How to choose the right snowshoes for a great winter activity

Winter sport activity. Woman hiker hiking with backpack and snowshoes snowshoeing on snow trail forest in Quebec, Canada at sunset. Beautiful landscape with coniferous trees and white snow. Photo by Maridav/Shutterstock

Thanks to COVID-19, for the last year or so a lot of us have been spending more time indoors, whether that’s at home or staying put at the cottage, than ever before. It’s a great way to stay safe but take advantage of the freedom that natural isolation brings.

But as the snow builds up, it gets harder and harder to get out. Tramping through a foot or more of snow and deep drifts is hard work.

According to Hannah Schaub, buyer for outdoor clothing and equipment at Kingston’s Trailhead outdoors store, more and more people this winter are looking at snowshoes, all part of an interest in outdoor sports kicked off by the pandemic that shows no sign of letting up.

Why snowshoes? There are a number of reasons. “It’s something you can do on your own,” says Schaub, “like hiking.” They are relatively simple to use. You just put them on and away you go. They provide aerobic exercise, and they are relatively easy on older bodies than skis and skates — particularly when you fall down.

Perhaps most attractive for someone considering getting into snowshoeing for the first time, they are relatively cheap.

“In terms of winter sports, it’s actually pretty affordable,” says Schaub. “The basic equipment for cross-country skiing might set you back $500. If you have $150 to $170, and already have a pair of waterproof hiking boots, then it’s an easy sport to get into.” (In general, says Schaub, prices for starter snowshoes can range from $150-$300 depending on how ambitious — and how fit — you are.) One possible accessory she recommends: “I love hiking poles. You can add snow baskets for winter activity, and they help you balance, and they help you get more momentum.” It’s not as important if your travels won’t extend any farther than trekking in circles around the family cottage, but if you plan on heading much farther afield, Schaub says, “don’t forget the winter safety piece.” Take a day pack with essential supplies like a winter survival blanket, first aid kit, something for starting fires and a headlamp.

Snowshoes come in different sizes and the key to determining which ones are right for you is your weight. If you’re an adult between 150-200 pounds, you should look at shoes 25 inches in length by 8 inches; if you are between 100-150, 21 inches length and 8 inches in width. Most shoes have this marked right on them. As a general rule of thumb, says Schaub, when they are fitting someone with snowshoes, they add ten to twenty pounds to their weight — to account for the extra clothing and heavier footwear they’ll be wearing and any gear they will be carrying. (Fun fact: the degree to which a snowshoe keeps you atop the snow is referred to as its “flotation.”)

Historically snowshoes came in dominant two styles: Huron (or their close kin, Ojibway), for deep snow, and bear paw, which were a bit smaller and more maneuverable. Huron taper to a narrow point at the back — these are what we imagine when we think of classic snowshoes, constructed of wood and rawhide, and maybe mounted on the log wall of a lodge somewhere. Bear paw are oblong, closer in shape to a lozenge. The bulk of modern-day snowshoes, constructed of metal tubing and synthetic strapping, resemble bear paw more than Hurons. You can in fact still buy traditional wood and rawhide snowshoes, although Schaub says most people prefer the modern ones with bindings that are much easier to step in and out of. The leather bindings of traditional snowshoes need to be tightened frequently as you hike. There is a price to be paid for authenticity.

It’s easy and it’s cheap, and it’s good for you. So in the immortal words of Arthur Weir, Canada’s bard of the snowshoe, “Tie on the shoes/no time to lose.”

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