If you’re like a growing number of people, your holiday gift haul might include a pair of snowshoes. Some 3.6 million Americans took part in the sport in the winter of 2019-2020, and that was before the surge in outdoor activities brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. As snow hits the ground in record-breaking amounts in some parts of the country, now is a good time to give the sport a try.
Snowshoeing not only helps you maintain your fitness through the winter, but can often even improve it. The sport is accessible, has a relatively short learning curve and doesn’t require a big investment in equipment, unlike other winter activities like skiing. Today’s sleek, lightweight snowshoes are a far cry from the webbed wooden tennis rackets of the 1970s and there’s a type for everyone, from casual walkers to competitive runners.
Why go snowshoeing?
“Snowshoeing is one of the warmest ways to exercise outside,” said Ray Browning, a former associate professor at Colorado State University who is now the co-founder of Biomotum, which designs exoskeletons. “It’s like walking on sand — you’re going to expend more energy than you would in dry conditions.”
While at CSU, Mr. Browning was an author on a study into the biomechanics of walking with snowshoes; it revealed that snowshoeing required more bend from the ankles, hips and knees than overland walking. This calls for a greater range of motion, which over time can improve the mobility of your lower limbs, he said.
Nicholas Tiller, a senior researcher in exercise physiology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said that snowshoeing requires an adjustment in gait, which pays off in fitness gains.
Snowshoeing is highly scalable, too. On the easier end of the spectrum is a walk in the woods on flat, groomed trails. From there you can advance to hiking up hills and mountains and progress all the way to snowshoe running.
It can even be a healthy family activity, said Tanya Koob, a 51-year-old writer in Calgary, Canada. Ms. Koob and her husband dela have taken their son out on trails since he was a toddler and always fun at the forefront. “Stop to make a snowman or stomp out a large circle and play tag,” Ms. Koob suggested. “Make winter hikes half the distance you would hike in the summer, and keep the climbing to a minimum, as well.”
For bigger kids, or even adults, the opportunities to get creative with snowshoes are virtually endless. Jim Joque, a 72-year-old retired academic, formerly led snowshoeing courses at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “After getting students comfortable on their snowshoes, we played games,” Mr. Play explained. “Simon says, hide and seek or follow the leader, for instance. Then we’d move on to volleyball, kickball, and ‘moon ball,’ a game where we stand in a circle, keeping the ball off the ground and in motion. The students loved it.”
If you want to turn snowshoeing into a competition, you can try racing. Sarah Canney has been a road runner for years, regularly taking to bucolic routes around her New Hampshire home. Running is something she’s motivated to do any time of the year with one big exception: winter. Snow piles on the sides of roads can block the shoulder and make conditions unsafe.
In 2014, after a string of particularly harsh winters, she decided to try snowshoeing. Two weeks after a first foray out her back door on nearby trails, she rented a pair of snowshoes specifically designed for running, lined up at a local race and never looked back. In 2020, Ms. Canney snagged a bronze medal at the World Snowshoe Running Championships in Japan, and today she leads New England-based retreats and clinics for beginners.
How do you get started?
where to go
If you’re ready to give snowshoeing a try, look for a spot with at least six inches of snow on the ground. “Groomed trails are ideal for beginners, because cutting trails on fresh snow can get discouraging,” said Ms. Canney. Check the websites of local conservation groups or an app like AllTrails to find good parks and trails in your area. Many ski resorts also allow for snowshoeing on their cross-country trails.
Some ski resorts and outdoor gear retailers offer lessons or clinics and there are local hiking or snowshoeing clubs in nearly half the country. If you’re near a national park in winter, they may offer guided snowshoeing hikes, a good way to learn while taking in the spectacular sights.
No matter your skill level, it’s a good idea to do a dynamic warm up before heading out on snowshoes so that your muscles are primed. Ms. Canney suggests sets of high knees and butt kicks to get ready for stepping through deep snow. Then manage your expectations. “Start short if it’s your first time out, something like 20 to 30 minutes,” she said. “You won’t cover the same distance as you would on dry land, so set a time goal” rather than a distance one.
Snowshoeing comes with a relatively low cost of entry. A decent pair of snowshoes is about $150 to $200, and if you’re not ready to commit, you can often rent them from a ski shop or outdoor retailer. Have a staff member help you with the sizing and type. They’ll need basic information, like the kind of snowshoeing you want to try, your height and weight and whether you’ll be carrying a pack.
Before you buy or rent, know the type of terrain you’ll be traversing. For flat terrain, a basic pair with simple bindings will do. If you’ll be snowshoeing over rolling terrain, look for more aggressive crampons (the metal claws underneath the shoe), a sturdier set of bindings and consider a heel lift, which makes climbing easier and less stressful on your calf muscles. Going to steeper mountains? Look for a higher-end binding, aggressive crampons and the heel lift.
For snowshoe running, you’ll need a pair specific to that sport. They will be lightweight, sometimes narrower in the back and allow your feet more freedom than snowshoes made for walking.
When it comes to footwear, choose your shoes based on the type of snowshoeing you’ll be doing. If you’re trekking in the mountains, for instance, you might want a hefty hiking or snow boot for support and warmth. If you’ll be running, your normal running shoes or a pair made for trail running will fit the bill. Consider adding gaiters, to keep the snow out, and wool socks.
Snowshoeing might challenge your balance, so you may want to carry trekking poles. “Using poles is more of an aerobic stimulus because you’re using your arms, as well,” Dr. Tiller said. “But once you’re comfortable with them, they can allow you to go longer with less fatigue.”
As for clothing, Ms. Canney recommended dressing in layers that you can strip off as you warm up. “You might want to add a vest or jacket with water-resistant material, so that the snow you kick up will slide off your back,” she said. “Shorts over your tights can help in that regard, too.”
Most of all, don’t be intimidated. “It might feel unnatural to adjust your gait at first, but you can offset that by focusing on your foot itself and not the snowshoe,” said Ms. Canney. “You’ll fall into a natural rhythm pretty quickly.”
Once you’ve got the basics down, you’re in for more than just a good workout, said Mr. Browning. “There’s something magical about being outside in the snow,” he said. “If you want the treat of a lifetime, find the next full moon and go for a walk on snowshoes.”
Amanda Loudin is a freelance writer covering health and science. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Outside and many others.