Everything you need to know about snowshoeing but are afraid to ask
More than any previous year, this year is the one in which people are flocking to outdoor sports new and old in droves whether it be cycling, running or adventure racing. As winter arrives, the trend continues. Now, people are looking at snowshoeing as an option to keep active and have some fun in the great outdoors. And why not? Snowshoeing is a fantastic activity with a lot going for it.
For one, it’s good exercise. Whether hiking through the woods in the deeper stuff or running on a trail in running snowshoes, the sport provides great aerobic exercise with little impact and allows runners to extend their season in most conditions.
According to Canadian snowshoeing champion, Julien Pinsonneault, it is also a great way to get out into nature.
“I find that snowshoeing allows you to discover magical winter landscapes and to change the monotony of the track and the road,” says Pinsonneault, the Quebec athlete who finished 12th at the world championships. “All of this allows you to chart your own path and to outdo yourself time after time on the same course which always changes according to mother nature.”
Snowshoeing is also inexpensive. The initial cost outlay for a pair of good snowshoes or two is the only expense really, although many also recommend poles, especially on icier trails. The rest of the required gear includes breathable and waterproof clothing such as one would wear for winter trail running or cross-country skiing.
Although there are levels of difficulty and technique involved, getting started is quite easy. Once comfortable, it isn’t hard to pick up some additional skills needed for travelling up, down or across hills. In addition, some knowledge of avalanches is important should one be snowshoeing in these areas.
Remember, snowshoes are only required in fresh powder snow, or snow that is deeper than six inches. For other snow conditions, good winter boots with good traction might be suitable, or if icy then try a pair of grippers such as Kahtoola MICROspikes. See our review here.
What to wear
So, the best way to have a great day of snowshoeing often comes down to wearing the correct clothing. We are looking for technical clothing such as you would wear with any sport. Depending on the day, it is important to dress warmly in garments that protect from the elements but are also breathable and wick sweat away from your body.
Natural fabrics such as merino wool are great, as are the most technical of fabrics for the outer layers.
It is also important to pay close attention to your feet. Wearing proper socks and boots is crucial, including footwear with serious rubber soles. Make sure boots are waterproof and warm. Make sure socks are technical fabrics or wool that wick away sweat.
For a great selection of gear reviews check out our YouTube channel.
What type of snowshoes?
There are different types of snowshoes, but most will gravitate to the standard recreational models. Participants can expect to pay $100 to $300 for a good pair.
For a more detailed account of the different types of snowshoes read this article.
And here is a review of a pair of running snowshoes.
How to start
The next step is to head out to a natural area or trail system you enjoy and get moving.
Make sure snowshoes are put on properly, as some are universal fit and others are for specific feet. Put your foot in the centre, and make sure to properly tighten all the straps and tuck all excess straps under so they aren’t hanging out and catching on anything.
Just try taking strides as per usual trying to keep on the most level ground possible, while allowing for some straddling. Going up hills requires any additional pressure to come from the toes and forefoot onto the front crampons, and the opposite for going downhill when additional heel pressure on the rear crampons provides traction.
When heading off into much deeper snow and powder snow, additional techniques might be required such as stamping.
Where to go
Parks, conservation areas, ravines and other natural spaces are great for snowshoeing. Ideally, the less widely used the trail, the better as if it is used too much the snow will just be packed down and it won’t be as enjoyable with the snowshoes.
Try to put at least a couple of hours between the trail and a major urban centre.
The good news is that if parks don’t have winter gear rentals or skiing, it is likely not going to be used too much during the winter. Aim for these types of parks.
For instance, there are many Ontario parks ideal for snowshoeing that do not offer rentals such as Silent Lake, Algonquin, and the Pinery.
Here are a few more of our faves across Canada.
Quebec City: It’s probably one of the most snowshoe friendly regions of the province. Parc de la Jacques-Cartier, Vallée Bras-du-Nord and the Sentiers des Caps are vast areas where snowshoers can really realize why they were used in the early days of Canada. Winter camping is also available there. Snowshoe running is very present. 4 events are held in and around the city such as the Pentathlon des Neiges (Plaines d’Abraham) and the Mammouth! winter races offering one of the rare snowshoe marathons in North-America, just next to the Montmorency Falls.
Vancouver: For fantastic snowshoe trails, head to any of the local mountains, such as Seymour or Cypress. Grouse Mountain offers the snowshoe grind, a 4.3 km route that can get you strong for the Grouse Grind season.
Montréal: The largest metropolitan region of the province offers many trails, even in the heart of the city on the Mont-Royal. But for a longer adventure, drive north in the Laurentides region When you take that first step in freshly fallen snow, from that moment, you know you will have to come back for the gentle silence, the immaculate white shroud, the vivifying air and the incomparable decor of the Laurentians. It is a true Quebec snowshoe paradise. The Eastern Townships also have its share of nice snowshoe trails.
Sydenham: Frontenac Provincial Park is located just north of Kingston, Ontario and is one of the gems of Ontario Parks. It features a trail network of over 100 km of trails through rugged Canadian Shield. You’ll cover a wide variety of terrain and pass numerous backcountry lakes during your snowshoe hike or run. Frontenac Park also is host to the annual Dion Frontenac Snowshoe Race held each January. Day passes are available, but you can purchase a winter pass or annual pass and have unlimited access to all of the different trail opportunities for snowshoeing within all Ontario Provincial Parks.
Edmonton: Snowshoe running is best on the mountain bike or dirt/gravel trails all along the river valley, providing plenty of options throughout the city. The Silver Skate festival holds an annual snowshoe race in February.
Trois-Rivières: La Mauricie National Park is located near Shawinigan, in the Laurentian Mountains. It covers 536 square-kilometres in the southern Canadian Shield region bordering the St. Lawrence lowlands. Experience the joys of winter and explore the Laurentian landscape through a unique experience offered by La Mauricie National Park. Here at the park, snowshoeing remains a great way to hit the hills and discover breathtaking viewpoints.
Calgary: There are a number of trails and parks that offer good snowshoeing, such as Nose Hill Park. Near Calgary are many options in the mountains, such as Kananaskis, Bragg Creek and Banff, where Cascade Mountain is a great snowshoe route.
For more information on snowshoeing and snowshoe running, please visit SnowshoeCanada.com
Before you go
Like any winter activity, it is important to take all the standard precautions including knowing the terrain, not forgetting about hydration and nutrition, telling someone about travel plans and so on. In the chilly season, there is always the chance of, for example, hypothermia, and frostbite. So be prepared by taking the necessary steps, dressing appropriately and having an emergency plan.
Once you've got the technique figured out, the next step could be a snowshoe race.
There are several race organizers throughout the country, but the best place to start is Snowshoe Canada, the national organizing body for the sport.
Although many of this year's races will be cancelled as a result of the ongoing global pandemic, Snowshoe Canada is planning a virtual event that would be a great introduction to snowshoe racing and a way for seasoned veterans to keep those competitive juices flowing.
Lead photo: Destination BC/Dave Heath