“Nature says, ‘I’m going to snow. If you have on a bikini and no snowshoes, that’s tough. I am going to snow anyway.’” - Maya Angelou speech
The Greek word for snow is chion. And when it comes to snow, you are either a phobe, euphore or a phile. A chionophobe is someone who doesn’t like snow and avoids it. Chioneuphores tolerate snow and chionophiles look forward to, and enjoy, snow and the winter months. As the days get shorter and nights get longer, fight the urge to hibernate. Instead of enduring the cold temperatures and snow by staying indoors wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, spread your winter wings and make the most of the nivean (snow) environment. Now is the time to ditch that bikini and break out the snowshoes!
A few thousand years ago, being able to travel and move about in the winter was critical for our ancestors’ survival. However, with our relatively small feet and big bodies, traveling in snow was a substantial challenge. At some point, probably when post-holing through thigh-deep snow, our human ancestors may have observed a snowshoe hare (or other big-footed chionophile) moving effortlessly across the top of the snow thanks to its big feet. Well, we humans may not have big feet, but we do have a big, creative brain; a brain that recognized the benefits of big feet and translated that knowledge into simple yet efficient devices that imitated the bunny’s big feet—snowshoes.
Snowshoe designs continued to improve and eventually evolved into a few functional shapes and sizes, which were influenced by location, type of use and snow conditions. Initially, skis were called long snowshoes and snowshoes were called raquettes by French Canadians, because of their similarity to tennis rackets, and webs by Europeans who recently arrived in America. But, by the early 1900s, raquettes and webs became snowshoes, and long snowshoes were known as skis.
Snowshoes were indispensable winter survival gear for Native Americans, trappers and explorers but were also used for winter sports. In the mid-1800s, several snowshoe clubs on the eastern side of Canada conducted racing competitions. Recreational snowshoeing was born.
Snowshoeing as a winter activity has become increasingly popular, and why not? It’s easy and inexpensive, and the whole family can participate. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Aluminum frames and neoprene decking make moderns snowshoes lightweight and maneuverable. Also, bindings have improved. Rotating-toe cord bindings allow the tail of the snowshoe to drag instead of being lifted, which requires less energy. The fixed-toe cord binding allows the whole shoe to be lifted, which makes it easier to step over obstacles or run on packed trails, but requires more energy. Crampons can be added for extra traction and stability; however, if you are moving through downfall, you may want to remove them because they easily catch on wood and can trip you up. Insulated boots that support your ankles and hiking poles provide additional stability.
The increased popularity of snowshoeing has seen recreational programs pop up everywhere in snow country. Community recreation programs, colleges, ski resorts and park facilities offer workshops, demonstrations, clinics and races. Some national parks and ski resorts loan out snowshoes for day use. State Park and Recreation agencies have designated snow-park locations (large parking lots kept clear of snow) for winter recreationalists. Some snow parks have groomed trails dispersing from the parking lot and are typically intended for cross-county skiers and snowmobilers. However, with the continued popularity of snowshoeing, trails nowadays often have a designated side for the shoeing crowd.
Snow conditions dictate the style and size of snowshoe best suited for the day’s travel. That fluffy white stuff isn’t always fluffy; the snowpack has different densities. If you are venturing out on dense, compact snow, a smaller snowshoe is adequate. In some instances, if you are smaller and don’t weigh a lot, you can walk without snowshoes on top of this type of snow. However, if you are looking to trek through some champagne powder, that beautiful light, fluffy stuff, you will need to go with a bigger snowshoe. Even with a larger snowshoe you will still sink a few inches, and breaking trail in powder is quite a workout. Go with a few friends so you can switch off trail-braking duty.
Most dogs enjoy the snow, and snowshoeing is a great activity for many fur-faces. My furry four-legged companions love the snow. However, they usually are not allowed on groomed trails. No matter, they will gladly follow you as you break trail on any snowshoe adventure. They figure out very quickly that it is easier to bring up the rear while you do all the hard work. Once the trail is established, they will happily run ahead investigating the nivean environment. Dogs are quick to pick up the scent of any wild critter that has crossed your path. If you are out and about after new, sparkling snow has settled, usually 24 to 48 hours, you are likely to see a variety of animal tracks. I spent years snow-tracking on various wildlife research projects and still enjoy spotting and trailing tracks to identify what kind of chionophile was out and what they were doing.
If you do have your pups with you while exploring the nivean environment, keep in mind, particularly if you are on public land, winter is when trappers are out setting their trap lines. Watch for boot tracks or snowshoe trails. Pay attention to your dog’s behavior, especially when they pick up an unusual scent. Different attractants are used—sometimes a can of sardines, sometimes a lure that smells like skunk. If you notice other human tracks, smell skunk or see your dog overly focused on a specific spot, rein them in and move on because there is likely a trap or traps set in the area.
There are numerous guide books that describe routes (some are summer hiking trails), from easy to extreme, and give advice for trekking during the winter. On the other hand, you may want to go it on your own and enjoy the freedom of making your own path. Keep in mind that landmarks look different in the winter, so having some navigation savvy is wise. Additionally, if you are following tracks made by some other adventurer, you should have a good sense of where the tracks lead—the route may be an avalanche hotspot that you should avoid, or you may be following someone with more extreme genes than yourself. Always take plenty of food and water. Most importantly, always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back—cell phones don’t always have reception in the backcountry. Safety first!
Still resisting breaking out of your cocoon and committing to living the life of a chionophile? Here’s some additional incentive; you can burn about 450 calories per hour while snowshoeing! A lot more if you are breaking trail in powder. Snowshoeing will keep you trim and fit throughout the winter and come spring, when the sun is shining warm and bright, you can confidently don that bikini that has been hibernating since last fall.