There'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 ?
" 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 & TECHNIQUES
- Always check your gear, before you go:
- Are your snow poles telescoping okay ? Maybe a squirt of silicone is in order.
- Any suspicious cracks in your snowshoe bindings ?
- Survival gear & knowledge intact ?
- Familiarity with the terrain you're going to ? Map ?
- Don't leave home without the 14 essential-gear items !
- Make sure someone at home knows where you are (in case of your emergency).
- Duct tape for emergency patchwork on snow shoes & snow poles
- Breaking the Trail:
- If you are snowshoeing with other people (safer than going alone) take turns leading. It gets very tiring breaking the trail.
- If you have energetic, want-to-go-fast young people in your group, put them in front and leave them there for as long as is practical and safe. Good for them, good for you.
- When leading, take into consideration the pace of the slowest member of the group.
- When leading, make your steps short enough so everyone in the group can follow in them.
- When following, try to stay in the leader's footsteps whenever possible. This conserves your energy and retains a better, well-defined trail for those who follow you.
- Take breaks, as necessary, to make adjustments to your clothing--try to stay dry--avoid chills.
- Take frequent breaks to drink water and eat something. Snowshoeing is strenuous and burns off calories and uses up body fluids in the form of perspiration. REMEMBER: In the winter, because of the cold, you may not always get the obvious signs of perspiring, but you are, nonetheless, and those fluids must be replaced.
- If you must go where the snowmobiles play, stay out of their way !
Here's the way that I do it. Hey, it works for me !
My approach to an uphill depends upon the slope and the condition of the snow. If the snow is light and soft, I might go straight up, by kick stepping. That is, by pushing the toe of the shoe vertically into the snowpack, pressing down in order to pack down the snow enough to support my weight. I then shift my weight to that foot and then repeat the process with the other foot. I go as fast or as slow as is necessary. It depends entirely on the condition of the snow and how well it supports my weight. Another technique that I have used is called "the herringbone technique". Instead of pushing the shoe directly into the snow, I step sideways at about a 45% angle. This way, a little more of the shoe comes into contact with the snow--never mind that I look like a penguin going up the side of the mountain.
I almost always use 3-piece, telescoping snow poles for additional balance and power. Occasionally, when going straight up in firm snow, I'll use my ice axe to help with balance control and even to help pull myself up over a hump.
Although traversing is traveling horizontally along a slope, I'll use the term here to describe uphill travel while switch-backing. Regardless of whether you traverse horizontally without elevation gain or with a slight elevation gain via switch-backs, the techniques are basically the same.
If the snow is hard, I'll probably traverse & switchback - gaining elevation with each switchback - by edging my shoes much the same as you would with skis. As I walk along the hillside I edge my shoe into the side of the hill, being careful to always keep the shoe level, beneath me (for balance and to avoid slipping). I move upward at a comfortable angle, and switch back and forth as I go. When traversing, I use one of two techniques. I use two adjustable, telescoping snow poles to help me maintain my balance. A short one for the uphill side and a long one for the downhill side. Each time I switchback, the poles change hands, accordingly. Another technique I use for traversing (especially when the snow is firm) is to substitute my ice axe for the short pole. Carrying the ice axe on the uphill side allows me the added security of being able to self-arrest, if I should fall.
One technique is the same as explained in the Traverse section above, with one exception. Whereas, when moving uphill, I tend to put my weight forward, when traveling downhill, I tend to put my weight on the back part of the shoe with particular attention to the heel crampon getting traction. Another way I travel downhill is straight down. This works okay in soft snow where I can dig my heels in and achieve firm footing.
One method I use, if the snow is firm enough, is to plant my poles on either side of me far enough out to allow me to do this thing. I then jump, twist, plant. Really, it works. Another method is to take baby steps. Carefully move one shoe a little, then the other. Continue until both shoe are pointed in the new direction.
- FALL DOWN - GET UP!:
Getting upright after a fall-down should be intuitive. Since it is, of course, more difficult to get up with snowshoes on than it is without snowshoes, you may need to discover the easiest most efficient method for you, and then perfect and use that method consistently. Use your snow poles for support and leverage.
WINTER OUTDOOR GEAR TIPS
Sources for Winter Hiking & Camping Equipment
Our intent with the discussion below is not to duplicate Winter Gear Lists published elsewhere at this website, but to highlight a subset that has high affinity to the sport of snowshoeing.
Layering 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).
You will probably want a base layer of lightweight moisture-wicking thermal underwear like Patagonia Lightweight Capilene. Also, wear a pair of lightweight capilene glove liners to keep your hands from getting
cold. Generally, if the weather is mild, those liners will insulate your hands, well enough, even when wet.
If the weather is particularly cold, however, cover the liners with a pair of windproof, waterproof, Goretex Gloves.
I use a pair of ultralight OR "Lobster Claw Rain Mitts" (weight 1 ounce) over a pair of lightweight liners. It does the job even in very cold weather, as long as I'm active. I also carry a thicker pair of fleece gloves, just in case I need them.
For a mid-layer I carry a Patagonia windproof, microloft Puffball Vest (insulates even when wet & body heat drys it out quickly)--and it weighs only 8 ounces. In addition, I carry a Marmot windstopper, microfleece jacket with pack pockets, pit zips, and a drawstring collar. If I'm going overnight, I'll also carry a set of Patagonia Midweight Capilene underwear.
For the outer layer, its important to have breathable wind and rain-proof jacket and pants. For snowshoeing, I generally don't take my gore-tex gear because it doesn't breathe very well. Instead, I take my Marmot "Gore-Activent" anorak and pants. They breathe well, are windproof and water resistant (not to mention, ultralight).
WHATEVER YOU DO...DO NOT WEAR COTTON ! WET COTTON DOES NOT INSULATE ! YOU WILL GET COLDDD !
Assuming you have boots appropriate for snowshoeing, your regular hiking socks should be okay for snowshoeing. Take an extra pair.
Knee-high gaiters keep the snow out of your boots (I recommend OR gore-tex Crocodiles)
I carry two hats. A wool baseball cap which will insulate my bald head even when both (my head & the hat) are wet. I also carry a very lightweight, windproof, microfleece cap which covers my ears, also.
BOOTS & SNOWSHOES
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.
Now the snowshoes. Snowshoes have been around for a long time--much longer than skis. The earlier versions that we have used were made of wood with rawhide-lace lattice-work inside the wooden frame. The bindings were typically made of leather. They were long, bulky, and heavy. They weren't made for recreational purposes, per se, but for traveling and/or hauling loads over snow.
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.
(1) The more you weigh, the bigger the shoe must be in order to keep you afloat.
(2) Light, dry snow requires a bigger shoe to keep you from sinking. Heavy, wet snow, a smaller shoe with excellent traction.
(3) If your recreation is in steep, mountainous terrain, you need smaller shoes with excellent traction.
If you are traveling, mainly, in flat open country, you'll, typically, need a larger shoe with a nice tail to provide good flotation and tracking. For running, racing, and casual walking, you'll probably need smaller, lighter shoes.
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 !)
Crescent Moon Snowshoe Company
Mountain Safety Research Snow Shoes
Tubbs Snow Shoes
SNOW POLES & ICE AXE
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. You can find appropriate poles with baskets listed HERE.
Critical piece of gear, when in the mountains. It can save your bacon. In alpine country, carry an ice axe and know how to self arrest and self belay. These are critical mountaineering skills that are not hard to learn, but you do need to practice them, so that they become second nature to you.
If you take time to shop carefully, you will find several very nice lightweight ice axes on the market. Grivel, Black Diamond and Camp have several - listed HERE.
OTHER IMPORTANT SAFETY GEAR
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.
Thin bamboo poles with a colored flag on one end. They are trail markers. When you're out in snowy conditions, especially overnight, these little poles, placed strategically along your route, can help you find your way back out.
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:
Beacons are getting less intimidating (a.k.a. user friendly) since the invent of the Digital Beacon which, basically, pinpoints the buried victim and allows the searcher to proceed straight ahead to the spot without conducting time-consuming and harder to learn grid searches. Be that as it may, beacons are a must for Winter backcountry travel into potential avalanche country - as are probes. Beacons will allow you to find the area where the victim is probably located and the probes help to pinpoint the spot to dig. The BC Access Tracker DTS digital beacon has become the top-selling avalanche beacon in the world.
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.
Another item of gear that can be beneficial, if not essential when hiking in the mountains or boating/canoeing on big water, is a weather station.
Other Useful Safety Gear:
It measures altitude and used together with your map and compass can help pinpoint your location. I use mine, also, extensively, to check barometric pressure (to detect changes in the weather). You see, the altimeter altitude reading has an inverse relationship to the movement of barometric pressure. If you notice a sudden, dramatic, unrealistic altitude increase on your altimeter (over a two hour period, for example) it may indicate an equally dramatic lowering of barometric pressure (which could mean an impending storm). Anyway, its a good tool to have and know how to use to stay "unlost" and to have "sort of a clue" about impending weather conditions.
is an instrument for determining the pressure of the atmosphere and hence for assisting in forecasting weather and for determining altitude
is an instrument for measuring and indicating the force or speed of the wind.
is an instrument used for measuring the moisture content in the environmental air, or humidity.
- An emergency shelter like the 1 pound 2 oz. Hilleberg Windsack
In Scandinavia, this traditional piece of equipment is given a place in most everyone’s backpack when walking, skiing or climbing in the mountains. It provides superb protection against wind, and poor conditions. The Windsack is windproof and water repellent. It has an extended range of applications: protection from the elements on a break, emergency bivouac in a sudden snow storm, a sleeping bag cover in a snow cave, or as a shelter from the wind when you are working on your tan! As a piece of safety equipment the windsack should always be given a place in your pack (in winter together with your snow shovel). It is excellent protection against hypothermia when you have to sit out a storm in the mountains. And it is so light that you do not have to do without it on any kind of trip. Three people with smaller backpacks or two people with larger ones have room in a Windsack. The Windsack is both roomy and light. Three people can use it without any problem. At the top there is a zipper with four runners allowing you to stick out your head or to vent out air. At the bottom hem there is a draw cord. The top corners have pockets for ski tips.
- or the Hilleberg Bivanorak - which is a bivy bag, a sleeping bag cover, emergency shelter and ordinary rainware, all in one.
- An emergency shelter or tarp like the ultralight, minimalist MSR Wing
- In an emergency, keep yourself warm with an ultralight Vapor Barrier Bag like the Western Mountaineering Hot Sac VBL
- A listing of emergency gear items (e.g., emergency kits, water treatment, blankets, shelters, hand/feet warmers, etc.) Emergency Gear
CHECK THE WEATHER IN YOUR AREA:
SNOW & AVALANCHE
If 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 67+), 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 100 to 200 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 5 lb dumb-bells. Then, after the stretching & warmup exercises, I don a 20 pound pack, strap 2.5 lb weights on each ankle (in addition to a 2.5 pound Raichle Eiger boot on each foot) and proceed to hike 2.5 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 itself. So how about you ? Find out what works for you and then JUST DO IT !
OUR HEALTH & WELFARE
Be 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 CAMPING EQUIPMENT SOURCES
WINTER SHELTERS - FOUR SEASON TENTS
WINTER BIVY BAGS
WINTER SLEEPING BAGS (Down & Synthetic Fills / Gore Windstopper & Microfiber Shells)
SLEEPING PADS, PILLOWS, Etc.
SNOW SPORTS EQUIPMENT (Snowshoes, Ski Poles, etc)
WINTER KITCHEN (Stoves, Cookware, Water Treatment, Food, Utensils, etc)
Black Diamond Ice Axes & Tools
Camp Ice Axes & Tools
Snow Sport Accessories