Snowshoeing Basics (Part 1): Introduction to Snowshoes

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen

Snowshoes, or some version of them, have been around for thousands of years. For most people today, however, their use is less about survival and more for recreation. And even though the technology used in the design of contemporary snowshoes is superior to those of antiquity, the goal is the same – enable a person to travel efficiently and effectively over snow-covered terrain. Although the basic operation of traveling in snowshoes is relatively simple (pick up your knees and widen your stance a little), there are always considerations to take into account when traveling in snow country. Knowing how to use the tools at hand (or on foot!) is paramount for a safe and enjoyable journey. Therefore, in this Snowshoeing Basics series of articles and videos, I will share with you various concepts related to snowshoeing, ranging from their design and construction to movement and technique.

Snowshoeing is an easy and accessible way for nearly anyone to enjoy the great outdoors during winter. Clearly, it’s always a good idea to engage in strenuous physical activity only after you’ve achieved some baseline athletic level of fitness. With snowshoes, though, you can regulate your speed and the amount of effort you exert quite easily as there’s no gliding or sliding involved (as with cross-country skiing). Stop if you get tired. Continue marching when you’ve rested. All bets are off, however, when you’re attempting to travel through more than a foot of fresh snow – it’s a challenge no matter how good of shape you’re in. But if you pace yourself, you’ll be fine.

When doing winter photography with my more expensive DSLR camera, I prefer traveling in snowshoes rather than cross-country skis. They’re more stable, which lessens my risk of falling and burying my camera in the snow. Also, because travel is slower in snowshoes compared to cross-country skis, I tend to notice more details that I may otherwise miss if I were zooming by on skis. As a (former) backcountry snowboarder, I used to climb to the tops of snow-capped mountains in snowshoes and then strap them to my backpack and ride down. Admittedly, I also use snowshoes for packing down the mountains of snow that collect around my driveway and walkways at home during Snowpocalypse years (such as the Lake Tahoe winters of 2016-17 and 2018-19). Snowshoes are, after all, just tools (albeit mostly for adventure).

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
Wall to wall snow at Lake Tahoe on February 15, 2019. © Jared Manninen

Anatomy of a Snowshoe:

There are a million-and-one different styles of snowshoes in circulation, so there’s no point in me trying to cover them all. Instead, I’ll cover some basic concepts with regard to their design and construction in order to help you gain a better understanding of them. I will then expand upon these topics at a later date.

  • Bindings
    • As far as I’m concerned, bindings are the most critical component of any snowshoe. In fact, my only real litmus test for a snowshoe is whether or not I’d be able to quickly and efficiently release my feet from the bindings with one hand if I were trapped upside down in a deep tree well. I understand that this sounds morbid and extreme, but there is really no other consideration when looking at snowshoe bindings. Assuming the snowshoes have been built by a reputable company (MSR, Atlas, or Tubbs, for example), the bindings aren’t going to tear apart or let your boot slip out of them. They’re going to work just fine. And, obviously, it’s important that the boot you’ll wear when snowshoeing fits properly in the bindings, and that you don’t experience rubbing or chafing from the bindings when walking. However, you’re only real concern is that you can take those snowshoes off with the least amount of effort in the most dangerous of situations. Generally speaking, the more complex a binding looks, the more challenging it will be to get out of. For this reason, I prefer snowshoes that feature basic rubber straps.
    • A complexly designed binding will probably be more difficult to repair in the field, whereas basic straps could easily be replaced (at least for the short term) with paracord that you have on hand.
    • Most snowshoe bindings will have their buckles located on the outside of the bindings to decrease the chance you’ll accidently undo the bindings while walking. As much as I appreciate the concept behind this idea, it’s actually easier to undo the bindings in my worst case scenario (described above) when the buckles are on the inside. Reaching down directly between your feet to access both bindings is easier than trying to reach the outside of either of them (especially if you only have one hand available).
    • The pivot point of a snowshoe binding will either be made of a rubber-type strap or metal bar. I prefer the softer style that uses a strap as it allows for a more natural gait when I walk.
Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
It doesn’t get much more basic than this when it comes to snowshoe bindings. Note the three stems poking out from the three rubber straps (lower half of photo). Also note that these “buckles” are actually on the inside of the binding, which is opposite of most snowshoes on the market. Generally snowshoe bindings feature the buckles on the outside so that you don’t accidentally undo them while walking. So, reading between the lines, you should have deduced that there is an actual left and right snowshoe. © Jared Manninen
  • Crampons
    • All snowshoes feature some type of crampons located under the balls of the feet and heels. To what degree of aggressiveness will those crampons be is a matter of function. A snowshoe with the least aggressive crampon will be geared toward light use and minimal recreation. At the opposite end of the spectrum will be snowshoes that not only feature an aggressive set of crampons underfoot, but their rails will also be serrated.
Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
This pair of Atlas brand snowshoes feature an aggressive crampon system complete with fully serrated rails along the frame. Also note that on this pair of snowshoes the buckles are actually on the inside of the bindings (see the stems poking out of the straps on this right footed snowshoe?). And, no, I’m not buried upside down in the snow for this photo. © Jared Manninen
  • Frames and Decking
    • The frames of traditional snowshoes were made using natural materials such as branches or shaped wood, while the decking was usually formed by a latticework made from a sinewy material such as rawhide. Today, most frames are made from lightweight metal such as aluminum. The decking is either constructed from a soft and pliable material like nylon or vinyl or a much more rigid sheet of plastic.
    • Soft and pliable decking provides great floatation while snowshoeing, but can be susceptible to punctures and tears. Avoid walking over brush, fallen branches, and other sharp objects with snowshoes that feature soft decking material. Rigid plastic decking decreases the amount of torsion the snowshoe will experience, meaning that the snowshoe won’t bend and twist nearly as readily as one with a soft decking. This makes for better energy transfer and more purchase. That said, rigid decking can still crack or rip under the right circumstances.
  • Sizing
    • Snowshoes are sized according to your weight. So, don’t forget to include the weight of your clothes and whatever other winter gear you’ll be carrying when snowshoeing. Smaller snowshoes are easier to manage, but if you’re weight is relative to your size (i.e. you’re not 10 feet tall and weigh 100 lbs. or 3 feet tall and weigh 300 lbs.) whatever snowshoe designed for your weight shouldn’t be difficult to operate.
Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
Anatomy of a Snowshoe Diagram: Please note that this particular model of snowshoe does not feature a heel lift. Also, it’s difficult to accurately point them out, but the main crampon essentially features teeth that go around the perimeter of the ball of the foot. © 2019 Jared Manninen

Footwear for Snowshoeing:

Finding appropriate footwear for use when snowshoeing can actually be a bit of a challenge. I know many people who live in snow country that don’t own a dedicated athletic snow boot. Instead, they have either heavy-duty hiking boots or a Sorel-type snow boot. Although you can use either when snowshoeing, I prefer an actual snow boot designed for use during aerobic winter activities. Don’t get me wrong, I have a pair of Sorels that I’ve owned since 1996, and they’re fantastic when I’m shoveling or blowing snow from my driveway. However, they’re too soft and bulky for me when traveling deep into the snowy backcountry on snowshoes.

My snow boot of choice is the Salomon brand Snowtrip winter boot (the boot used in the Anatomy of a Snowshoe diagram above), which is no longer available. Fortunately I bought a second pair before they were discontinued. The reason I like them so much is because they’re streamlined enough to fit into any snowshoe binding, firm enough to provide some structure when married with a snowshoe binding, but soft enough that my foot can move naturally and stay warm. There are other styles of winter boots out there for active use, so I recommend looking into a pair rather than making do with hiking shoes or a bulky and soft style of snow boot.

If the snow you’ll be traveling across is consolidated enough that you won’t actually be sinking very much, you could totally wear a running shoe with the snowshoe. The problem you run into with using such a lightweight shoe, however, is that the bindings may begin to irritate your feet since they were designed for use with sturdier footwear.

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
This winter boot, made by Itasca, is more than adequate for snowshoeing. However, it’s softer and more bulky than the Salomon Snowtrip boot featured in the Anatomy of a Snowshoe Diagram above. © Jared Manninen

Movement and Technique:

Since this article is only an introduction to snowshoeing, I’m not going to describe in detail the various techniques you should know when snowshoeing. However, I will say that there isn’t a ton of technique involved or major concerns to consider when traveling only a short distance across flat terrain. The basic idea when walking with snowshoes is to raise your feet a little higher and walk with a slightly wider stance. Those two aspects will cover most of what you’ll need to know when dealing with flatter terrain on consolidated (packed) snow.

However, things can become more problematic once you start to snowshoe higher into the mountains or through deep snow in the forest. Once you start to travel uphill, for example, you’ll have to decide whether you’re going to travel directly up the fall line, traverse back and forth, or contour the terrain in a more gradual fashion. When you reach an impasse or hazardous terrain feature, such as a water feature, ledge or precipice, or thick underbrush, you should be able to safely walk backwards and make agile twists and turns. When you fall down (you eventually will), particularly in deep snow, you need to know how to efficiently get back to your feet. Trekking poles are optional when snowshoeing, but recommended as they provide two more points of contact and make it easier to get up once you’ve fallen.

Watch my video Snowshoeing Basics: Movement and Technique to see some of the snowshoeing techniques I recommend learning. On this day of filming, and the days leading up to it, Lake Tahoe received multiple feet of snow.

For more information about winter travel read, Considerations for Winter Adventure in Lake Tahoe’s Backcountry. Although I wrote it with visiting Lake Tahoe in mind, the concepts I describe are universal.

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
Days like these are why playing in the snow is so much fun. And even more so with friends! Snowshoeing in South Lake Tahoe on February 15, 2019. © Jared Manninen

Please note that I wrote and produced this collection of Snowshoeing Basics articles and short videos about snowshoeing with the beginner and intermediate adventurer in mind. This is the demographic for whom I most often served while working in the outdoor recreation industry at Lake Tahoe, so I treat these informational blogs as extensions of the conversations I’ve had with those customers. That said, expert adventurers and mountaineers could probably take away something of value from these articles. Just know that I don’t intend to specifically address performance or race-oriented philosophy, technique, or gear selection in this series.