try two main techniques:

  • Side Stepping: For steep hills, approach the hill so that your body is perpendicular (i.e. sideways) to the incline. While keeping your feet parallel and your body perpendicular to the hill, step one foot up the hill. Then, step your other foot up just below your higher foot.
  • Kick Stepping: For steep hills covered in deep snow, raise one foot forward and kick your into the slope. Then shift your weight into that foot and step forward. The goal is to get your crampon to grab into the slope and create a shelf for the snowshoe and your weight to stabilize on. Repeat with the other foot.

Going Downhill

For for moderately steep hills, keep your body level (don’t lean forward or backward so that your shoulders are over your hips) and your knees bent. Keep your weight directly above your snowshoes or slightly into your heels.

Lengthen your poles and keep them in front of you to help you balance.

For steeper hills, you can you the side stepping technique mentioned above to go downhill.

Traversing

When snowshoeing across a slope, keep most of your weight on your uphill foot. Dig this uphill snowshoe into the slope so that you create a shelf to step on as you walk.

Adjust your poles so the the uphill pole is shorter than your downhill pole.

How to Stay Safe While Snowshoeing

One of the most important parts of learning how to snowshoe is understanding how to stay safe.

Winter presents a whole new set of safety concerns compared to summer, including the threat of hypothermia, limited water availability, and navigation in the snow.

The following sections included guidelines and special considerations that you should make as a beginner snowshoer.

Note: this is not a complete guide to safety in the backcountry. Use this information as a starting point. It is up to you to educate yourself about backcountry safety, as there is far more to learn than what is outlined below.

Bring a Friend

I recommend that you always snowshoe with a partner or group.

Especially as a beginner, you will be safer adventuring with people who are more experienced than you and can teach you along the way.

If you don’t have someone to snowshoe with, I recommend:

  • Hiring an experience outdoor guide.
  • Taking a tour or lesson from a local outdoor school.
  • Joining a local outdoor club that organizes snowshoe trips. meetup.com is a great resources for finding clubs and other people to adventure with.

Strengthen your Navigation Skills

It is very easy to get lost in snowy terrain where there is no broken trail.

After a recent snowfall, you probably won’t be able to see the trail, and it becomes much more difficult to visually navigate without a map, GPS, and/or compass.

It is extremely important that you become confident with your navigation skills.

I recommend reading my article on navigation and Wilderness Navigation by Bob and Mike Burns as a starting point.

If possible, sign up for a navigation course at a local outdoor school. A simple google search with your city name + “wilderness navigation course” should help you find one.

Then get outside and practice your navigation skills, ideally with someone more experienced in navigation who can help you.

Always carry a map and compass (that you know how to use), and ideally a GPS. For extra safety, carry an SOS device that communicates via satellite such as the Garmin inReach. These items are also part of the Ten Essentials (see next).

Carry the Ten Essentials

The Ten Essentials is a list of guidelines designed to help outdoor adventurers pack the key items of gear that would allow them to survive to survive if you were forced due to an emergency to spend at least one night outside.

The Ten Essentials include:

  • Navigation
  • Headlamp
  • Sun Protection
  • First Aid
  • Knife
  • Fire
  • Shelter
  • Extra Food
  • Extra Water
  • Extra Clothes

I encourage you to check out my detailed guide called The 10 Essentials: Gear You Need to Survive a Backcountry Emergency to learn more about The Ten Essentials are and how to choose them for your trip.

It is worth mentioning again that one of the most important essentials is water.

When planning how much water to bring and potentially filter, take into account that water freezes in cold environments.  

In the wintertime, sources of natural water available for treatment are often limited because they are frozen in the form of ice and snow.

For this reason, I recommend carrying a lightweight backpacking stove with you during the winter so that you can melt and boil snow in the event that you run out of water.

You can learn more about special guidelines for water treatment in the winter in my water treatment guide here.

Learn to Prevent Hypothermia

Spending time outdoors for prolonged periods of time puts you at a high risk of hypothermia if you are not prepared.

Hypothermia can be a serious, life-threatening emergency if you succumb to it in the backcountry.

Learn how to layer properly (see What to Wear section above) so that you stay warm and dry in varying weather, temperatures, and activity levels.

As mentioned previously, your body loses heat 25 times faster when your skin is wet.

Avoid getting your clothes sweaty or wet from snow, and learn how to layer properly in order to keep your skin dry.

Also, and cary extra clothes just in case they do get wet (see the Ten Essentials).

It is important to learn the signs of hypothermia. Some of the signs include:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion/extreme tiredness
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion

Learn more about the signs of hypothermia and how to prevent it here.

Avoid Dehydration

In the winter, you will likely find it harder to drink water.

At the same time, your body will lose a lot of water through sweat, wind, dry air, altitude and other factors.

Avoid dehydration by drinking about a half a liter of water per hour. As long as your pee is pale yellow, your are likely properly hydrated.

Learn Avalanche Safety

I recommend NOT snowshoeing in avalanche country if you are a beginner.

If you do eventually plan on venturing into avalanche prone backcountry, you should take an avalanche safety course at your local outdoor school or REI.

Always carry and learn how to use an avalanche beacon, probe and a shovel, and check the avalanche forecast (like this one) of the area you plan on snowshoeing in.  

Summary of Key Points

  • Snowshoeing is a great way to get winter exercise and will allow you to continue your landscape photography backcountry adventures throughout the winter.
  • There are many factors that go into choosing the right pair of snowshoes, including the terrain and type of snow you will encounter.
  • Wear warm, waterproof boots.
  • Learn how to dress in functional layers in order to stay warm in varying temperatures and activity levels.
  • Avoid letting your body get wet from sweat, snow, or precipitation in order to prevent the rapid loss of body heat.
  • Basic snowshoeing techniques such as sidestepping and quickstepping will help you navigate terrain more efficiently.
  • Educate yourself on backcountry safety.
  • Always carry The 10 Essentials and take the necessary safety precautions while snowshoeing in order to avoid an emergency such as getting hypothermia or running out of water.
  • Review this checklist before heading out for a day of snowshoeing to be sure you remember to bring everything you need.

Anatomy of a Snowshoe

Before you begin searching for the right snowshoes for your winter adventures, it helps to have an understanding of how snowshoes are built.

All snowshoes have the following five components in common:

  1. Frame
  2. Decking
  3. Binding
  4. Pivot Point
  5. Crampons

Each of these components will vary in form and function from one shoe to another.

The variation of each component that you choose will depending on factors such as your weight and type of terrain you plan on encountering,

Read on to learn what you need to know about each of them.

Frame

The frame consists of a hard material that wraps around the outer margin of the snowshoe and provides it’s structural support. Typically made of plastic, aluminum, or sometimes wood, the frame comes in two main shapes:

  • Oval: oval shaped frames are provide the best flotation on top of snow.
  • Asymmetric:  asymmetric frames have a tapered tail at the back. This type of snowshoe allows you to walk more easily, but provides less flotation capability than an oval shaped frame.

Decking

The material used to line the area inside of the frame is called the decking. The decking creates the surface area within the frame that disperse your weight across the surface allows you to float on top of snow.

The larger the decking, the more floatation capacity the snowshoe will have. Therefore:

  • larger deckings are harder to walk in but better for heavier people and softer, powdery snow.
  • smaller deckings are easier to walk in and better for lighter people and more densely packed snow.

Decking can be made out of a hard (e.g. plastic) or or soft material (e.g. nylon).

Binding

The binding is what attaches the snowshoe to your boot. Most basic bindings consist of a flat base that goes under your boot and straps that go over and behind your boot.

Bindings lock your foot into proper alignment in order to maximize your walking efficiency.

They are designed to go over any type of footwear, but usually work best with sturdy boots.

A binding that doesn’t hold your foot well will make walking more cumbersome and cause you to waste energy.

Binding come in many forms and range from simple nylon, plastic, and velcro straps to more complex ratcheting systems.

Pivot Point

The part of the snowshoe where the binding attaches to the frame is called the pivot point.

There are two main types of pivot points:

  • Fixed: a fixed pivot point attaches the entire binding to the deck so that your boot doesn’t move much in relation to the rest of the snowshoe. These are best for flat terrain.
  • Rotating: a rotating pivot point allows the binding to rotate near the ball of your foot. This allows your heel to lift up while the decking stays relatively level, or neutral, to the ground. This type of pivot point is better if you are snowshoeing up steep slopes.

Crampons

On the bottom of a snowshoe you will find metal teeth, or spikes, called crampons.

Crampons are designed to grip snow and ice so that you have plenty of traction.

The placement and size of the crampons on a snowshoe will vary depending on the type of terrain it is being used for.

The most basic snowshoes have a single toe crampon near the ball of your foot. More technical snowshoes have extensive, more aggressive crampons in order to deal with the terrain.