Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alll About Snowshoeing

I received a request from a photo blog follower to post an update about snowshoeing. When I first moved full-time to Grand Marais in 1994, I almost exclusively cross country skied. Once in a while we would snowshoe if the skiing conditions were poor, or if there was somewhere we wanted to go that could not be done safely on skies.   Last year the skiing conditions were horrible in Grand Marais due to the lack of snow causing icy ski conditions, so I probably snowshoed more than I skied. Now I must admit that I love both.

Snowshoes are footwear for walking over the snow. They work by distributing the weight of the person over a larger area so that the person's foot does not sink completely into the snow, a quality called "flotation".   Early hunters and gatherers who lived in northern climates tried to mimic how animals were able to navigate through deep snow.

Snowshoeing is known to have been practiced in present-day central Asia about 6,000 years ago. It is believed that as these ancestors to the Inuits and Native Americans, migrated from Asia to North America, they brought the snowshoes with them, which were modified slabs of wood. It was not too long before this evolved into the white ash framed snowshoes with the raw hide lacing that we associate with snowshoeing today.

In the past, snowshoes were essential tools for fur traders, trappers and anyone whose life or living depended on the ability to get around in areas of deep and frequent snowfall, and they remain necessary equipment for forest rangers and others who must be able to get around areas inaccessible to motorized vehicles when the snow is deep. However, today snowshoes are mainly used for recreation, primarily by hikers and runners who like to continue their hobby in wintertime. Snowshoeing is easy to learn, and in appropriate conditions is a relatively safe and inexpensive recreational activity.

Traditional snowshoes have a hardwood frame with rawhide lacing. Some modern snowshoes are similar, but most are made of materials such as lightweight metal, plastic, and synthetic fabric.  To prevent snow from accumulating, most snowshoes have latticework.  The design allows enough support for "flotation" but openings to allow snow to fall through.  Keep in mind, however, that snowshoes do not keep you completely on top of the snow -- especially if the snow is deep.  If you snowshoe in heavy wet snow, you can get a workout lifting the snow that does accumulate on top of your shoes with every step.

The wooden snowshoes are generally categorized in three different styles or shapes. The oval shaped bear paw was designed for use in forested conditions where maneuverability was most important. The truly long (46+ inches) Yukon snowshoe was developed for traversing deep powder-covered open areas, common in the Northwest. The beavertail seemed to take advantage of the best features of both the bear paw and the Yukon, and has been utilized in all types of snow conditions. The disadvantage of the old wooded shoes is that there are no crampons in the bottom to help prevent slipping in elevation. They also do not provide as good of traction. The bindings in older wooden snowshoes are sometimes problematic, too, since it sometimes is difficult to keep them on. Finally, the wider wooden snowshoes require you to "straddle walk," which brings on the feeling of tired hips after a few miles of steady walking.  Very few snowshoers today are using the traditional shoes.

The modern snowshoes were first developed by Gene and Bill Prater in 1972 in Ellensburg, WA to overcome some of the deficiencies they encountered with wooden snowshoes while doing winter mountaineering in the Cascades.   Tubbs Snowshoe Company, owned by Ed Kiniry in Stowe, VT introduced the Katahdin and Sierra in 1991 after extensive research and development work coordinated by Rick Howell. Tubbs has helped grow the sport as snowshoe sales have increased up to 20% per year. More than 5 million Americans are thought to now enjoy snowshoeing each winter.

Over thirty manufacturers currently market aluminum-framed snowshoes, led primarily by Tubbs, Atlas (owned by Tubbs), Redfeather, Sherpa, and TSL. Snowshoes today are divided into three types:
--Aerobic/running (small and light; not intended for back country use);
--Recreational (a bit larger; meant for use in gentle-to moderate walks of 3–5 miles (4.8–8.0 km)); and
--Mountaineering (the largest, meant for serious hill-climbing, long-distance trips and off-trail use).

Sizes are often given in inches, even though snowshoes are nowhere near perfectly rectangular. Mountaineering shoes can be at least 30 inches (76 cm) long by 10 inches (25 cm) wide; a lighter pair of racing shoes can be slightly narrower and 25 inches (64 cm) or shorter.

Notwithstanding these variations in planned use, larger users should plan on buying larger snowshoes. A common formula is that for every pound of body weight, there should be one square inch of snowshoe surface (14.5 cm²/kg) per snowshoe to adequately support the wearer. Users should also consider the weight of any gear they will be packing, especially if they expect to break trail. Those planning to travel into deep powder look for even larger shoes.  Many manufacturers now include weight-based flotation ratings for their shoes, although there is no standard for setting this as of yet.

Modern shoes have a series of straps, usually three, are used to fasten the foot to the snowshoe. Some styles of binding use a cup for the toe. It is important that a user be able to manipulate these straps easily, as removing or securing the foot often must be done outdoors in cold weather. When putting on snowshoes, left is distinguished from right by which way the loose ends of the binding straps point: always outward, to avoid stepping on them repeatedly.

All modern snowshoes have crampons on the bottom to help with traction. Since 1994, snowshoe manufacturers have included a second traction device under the heel, to complement the traction device under the ball of the foot, near the toe cord or hinge rod. This heel mounted cramp-on or traction device has again aided on lateral traverses, ice covered ridges, as well as ascents and descents. The dual crampons are now a standard feature on most models sold.  Buyers beware, though, because some of the inexpensive snowshoes still only have one crampon.  Some modern shoes even have three sets of crampons.  As far as I am concerned, the more the better.  One other thing to think about is the size of the "teeth" in the crampons.  I have observed that those with smaller crampon teeth tend to cake up with ice.

Sizes: Most aluminum snowshoes are either 8” X 25” or 9 X 30,” while several other sizes are also available. Consistent users have found that these sizes, although typically smaller than traditionally thought necessary, will best meet the floatation needs under most conditions. It is possible that in the dry powder conditions found along Lake Superior and similar areas with deep snow may require larger snowshoes than the conditions usually found in the east. Each region has its own distinct snow density and moisture content, which both play an important role in floatation. For ease of use, smaller is better. For deep snow, bigger is better.

Another thing that helps with snowshoe safety is the use of poles. Although many snowshoes now come with telescopic poles, I personally recommend not using these. I have been in situations when no matter what you do to keep the sections of the poles tight, the telescopic joint sometimes loosens and gives out. Of course, this always seems to happen when you most need the poles for support in rough terrain.  One advantage of the telescopic poles, however, is that they can be adjusted for snow depth and terrain, and can be shortened to be easily adhered to a backpack when not in use. If you use telescopic poles, constantly check to make sure that they are tightly secured. I recommend instead that you use solid, one-piece poles that feel comfortable when you walk.  Cross country ski poles are usually too long for snowshoeing.

In terms of what footwear you should use, there are choices. Many people use regular hiking boots, but these can get wet.  Regular snow boots often do not give enough support for your feet. If the boots are a little big, your feet can slide around in the boots which can lead to blisters. Another consideration is the shape of the heel. Some boots have an indentation or a ridge where the snowshoe strap insets, preventing the strap from slipping off. Keep in mind that you do not have to fall victim to marketing and buy "snowshoeing boots." If your straps are properly secured, any boot will work.

Since you are most vulnerable when you first start out and put your snowshoes on, it is best to maybe have on an extra outer coat and use thin gloves to protect your hands. Touching the cold aluminum frames and exposing your fingers to attach the bindings can be a rude experience.   Once you have your snowshoes on, loose the extra layer and put on a warmer pair of gloves.

One more thing to think about when snowshoeing is staying warm, but not too warm. When snowshoeing in challenging terrain, you can burn up to 700 calories an hour -- even more than cross country skiing. The tendency is to over dress. For most weather conditions, snowshoers will be most comfortable with fewer clothes than most observers would expect. A layer of synthetic polypropylene or bi-polar underwear (tops & bottoms) will protect the snowshoer from evaporative heat loss, while a wind barrier layer will protect from convective heat loss (wind). Both layers will be all that is required for most half day (up to six hour) snowshoe outings. It is helpful to have an additional insulated layer such as fleece stored in a backpack for the stops along the trail, or for emergencies. Otherwise, the caloric expenditure of snowshoeing is usually more than sufficient to maintain body temperature.

When you are snowshoeing, the tendency is to not think about hydration. It is important to constantly be aware of the need to stay hydrated, especially during the dry winter months. Many summer hikers use the popular water bladders. The problem with these in the winter is that water in the tube freezes. So either have water bottles in your backpack and make a point of stopping frequently (at least every half hour) to take a drink. Or better yet, invest in a water bottle holder that allows you easy access without having to stop and open up your backpack which is not easy especially in the cold if you have to take your gloves off. Select a water bottle that can be opened with your gloves on.

Where to Go: The beauty of snowshoeing is that you do not need a trail or pay a user fee to enjoy an hour or a day. Any area with public access that is covered with snow is a viable snowshoe adventure. Snowshoers are able to traverse areas that would be all but impossible to traverse during other seasons, as the snow depth and frozen water provide the floatation necessary for the snowshoes. Snowshoes also allow you to go places that cross country skies would not.

In most cases you do not have to be concerned about impacting wildlife. Snowshoeing actually provides a welcome relief to non-hibernating animals, as the snowshoe trails will harden up overnight, making it easier for animals to traverse a region the following day. The slow speed of snowshoers does not seem to startle wildlife in the same way as cross country skiing and snowmobiling.

It is safest if you snowshoe with a friend. If you bushwhack and are not on a designated trail, make sure you know the terrain. If you get turned around, one advantage of snowshoeing is that you can always turn around and follow your own tracks back to the starting point. When you travel in groups, it is helpful to switch off the person in the lead position. It is always hardest to break trail.

Whenever you are adventuring in the woods, especially in the winter, it is important to be prepared.  Always have emergency equipment in your day pack including:  compass, headlamp, whistle, food, lighter or matches, and perhaps an emergency blanket.  If you are in an area where there is cell phoone service, it is helpful to bring your phone along -- just in case. 

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