Snowshoeing 101: Tips for Best Technique & Trail Etiquette

Category: Hikes + Easy Walks

When I guide snowshoeing trips for families or adults, I’m often asked: “How hard will this be?” my response,

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe, with a few minor things to learn.”

Basic Snowshoeing Technique

When you put your first pair of snowshoes on, you may feel like a penguin. That is natural because you have something unnatural strapped to your boots!

Here are some snowshoe tips to get you and your family going.

man snowshoeing in deep snow
This is a good family friend first time out. He had a ton of fun! It also helped that the temperature was above zero.
Notice the wide stance.

Get Balanced And Widen Your Stance

These are the steps I get my first-time snowshoe clients to do before we head out on the trail. Have fun with it!

  • Stand feet shoulder-width apart 
  • Balance on one foot
  • Balance on the other foot
  • Turn one way in a circle, then turn the other way
  • If you managed to turn in a circle without tripping yourself, you are good to go
  • If you did get tangled with your snowshoes.  Widen your stance and start again.
  • Start waking. Keep in mind it is normal for your snowshoes to strike against one another on your first snowshoe, remember to widen your stance.
  • Make sure you have the right size gear. Read about that here.
  • FYI: Your groin and hip muscles may be a little stiff the first couple of times you snowshoe; that too is normal.  Make sure you stretch after your hike.
a women balancing on one leg with snowshoes on
Balancing on one leg

Snowshoeing Uphill

There are two main techniques dependent on snow conditions:

1. The Toe Kick

  • Used in soft snow
  • Kick your toes into the snow; this allows the toe cleats to create a step.  You may need to kick your toes a few times to pack the snow down. 
The toe kick. Ideal for deep, fluffy snow

2. The Foot Stomp

  • Used on hard-packed snow
  • Stomp your foot on the snow like your squishing bugs. 
  • This will firmly plant the crampon into the snow, providing the traction you need.
The foot stomp is perfect for icy, hard-packed trails

Snowshoeing Downhill

  • Stick your butt out.  It also takes the pressure off your knees
  • Centre your weight over your feet
  • Plant your heel first
  • Take small steps
  • If you are using poles, make sure that you have extended them so the handles are at chest height and place the poles in front of you as you walk downhill.  

Pro tip: Squat and sit if you feel you are going to fall.  

Butt out, heel first, poles in front at chest height.

Tips For Getting Back Up After A Fall

​A fall will happen at one point. Trust me! 

If you fall with snowshoe poles:

  • Place your poles in an “x” formation as close to your chest as possible.
  • Press up on the middle of the “X” to push yourself upright
  • You may need to compact the snow down a few times with the poles in really deep snow

Getting up without poles – use a friend!

  • Have another person stand closely in front of you, with their snowshoes in front and close to your hands
  • Place your hands on the front of their snowshoe, using their snowshoes for resistance push yourself up.
  • This technique is great for bottomless powdery snow.

No friend to help?

  • Use the largest surface area, press your hands down into the snow. 
  • Fill the holes with snow,
  • Compact the snow in the holes
  • Repeat this process until you have a solid base to push against. 

If you fall going downhill with your snowshoes:

  • Shift yourself around so your head is uphill.
  • Bring your knees close to your chest.
  • Press off the slope to stand up
  • If you can’t turn around on the slope, push yourself to your knees, shift your weight onto your snowshoes, use your poles or friend, for balance and stand up.

Reduce the risk of Hypothermia

  • It is essential to keep dry, maintain your body heat and reduce the risk of hypothermia.  
  • Tuck your mitts inside your jacket when you take them off. This keeps them warm, and the snow out.

If you stop for lunch, put an extra layer insulating layer on. This helps maintain your heat and reduces the risk of cooling down and getting a chill.

a lady in a winter coat on a snowshoe trail
Put an extra insulating layer on to keep warm
  • Hydrate often, bring along something warm in a thermos or something you can make hot chocolate with. We love our Jetboil.

As my boys got older, making hot chocolate was their trail task.
I cut an old foam camping pad into four pieces. These are ideal to use all year long.
  • Bring something to sit on.
  • Don’t let the snow sit and melt on you.
  • Brush the snow off of your mitts, clothes and empty all snow from the inside of your boots. 
  • If you need, replace wet socks or mittens with dry ones from your dry bag. 
  • This is particularly important to do with young children as they can become hypothermic very quickly. 

It is always fun to take your snowshoes off and see how deep the snow is!

In the following photo, my son had snow in his boots, down his snow pants, in his mitts and up his back. Thankfully, this time we were back at the trailhead with a full change of dry clothes waiting in the car.

Both boys have done this on the trail as well. In those situations we have given them a good bush-off from snow, changed their socks and mitts, sometimes adding hand warmers for that extra warmth.

young boy playing in deep snow
His boots, pants, jacket were full of snow after this!

Snowshoe On Designated Trails

Designated snowshoe trails in the mountains have been designed with safety in mind.

  • FYI – Many popular summer trails are not safe winter trails as they pass through very active avalanche runs.
  • Identifying the correct trail is not hard if you plan and prepare for your day in advance.
  • Research the area and trail BEFORE you go.
  • Download a trail map. Here are links to the Kananaskis and Banff National Park snowshoe trails.
  • The day before, check the trail reports for the applicable area. Check Kananaskis trails and Parks Canada trails.
  • Check the weather
  • Check the Avalanche Canada website for avalanche conditions.
snowshoe trail sign
Designated frontcountry snowshoe trails in Alberta Parks and the National Parks are well marked.

Avalanche Safety

It is important to identify safe, front country snowshoe trails and stay on those trails when you head out for a day in the mountains.

Read my Avalanche Awareness blog and go to Avalanche Canada for more information. 

Taking an Avalanche Skills Training, AST1 course is strongly encouraged. 

Before you hit the winter trails, ALWAYS check both the Avalanche Canada website and the Parks trail reports.

Snowshoe Trail Etiquette

If you are snowshoeing near cross-country ski trails, please practise winter trail etiquette:

  • Don’t walk, run or sit on groomed cross country ski tracks. This also includes groomed skate ski tracks.
  • Chopped-up tracks are a hazard, particularly for beginner skiers that haven’t yet mastered stopping, stepping out of a track while moving, or being able to move through the crud or snow-snakes (a term I use when teaching children)Step between the ski tracks when you need to cross the trail.
  • If you are snowshoeing with your dog, keep them off the tracks as well. Dogs can also trip or knock over skiers.
  • Give downhill cross-country skiers room on the trail.  Beginner skiers may have a difficult time stopping quickly.
  • If you are on a single, narrow trail, snowshoe single file so other groups can pass.

Leave No Trace

The same Leave No Trace Principles apply in both summer and winter. To review them:

  • Plan and Prepare
  • Stay on the designated trail
  • Pack out what you pack in
  • Fires in designated fire pits
  • Leave what you find
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be considerate of others on the trail

Consider this before you jump into that untracked snow off-trail

It is fun to head onto untracked, fresh snow, keep in mind that:

Some snowshoe trails follow the edge of Fens (a small wetland), ponds and small streams. Stepping off the path onto these areas could leave you with wet feet, or worse, in over your head!

Sticks, rocks and other hard objects may be well hidden by the snow and “just under” the surface. Check out the area before you do a Snowshoe Back flop!

Note: photos are from 2009 to 2021.

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