December 19, 2013
How to choose the right snowshoe
I enjoy many delightful spots based on the abundant wilderness in Saranac Lake. As my fall hiking got later and later into the holiday season, the decision to become a snowshoer, aka winter hiker, became an inevitable next “step.”
Many sports seem to demand the equipment before we even get started. How can we canoe… without a canoe? Good luck pole vaulting without one. And so forth.
Snowshoeing is different. We can keep our boots on even as snow whitens the paths. When it gets thick enough for our feet to sink, and have to be dragged out, we have discovered the reason for snowshoes. It’s PSI.
That’s pounds per square inch, which is what snowshoes are designed to distribute. By creating artificial feet broad enough for Hobbitses, we spread out our weight. This keeps us from sinking down into the snow.
So as the snow gets thicker, we have decided to keep going. Now what? My experienced consultants all agreed: this decision point is actually the time to rent.
There are two places in Saranac Lake to buy snowshoes, and both of them also rent by the day. Whether we choose Blue Line Sports or St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, we can consult with folks who are happy snowshoers themselves, and eager for us to enjoy the sport as much as they do.
What kind of shoes do we rent? That really depends on where we are going and what has been happening there. A deep bed of fresh and fluffy snow needs more snowshoe surface than an older, well-traveled, trail.
We also have to consider how much weight those shoes will be holding up. Carrying a pack will require more surface to hold us up than carrying a camera. A child’s snowshoe isn’t small only because a child’s feet are small. They also don’t have to hold up as much weight as an adult’s does.
Modern snowshoes use three basic shapes
The Alaskan is long and narrow and looks like a ski. This has the greatest carrying power, with some maneuvering reduction. Bearpaw is an oval shape, which is the best at maneuvering but less so at the “holding you up” part. Adding a tail to the oval makes it into a beavertail, creating the teardrop shape of every old-fashioned snowshoe hanging over fireplaces throughout the Adirondacks, and is a style which tries for a happy medium.
There’s also three main uses: recreation types for hiking in snow, mountaineering types for actual climbing, and even running types, for snowshoe racing and winter trail running. (There's often a snowshoe race going on nearby. Check our events page!)
I’m starting to understand why my consultants said Rent!
Of course, the snowshoes themselves affect our travel if they are matched to the terrain. We will move more quickly with smaller, lighter shoes suitable for popular, and packed down, trails. If we are on a remote trail after a period of heavy snowfall, our larger shoes might slow us down, especially if we are packing more for the longer trek.
The path gets tougher, the snowshoes get smaller
What if we want to tackle some mountain climbing? Such snowshoes tend to be smaller, and feature gripping teeth on the bottom, known as crampons, and a heel lift, so that our foot is flat even though the snowshoe is not. It helps keep us climbing with a more natural rhythm. If we are not talking about snow so much as ice over rocks, we need a flexible net of spikes to go over our boots and give us a reliable grip.
One great place to try our new skills, which also has snowshoe rentals, is the Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smiths College. Their entire trail network is accessible to all snowshoers, provided they stay off the groomed part of the trails. Here we can practice our sweeping snowshoe steps. Because they are wider than shoes, we need to make sure we won’t trip over our own (bigger) feet.
Once we get into a rhythm, we might be surprised at how exhilarating it is to move along the snow like we are creatures adapted to such travel. While I love the abundant life and movement of summer hiking, the gorgeous colors of fall hiking, and the delicate development of spring hiking, winter hiking has its own savor. The sudden flutter of a bird, the contours of the woods made stark with snow, and most of all, the softness of the silence.
It can be so exciting we have to remember a couple of important comfort, and safety, tips. Layering is key, since we’re going to be active, and will need to take some off. Then, when we stop for a water and snack break (it’s important to stay fueled in the winter) we’ll want to put some of those back on.
Don’t overexert to the point where we start to sweat, because this is going to cool us down, and we really don’t want any of that. Good layers also prevent such overheating. We don't want to be trapped into a choice of parka or sweatshirt or both, because then we don’t have the flexibility we might need. We might think of boots and gloves, but a hat does a lot of heat regulation for us, too.
Don't forget the sunglasses! The sun on the snow can reflect up to 80% of its light. Savvy 'shoers also recommend some duct tape in case anything needs a quick repair.
Many visitors are surprised by the Alpine climate. On a sunny day, with little or no wind, we can be swinging along with our coats open and our hoods down. Between the dry air, which does not conduct cold the way dampness does, the exercise, and the warmth of the sun, we are just as comfortable as we would be at a far higher temperature.
It’s yet another reason snowshoeing is so popular; we aren’t suffering out there! We really are comfortable.
The snow is that deep, and the mountains are that steep
The term “snowshoes” is really about the various kinds of footwear needed to walk around in the winter when we are in an area of abundant snowfall and rugged nature such as the Adirondacks. This is also why we will find ourselves chatting with people who have several pairs. It all depends on what they are planning to tackle that day.
Now we understand the bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. We bring our own boots to the different snowshoes, who have binder systems to accommodate most people’s needs. The variety isn’t about our foot. It’s about our destination.
Going with a local, joining a group outing, setting up a guided trip, or taking advantage of a trail network are all great ways to explore our winter nature. Then we can figure out our own favorite ways of experiencing it during winter. Once we discover the special beauty of woods in winter, we will be ready to start our own snowshoe collection.
And start collecting some incredibly beautiful memories.