Unless you’re a skier, the snow-covered terrain of winter can mean four months inside wondering what the sun used to look like. But not if you have a pair of snowshoes. They make the outside world accessible year-round while requiring no more skill than what it takes to walk to the couch.
We asked Mark Elmore, sports director of the United States Snowshoe Association, to walk us through the basics. After that, we headed outside.
Know Your Snowshoes
Snowshoes come in a variety of materials. The originals, which many people still use today, were wood and rawhide. They are beautiful but can slip on hard-packed snow. Plastic snowshoes are lightweight and inexpensive, but lack durability.
There are carbon-fiber options, too, but those are expensive enough that they’re used only by true aficionados. In the U.S. most people choose aluminum. It’s relatively light and durable, and doesn’t require you to pawn family heirlooms to purchase.
💡 When snowshoeing in a group, let the fittest person lead. The snowshoers in front will do the work of packing down the snow to make an easier walk for those in the back.
The snowshoes you use depend on the terrain you plan on covering and how long you’ll be out. But in general, remember: The deeper the snow and the heavier your load, the larger the shoe you’ll need to stay on top of the snow.
Recreational: What most snowshoers end up using. The standard size is eight by 25 inches. If you’re heavier than average, find a shoe that’s a bit longer. If you’re lighter than average, choose something smaller, like eight by 22 inches. Be sure to look at the size and types of boots a snowshoe’s bindings will accommodate.
Some can even fit snowboard boots, if you happen to already own them. Most important on the bindings, Elmore says, is to have a secure connection and a wide range of motion that lets you walk normally.
Backcountry: Larger snowshoes that allow you to travel in deep powder and support the weight of multi-day hiking packs. Standard sizes range from nine by 30 inches to ten by 36 inches, depending on your weight and the weight of the gear you typically carry.
Get the Gear
According to Elmore, it is not the snowshoe or even the location that determines the quality of your snowshoe experience. It’s how you dress. As with any outdoor winter activity, make sure you wear layers to allow you to regulate your body temperature. And remember to bring food and water. A few other snowshoe-specific pieces of gear to consider:
Booties: You’re not going to be warm and comfortable if your feet aren’t warm and comfortable, so start with waterproof hiking or winter boots, and always wear thick wool socks. Elmore recommends neoprene snowshoe booties as an easy way to add warmth and weather protection to whatever footwear you choose.
Poles: Help you balance on the snow and distribute some of the work to your arms and upper back. Poles are especially helpful through deep snow and on uphill and downhill trails.
💡 If you already own hiking poles, save yourself some money and just buy snow baskets. They give the tips of the poles more surface area—and another season of use.
Where To Go
If there is snow, you can snowshoe. You just might feel a little silly if it’s less than six inches.
How To Make Emergency Snowshoes
We talked to Brad Salon, founder of Roots School, a wilderness survival center in Bradford, Vermont, about how to make your own snowshoes if you find yourself in a pinch—or just for fun.
- Ten saplings, approximately 1 inch thick at their base and 5 to 6 feet long.
- Six sticks, 1 inch thick and 6 to 8 inches long.
- 25 feet cordage: parachute cord, animal hide cut into strips, or a ripped-up Def Leppard T-shirt
Bundle and tie together the skinny ends of five saplings. Three feet down from the tie, spread the saplings apart so that they span 6 to 8 inches. Place one of the sticks across the spread-out saplings as a crossbar, then tie each sapling to the crossbar using a transom knot (below). The toe of your boot will eventually be lashed to this crossbar.
The tip of the snowshoe needs to curl up like an elf shoe. To achieve this, tie apiece of cord to the cord bundling the skinny ends of the saplings. Tie the other end of the cord to the crossbar you just installed, pulling it tight until the tip of the shoe is lifted 3 inches in the air.
Place another crossbar 8 inches back from the first one and secure it to the saplings with transom knots.
At the unbound, thicker ends of the saplings, spread them so they span 6 to 8 inches and attach a third crossbar 6 inches from the thick ends. Repeat steps 1 to 5 to create the second shoe. Then tie the toes of your boots securely to the first cross bars. Walk like you’re wearing cross-country skis.