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Snowshoeing 101: A Comprehensive Gear Guide for Beginners

Category: Hikes + Easy Walks

Snowshoeing is a really budget-friendly winter outdoor activity that provides you with a great sense of accomplishment the first time you try it!

What gear do you need?

Good News! Unlike other winter sports, you don’t need a lot of equipment to get started. There are three necessary pieces of equipment you need to get started. 

A. Snowshoes

B. Warm Winter Snow Boots.

C. Poles – optional, but highly recommended

All the gear you need: snowshoes, warm winter boots, poles, which can be optional, but recommended.

A. Snowshoes

My first pair of snowshoes were a pair of traditional Faber wood and rawhide snowshoes.  

Snowshoe styles and materials have changed, but there is something very nostalgic about my wooden Faber snowshoes. I have had several clients try them, and they always comment on how well they float along the top of deep powder.  

man holding wooden snowshoes, Lake Louise

This is one of my wonderful clients from 2019, his family came all the way from Brazil to experience a Canadian winter and to snowshoe at Lake Louise on my traditional wooden snowshoes!. Can you imagine carrying pounds of beaver pelts while breaking trail to the nearest fur trade outpost on a pair of these snowshoes?

Here are the five popular types of snowshoes on the market today.

My collection of snowshoes. Left to right: Faber traditional sport; GV Recreational Snowshoes ; MSR Women’s Lightning Ascent (with their old style binding)

i. Recreational snowshoes (ideal for most families)

  • Great for beginners and weekend family snowshoe outings
  • They have small crampons, making them easier to walk with.
  • The length is shorter than backcountry snowshoes, making them ideal for the local Alberta snowshoe trails.

ii. Women’s specific snowshoes

  • Smaller, lighter, and tapered to help with a women’s narrow stride.
  • Bindings are narrow for smaller feet.  
two pairs of snowshoes
The snowshoe on the left is a unisex snowshoe, which rental shops generally use.
The snowshoe on the right is a women specific snowshoe, ideal for a women’s narrow stride.

iii. Children’s snowshoes (look for used, because children grow!)

  • Small snowshoes mean you can attach them to an adult pack for those times when the trail is hard-packed and your child would rather walk, which was the case with my youngest regularly. 
  • FUN colours and designs.
  • Child-friendly traction so they can tackle the trails but not sharp enough to tear snow pants. 
  • Easier harnesses to adjust.

The following child-specific snowshoes are perfect for little hands and feet. Snowshoes on the left are G2 Go2gether snowshoes, photo on the right are GV children’s snowshoes.

iv. Backcountry snowshoes (travelling into the backcountry requires avalanche training and avalanche gear)

  • Used for breaking trail in deep snow.
  • Have spiky crampons for biting into deep, potentially icy slopes.
  • Lighter than other snowshoes as they are designed for long distances while carrying heavy packs.

v. Trail Running Snowshoes (Yup – running races on snowshoes is a thing, not my thing, maybe yours?)

  • These are short, sleek and used on groomed tracks.
  • Racing extends the popular trail running events into the winter.

B. Warm Winter Snow Boots

The warm kind, not the dressy, fashionable ones. You don’t need specific snowshoe boots, but they should meet the following criteria:

photo from The North Face
  • Be warm and comfortable. You should have wiggle room for your toes. Toasty toes make for a fun day!
  • Fit into the snowshoe bindings. Take your boots with you when you go to purchase snowshoes. That way you will know if the boots fit in the bindings.
  • Boots mid-calf in height help keep the snow out.
  • I use Keen Winter Hiking boots with a pair of gaiters to keep my feet dry and warm. It is helpful to have a ridge on the boot’s back heel, which keeps the ankle strap binding from the snowshoe in place. 
  • Be waterproof, at the very least water repellant.

Pro Tip: Wearing a pair of waterproof gaiters will provide an extra layer of warmth to keep your feet toasty warm and dry.

C. Snowshoe Poles

  • They help with balance and stability for going down or up icy hills while you are snowshoeing.
  • Can be used as a trail toy and perhaps the added incentive to keep little ones going when hiking with kids in the winter.
  • When placed crisscrossed, they can be used to push you out of the snow.
  • Snowshoe poles also add a workout to your upper body.
  • Take the pressure off your knees with poles.

Pro Tip: If you are using poles, make sure they have a wide snow basket on them. This stops the pole from sinking into deep snow.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing snowshoes

If you are staying on the designated winter trails, look to purchase:

  • Recreational snowshoes
  • Women-specific snowshoes
  • Children’s snowshoes

These are ideal for the trails AND provide enough “float” to let you have fun in the powder.

My kids having fun in the snow. Taken from 2006 to 2020.

Binding fit and comfort

The bindings keep your feet properly aligned on the snowshoe. The simpler the binding design, the easier it is to adjust. Snowshoe bindings should:

  • Allow your boot to fit with toes snug, not sloppy against the front of the binding. 
  • Be easy to adjust, even while wearing gloves or mitts.
  • Be comfortable and not create any pinch or pressure points on your foot. Pinch and pressure points can result in blisters and cold feet as they constrict the blood flow to your tootsies.
  • Keep your foot in line with the snowshoe.
  • Stop your heel from slipping to the side of the snowshoe, which could result in a rolled ankle. 
These bindings are easy to put on with my mitts. However, on cold days these bindings can freeze up and be difficult to undo.

Snowshoe Length

A combined weight determines snowshoe lengths: your weight with winter clothes on, plus the weight of your backpack.

  • For the popular designated front country trails, you can use a smaller, more compact snowshoe as the snow gets packed down from the number of people travelling on them. 
  • There will be sections beside the trail where you will be able to venture into some deeper unpacked snow, and your shorter snowshoes will be perfect. 
  • Larger, longer snowshoes are for use in light, powdery, untracked snow. 
a family snowshoeing in Kananaskis, Alberta
This is the trail to Rawson Lake in Kananaskis, Alberta. It is a very popular snowshoe for famillies.

Traction

Snowshoes have crampons and cleats for traction, and they vary in size, length and location on the snowshoe. 

  • Toe Crampons: located under the bindings at your toes used when going uphill.
  • Heel Crampons: located under the decking of the snowshoe near your heel used when going downhill.
  • Side Rails/Traction Bars: also located on the decking’s undersides, these provide lateral stability.

Heel lifts

Many snowshoes now have heel raisers, a small bar that you lift and place your heel on for long, steeper climbs. 

  • They help reduce calf fatigue and the strain on your Achilles tendon on steep climbs. (I love the heel risers on my MSR snowshoes).
  • The snow does tend to crust around the lifts making it challenging to raise them. 
  • Before you head out on the trails, do a practice run with your mitts or gloves on to make sure you can raise the lifts without removing your hands from the warmth of the mitts. Placing warm fingers on cold metal does not feel good!

Try before you buy snowshoes

  • Purchasing gear can be expensive, particularly when you are outfitting a family. 
  • If you are not sure about the kind of snowshoes you need, or if your children are even going to enjoy it, RENT snowshoes and then decide if you want to commit to making a purchase.

Purchase second hand – more budget and environmentally friendly option.

  • snowshoes are one of the few pieces of sports equipment that have longevity. Yes, materials change, bindings change, shapes change, but the overall design of a 10-year-old pair of snowshoes still enables you to get through the snow on the trails. 

Get on the Trails!

You have your gear, you know what to wear, now you need to know where to snowshoe!

Also take the time to become Avalanche Aware!

Here are additional links to official snowshoe trails: Kananaskis and Banff National Park

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