If the idea of hiking or trail running during Utah’s winters conjures up visions of soggy shoes, frozen faces and fingers, bad roads, and few nearby accessible routes, you’re not alone. But if this impression is keeping you in hibernation until spring, then it’s time for a perspective change.
Snowshoeing makes your favorite trails accessible when snow covers them, usually more than six months of the year in the Mountain West. Be they remote or convenient, breathtaking, challenging, or simply familiar, these mountain retreats let you escape the mundane and take time for reflection, mental relaxation, and physical exercise. And winter weather is no reason to stop frequenting them. For snowshoe runners and hikers, winter is the time when the trailheads empty, and those familiar, warm-weather haunts become new worlds to explore.
When we said snowshoes, we didn’t mean the wood-framed, rawhide-latticed monstrosities of your grandfather’s generation. Today’s sleek, lightweight aluminum-framed, fabric-decked beauties are simple to use and let you float in almost any snow conditions.
How do snowshoes work?
Remember when you hiked a mountain early last spring and nearly got turned back by snow before reaching the top? On the flats and in the forest you sank to your hips because your feet didn’t have enough surface area to keep you on top of the snow. And when you finally reached the steep climb to the summit, you had to kick steps just to keep yourself from sliding down the face.
Snowshoes address both these issues. Whether used for hiking or running, snowshoes effectively increase the surface area of your foot, meaning they increase the amount of snow available to bear your weight as you walk across it. Also, most snowshoes are equipped with metal cleats, called crampons, that dig into steep snow or soft ice to reduce the effort needed to climb. Pack a pair of snowshoes on your next spring trip up the mountain, and expect a very different experience.
What gear should I buy?
Think you’re ready to make this growing sport your own? You’re getting in at the right time. Advances in design and materials technology have made it possible to create snowshoes tailored for virtually any kind of cross-country travel in winter. Hiking snowshoes tend to be larger and have more aggressive crampons for climbing and sidestepping on steep terrain. Running snowshoes, on the other hand, have a narrow design to prevent the snowshoes from getting tangled up and causing the runner to fall.
If you’re already a skier or snowboarder, or even if you get outside just enough to build a few snowmen every year, the only thing you’ll really need to buy is a pair of snowshoes. Your weight and the terrain you plan to visit will determine the size of snowshoes you’ll need.
Heavier hikers or those wishing to visit backcountry areas and seldom-used trails will require a bigger shoe to account for softer, deeper snow. Lighter hikers or those who plan to spend most of their time on the groomed trails at ski resorts or on packed trails frequented by other snowshoers should consider smaller models. If you plan to wear a pack while hiking, figure your weight while wearing it before deciding what length of snowshoes to buy.
Because snowshoe runners usually train and race on more packed snow, running snowshoes tend to come in a much smaller range of sizes. Before making any snowshoe purchase, consult an experienced snowshoe hiker or your local outdoor retailer for help in picking the right shoe. Most models work with virtually any kind of footwear, though something warm and water resistant is best.
If you aren’t ready to commit your cash to new snowshoe gear, consider renting. Local retailers like REI, Kirkhams, or Recreation Outlet rent snowshoes by the day. Renting is a great way to check out the activity before you make the leap to full-fledged snowshoemanship.
What should I take with me on the trail?
A little trial and error is in order for all snowshoers as they discover what works best for them. As a general rule, hikers should dress in warm layers that can be removed or put back on as needed. Runners should dress as they would for any winter run, keeping in mind the need to protect their feet and lower legs from snow. Moisture management is key.
And just because it’s cold outside, don’t neglect to take plenty of fluids with you, as much as you would need during a hike or run any other time of year. If you don’t mind the weight, a thermos filled with something hot is nice to sip on when you get cold. Snacks are also good for keeping your energy up. You’ll need to refuel on most treks because your body burns more calories snowshoeing than it does hiking. (This also makes snowshoeing a great winter fitness activity.)
So don’t let a little snow keep you indoors and away from your favorite trails, or even new ones, this winter. Strap on a pair of snowshoes, and get out there! You’ll be glad you did.
Favorite Snowshoeing gear picks
Atlas Race Snowshoe
For competitive runners who want the best performance, and don’t mind paying extra for it, Atlas’ redesigned Race snowshoe is the perfect choice. It’s the lightest running snowshoe on earth (just over two pounds) and feels virtually weightless underfoot. Crafted out of lightweight titanium and aluminum, this well-designed model promotes an efficient, natural stride. The bindings lock your foot in place to maintain balance on unstable terrain while the Spring-Loaded™ Suspension gives extra bounce to keep you ahead of the competition. The Race offers good float, even in a few inches of fresh snow. $320, 2 lbs 3 oz, atlassnowshoe.com –Jenny Willden
Kahtoola RNR22 Snowshoe
Pure and simple, Kahtoola’s RNR22 is made for running on snow so that you don’t have to miss out on your favorite trails when the mercury drops. The RNR’s lightweight aluminum frame with neoprene decking performs equally well on groomed trails or pre-broken singletrack. Like other running snowshoes, it’s not ideally suited for fresh powder, but it can adequately cut a trail with a little extra effort. The RNR22 tracks beautifully, requiring no adjustment to normal running stride. Wingspan, available on all Kahtoola snowshoes, allows you to customize the fit to your shoe. $239, 2 lbs 13 oz, kahtoola.com –Aaron Lovell
Kahtoola MTN28 Snowshoe
Kahtoola’s MTN28 hikes backcountry powder like many of its competitors. It prevents you having to kick step your way up a mountain slope or post hole through the woods. 28 inches of decking (also available in 24-in. model) float well on fresh powder and churn up the miles on a packed trail. But that’s where the similarities end. The MTN28 is the only snowshoe on the market with Skyhook, a step-in binding with a detachable, adjustable-width 8-point crampon. That’s right, on hard-pack or ice, you can wear the hikeable crampon on your boots while the snowshoe decks are strapped comfortably to your pack. When you hit soft snow, just step into the decks and violá! $289, 4 lbs 6 oz, kahtoola.com –Aaron Lovell
Vasque Snow Junkie Ultradry Boots
This high-top winter boot is perfect for your backcountry snowshoe adventures. Two hundred grams of 3M Thinsulate insulation and UltraDry waterproofing keep warmth in and moisture out. A small D-ring at the bottom of the laces keeps leg gaiters in place. Great for all-day treks, short hikes, or shoveling the driveway. $130, vasque.com –Aaron Lovell