Since a lot of folks consider hiking and backpacking to be a three-season activity, I thought it might be helpful to create this Winter Hiking, Winter Backpacking & Snowshoeing information page. I hope it will (1) create awareness that hiking is a year-round sport (2) promote use of appropriate gear for winter hiking, winter backpacking and snowshoeing and (3) provide information that may help someone stay healthy & alive, while out in it.|
The Lightweight Backpacker
WINTER HIKINGThere's probably a few good reasons to hang up the hiking boots during the Winter--I just can't think of one !
Many of the trails that we travel in Spring, Summer, and Fall are also available during the Winter. Many public parks, cities, and towns maintain trail systems which remain accessible for Winter hiking and even snowshoeing. Some have special rules that apply to Winter use so check with them for specifics. If nothing else, it's a great way to keep those hiking muscles active.
Many lowland backcountry trails are also available year-round, albeit muddy. Trails in the mountains, (although buried in deep snow) are also traversable (with the help of some special gear). With some additional education, training, and gear, there's no reason we can't be just as actively hiking in the Winter as in the other three seasons.
Check it out ! Find out what's available in your area. You might be surprised at the possibilities. For the higher elevations, why not try snowshoeing ?
SNOWSHOEING" If you can walk, you can go snowshoeing " is a popular and true saying. There isn't a long learning curve, it doesn't require a large investment--for specialized boots, fashion-statement clothing, lift-tickets and standing in long lines--and it doesn't require a lot of special techniques. You can start today, and have fun, immediately !
Personally, I find the nuances of snowshoeing to be intuitive. Not to slight established techniques, mind you, but I've been doing just fine for a number of years without any formal instruction.
Snowshoeing can accommodate a wide variety of activities--a casual hike in the woods, an overnight backpack trip, or an alpine climb--and can provide a workout to meet your needs, whatever they are. It's also a relatively inexpensive way to get the whole family out in it together.
One of the things that I like best about snowshoeing is that snowshoes are highly maneuverable, allowing me to go places where cross-country skiers and snowmobilers cannot go. I easily travel through thickly-wooded and/or steep terrain (where avalanche danger is not, of course). Another distinction between hiking in the other three seasons and hiking in the Winter snow via snowshoes is the experience of the quiet and serenity of the snow-covered landscape.
SNOWSHOEING TIPS & TECHNIQUESTIPS:
Here's the way that I do it. Hey, it works for me !
CLOTHESLayering is the key for snowshoeing. Chances are, you'll encounter cold air and cold wind, so you'll need to be equipped to keep all parts of the body warm, at all times. Layering is important because snowshoeing is, most of the time, highly aerobic, and you'll generate lots of body heat. You will need to (1) take off and put on garments, as required, to keep a balanced body temperature. You will also need to have waterproof / windproof garments that are very breathable (like Gore Activent-based garments) and have venting options (like pit zips, pack pockets, and two way zippers).
WHATEVER YOU DO...DO NOT WEAR COTTON ! WET COTTON DOES NOT INSULATE ! YOU WILL GET COLDDD !
BOOTS & SNOWSHOESBOOTS:
First, let's talk boots. Waterproof hiking boots work fine--preferably leather. I've used my Dolomite Ortles G hiking boots for snowshoeing without problem. They are one-piece leather with a gore-tex liner. I find the gore-tex is very nice in the winter because it does keep the feet a little warmer, especially handy in the snow.
I've also used, with success, my Sorel Bighorns (warm to - 40 degrees, so they say). Plastic boots work but are a bit rigid. Basically, it doesn't matter, as long as your feet stay dry, warm, and comfortable.
Today's versions of the snowshoe are considerably different. They are smaller, lighter, stronger, and consequently, much more maneuverable than their older counterparts.
Instead of wood, most newer shoes are made of high-quality, light, durable, aircraft aluminum. Instead of rawhide lattice, the deckings are made of highly durable materials like Hypalon. Most good ones now cost in the range of $200 to $300, although you can usually get them on sale in the Spring, at most outdoor shops.
Just as skis have bindings, so do snowshoes. They attach the snowshoe to your boot. The best ones are like the Redfeather snowshoes which have a toggle lacing system which is easy to get in and out of with gloves and/or cold hands.
Either wood or metal (usu. aircraft aluminum) this is the structural foundation of the "shoe" which defines its shape and size.
The decking is the material within the frame which enables the "shoe" to "float" on the snow. It can be of either the lace or solid material variety. The bindings are attached to the decking. As previously stated, the most common material currently being used in snowshoes is Hypalon.
Staying on top of the snow. A number of factors determine how well you "float" (see What Size ?--below).
Many snowshoes, nowadays, come equipped with both toe and heel crampon-type claws for better traction on icy surfaces (especially slopes) and hard snow.
Recreational, Racing, and Mountaineering.
What Size ?:
Sizing of snow shoes is relative to several factors. (1) your weight plus the weight of your pack (2) the type of snow you're traveling on and (3) what & where your recreation is.
Typically, you can make some assumptions, based upon where you live and recreate. For example, I live in Washington State on the West side of the Cascades. We get lots of snow, but it is mostly of the wet variety and firms-up pretty fast. So that tells me what kind of snow I'll be in, most of the time. I weigh 175 + 25 pounds of gear = 200 pounds. I mainly do mountaineering. So based on (1) firm snow (2) 200 pounds and (3) mountaineering, I can establish that a pair of small (8"x25"), mountaineering shoes, will be adequate for me, most of the time.
If I was in soft snow, however, I would need, at least, medium-sized shoes (9"x30"). Most outdoor shops can help you figure out what you need. Also, manufacturers typically provide sizing charts in their marketing materials.
Snowshoe Companies: (Report Bad Links !)
Atlas Snow Shoe Company
SNOW POLES & ICE AXESNOW POLES:
Critical pieces of gear to ensure safe, successful snowshoeing. The poles help you stay balanced while traveling forward as well as when doing tricky maneuvers. The poles also help propel you forward (kinda like 4-wheel drive).
Get poles that are telescoping 2 or 3-sections (preferably 3-section) for the following reasons: (1) 3-section telescoping poles (like the Leki Super Extreme) pack down to about 30 inches in length so that they fit nicely in or on your backpack. (2) They also adjust nicely to your stature--your arms should be at a 90 degree angle when holding properly-adjusted snow poles. (3) In addition, it is very important to be able to adjust your poles when you are traversing a hillside--the short pole on the uphill and the long pole on the downhill, to help you stay balanced. Another combination for traversing--which I frequently use if I will be traversing a long distance or a particularly risky section or switchbacking up a steep slope--is to hold my ice axe on the uphill side and the long snow pole on the downhill side. That way, if I slip, I can self arrest and avoid damaging the goods, so to speak.
When purchasing snow poles, it is important to get cross-country, oversized snow baskets (about 5 inches in diameter). Those dinky things you use for skiing get stuck in the snow too easily. If your poles don't come with the oversized baskets (my Leki Super Extreme did) then you can buy them separately at most, good outdoor shops and install them yourself.
There are a couple of very nice lightweight ice axes available. The Camp XLA210 is one of the lightest (7075 aluminium alloy) ice axes made, at about 9 ounces, and the Grivel Nepal Light is only slightly heavier (and it is made of drop forged alloy).
OTHER IMPORTANT GEARSNOW SHOVEL
In avalanche country, especially, make sure everyone has a small, lightweight snow shovel. If only one person has a shovel and that person gets buried, what are you going to dig them out with ? If you ever go alpine snowshoeing with me, please bring your snow shovel !
I have a very nice ultralight, Voile, mini shovel with telescoping handle. Very light and practical, but strong and functional. Another very practical option would be the BC Access Companion System Shovel which integrates the popular and proven BC Access Companion Shovel with an avalanche probe.
I carry an Avocet Vertech Altimeter. I don't do wrist-type devices so I carry it around my neck, using the optional Avocet lanyard configuration.
The ones that I use are about 3/8 of an inch in diameter and 4 feet long, with a small red flag on one end.
AVALANCHE BEACON & PROBES
Word to the wise: although this may seem rather silly, don't be surprised to see it happen. If you are well prepared in the backcountry and taking good safety precautions, for your best interest, make sure everyone else in your group has a beacon/probe/shovel and knowS how to use them. It's nice that you carry those things and know how to use them, but that won't help you if you're the one that gets buried. Whether partners are carrying analog or digital beacons, make sure they know how to use them. Do a little practice before setting out into avalanche country.
SNOWSHOEING & ACCESSORIES-RELATED LINKS:
CHECK THE WEATHER IN YOUR AREA:
SNOW & AVALANCHEIf you are going to be in mountainous backcountry, in the winter, beware. Understand avalanche tendencies. I'm no expert, but I know enough to check local avalanche conditions in my area before going out, by calling available hotlines and such. I also know better than to venture into questionable territory when avalanches pose a threat.
STAY IN SHAPE DURING THE WINTER ?Especially the older we get (I'm 50+), trying to "get in shape for the hiking season" results in significant physiological and psychological stress. Lack of commitment to physical conditioning is probably the main reason that many people, who otherwise enjoy hiking and backcountry activities, give it up. It can be hard work (and painful) especially if you are not in proper physical condition.
There are numerous ways to stay in shape, during the Winter. The first requisite, though, is to make it a priority, otherwise you probably won't find the time, at least not on a consistent basis.
My personal training regimen remains consistent throughout the year. I do leg, back, and neck stretches as well as abdominal exercises at least once and sometimes twice a day. Four or five times a week I exercise my leg and back muscles on a Health Rider machine (saw it advertised in Backpacker Mag.--don't regret getting one). I put 50 pounds of weight on it (under the seat) and proceed to do 200 to 400 reps. Let's see, that's 50 lbs + my 165 lbs = 215 lbs that my legs are pushing.
I also exercise arms and shoulders with 6.6 lb dumb-bells. Then, after the stretching & warmup exercises, I don a 30 pound pack, strap 5 lb weights on each ankle (in addition to a 2.5 pound Raichle Eiger boot on each foot) and proceed to hike 2 miles up and down the Cascade foothills around my home--again four or five times a week. Oh yes, I also go hiking, year around.
It's important for hiking, and especially backpacking, that we have strong lower back, upper back, and abdominal muscles, in addition to strong legs. Find exercises that strengthen those muscles. For example, a rowing machine--as well as a machine like the Health Rider--will work the back, leg, and ab muscles. For those of us who get bored sitting on a machine, get a bicycle and rowboat.
I have found, however, that lifting weights, machine workouts, jogging, etc., is appropriate and very helpful, but for some reason, the only activity that really keeps me in shape for alpine hiking, backpacking, and scrambling--which is what I do--is hiking. So how about you ? Find out what works for you and then JUST DO IT !
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OUR HEALTH & WELFAREBe pragmatic ! Carry the 14 essentials. Carry recommended gear from the Gear Lists, appropriate for the conditions you might encounter. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Winter Hiking, Snowshoeing, Winter Backpacking Recommended Reading