Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hiking With Snowshoe Basics

If you think that your hiking days are over you are completely wrong. There is a whole new world of white waiting to be explored. All you need is your current hiking gear, appropriate clothing and boots, and snowshoes. Whether you want to trudge around the closed roads of your favorite park or take an extended hike deep into the woods, snowshoes can get you there quickly and effectively. You also gain the additional benefit of getting a tremendous aerobic workout, which will help you keep in shape for the coming spring.
The first thing you need before hitting the trail is the right clothes. Dressing in layers is critical. As you heat up through physical activity you can open or shed layers to prevent sweat build up. Protecting your feet, hands, face, neck and head are extremely critical. Fifty percent of your heat loss is through your head. Improper clothing can lead to hypothermia or frostbite, and in extreme cases can cost you a limb, or even your life.
Wearing the right layers also means being able to stay dry. Snow is frozen water, your body's warmth, sweat, and even your breath work against you creating moisture against your skin. Your first layers should be silk, Capilene or DryClime. Cotton should be avoided. If you are on a budget consider a wool blend if you can deal with being a little itchy. On the outer layer you should avoid letting moisture come through your protective layers. Gore-Tex is best, but if you can't afford it nylon or nylon blend that has been treated will do. If you're snowshoeing in the Mid-West or areas that are windy make sure your outer layer properly protects you form the heat robbing properties of the wind.

The next thing you need to do is select a snowshoe. Snowshoes came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes depending on the conditions you will be experiencing. The most important factor is the, "float," the snowshoe you are considering provides. The float is what keeps you from sinking down into the snow, also known as postholing. If you're postholing, you're losing precious time, traction, and energy.

Float is rated on most snowshoes in terms of total pounds the shoes can carry. This is a very important point, because the reference point is total pounds. If a snowshoe is rated for 225 pounds and you weigh 200 pounds, better make sure your gear and clothing doesn't push you over the top. In other words add up the total weight, including your cold weather gear and pack. If you plan to do backcountry camping, be especially careful to factor in the additional weight the heavier pack and gear will add. The snow you are trekking on has an effect too. Colorado champagne powder is going to require more float than the wet heavy snows of the Olympics and western Cascades.
Another thing to consider when selecting snowshoes is the shape of the snowshoe itself. Rounded snowshoes will provide better float than tapered ones. However tapered ones are easier to walk in because you can maintain a natural stance, versus having to stand ever so slightly bowlegged. If you are large framed or heavy, look for more rounded shoes, the added float will be more important than the slightly awkward gait you will have to walk.
When looking at snowshoes if you expect to find the wood and leather ones hanging on the wall as a decoration at your grandfather's hunting lodge, you are going to be in for a big surprise. Today's snowshoes are made with high tech components. Most are made out of durable plastics, aluminum and synthetic rubber. Some advanced models are made out of exotic materials including titanium, but be prepared to pay a lot of money.
On the subject of money buying a pair of snowshoes is not cost prohibitive, even on a tight budget. High quality models that can carry 190 pounds can be found for under $200. Models that can carry 275 pounds can be found for under $250. It's even inexpensive to get the whole family involved, snowshoes for children can be found for under $50!

The next thing you need to consider is your boots. Unlike skis, you don't need to spend more money on specialized boots that latch into your snowshoes. Many people elect to use their backpacking boots that they would normally use in the summer months. By wearing layers of socks and making sure they are completely waterproofed, your regular backpacking boots can provide a moderate level of service.
If you have money to burn you may want to consider getting some mountaineering boots. Made out of waterproof materials like Gore-Tex and polypropylene, lined with Thinsulate or wicking materials like DriClime, and specifically designed for cold weather, mountaineering boots can provide traction, support, warmth, and protection from moisture that no backpacking boot can provide. If you live in an area with an extreme winter climate, you should strongly consider getting mountaineering boots.
Another item that you should absolutely have before hitting the trail is gaiters. Gaiters fit over the top of your boots and go roughly halfway up your calves. They keep snow from getting into the top of your boot and prevent cold and moisture from building up around your ankles. They also help keep your outer layer dry, which is important, as your lower legs will be in an endless shower of snow as you trek. If you invest in gaiters you can use them year round, especially if you hike in wet, damp, muddy conditions when the snow isn't flying.
Don't hit the trail without a set of trekking poles. If you ski you can spare the investment of buying trekking poles and just use your ski poles. Quality trekking poles will allow you to change out the baskets; those are the, "rings" at the bottom of the pole. You can use snow baskets to keep the pole from postholing every time you press down during the winter. Because most trekking poles telescope, you will be able to adjust the length for uphill and downhill climbs, which is something ski poles can't do. In the summer you can remove the baskets all together, or replace them with more appropriate ones to the conditions you like to hike in, and use your trekking poles to take the pressure and weight off of your knees. If you are on a tight budget cruise yard sales and swap meets trolling for ski poles. You won't have a hard time finding a pair and you won't spend a lot of money.

So now you are ready to hit the trail, but just how do you walk with snowshoes on? The good news is there really isn't any specialized training required. If you can walk and chew gum, you're ready. It may seem a little awkward at first but once you get use to having to walk just slightly bowlegged, it is pretty easy. You will be able to turn, start and stop normally. However there is one technique you can't do in snowshoes, and that is walk backwards. Because snowshoes have little metal cleats on the bottom of them, the cleats can catch as you step back, and can put you on the ground fast. If you have to turn around, all you need to do is simply pivot in a tight circle.
This leads to one of the first questions of a novice to snowshoeing, how do you handle hills? The reality is that unless the incline is extremely steep, it is pretty easy. Because snowshoes have those little cleats, they act like crampons and grab the surface, even offering you traction when things are icy. The best way to go is straight up or straight down, using your poles to balance and add traction if needed. Walking along an incline can be very difficult in snowshoes with gravity wanting to pull you downward so avoid crossing hills and move with the terrain.
Your first trek shouldn't be a grueling trip into the backcountry. Keep things simple. You are going to move slower in snowshoes than you will if you are hiking. The snowshoes and the layers of clothing complicate simple tasks like taking a rest break, or even going to the bathroom. And then there is the danger of the cold. If you plan to hit the backcountry you should seriously consider taking a winter survival course. Never snowshoe without notifying a responsible person of your plans and always carry adequate gear. Even if you are going for a short afternoon jaunt, have enough to get by for at least 24 hours.
Another safety issue you should follow is the weather. In higher elevations the weather can change very quickly. A sunny afternoon can turn into a blinding blizzard or a cold miserable rain. The wind and cold can cut through like a knife, and if your body can't maintain it's core temperature, you'll start to get hypothermia. In other words check the weather forecast before going out the door and trust your instincts when you are on the trail.
Another threat to consider in some parts of the country is avalanche. Every year avalanches kill several people across the United States. If you are hiking in a hilly or mountainous area know the avalanche risks and don't take any chances. Listen to the recommendations of area officials or people you know as trusted experts. A group of people moving through a dangerous area does not mean it is safe for you to pass.
If you live in an area that is prone to avalanches, you should carry a shovel and an avalanche beacon with you at all times. In the event that you are buried in the snow, the beacon will send off a signal that rescuers can use to home in on. Remember that an avalanche beacon is not a life insurance policy; it only helps rescuers find you faster. The survival rate of people buried in the snow by an avalanche is extremely low so don't take unnecessary chances.
If you are already enjoying other outdoor sports like skiing or snowboarding, you are probably less than $200 away from starting snowshoeing. The benefits of trekking through the quiet forest, fields, and mountains are endless. Cold, crisp clean air offers spectacular views free of insects and free of most other people. The hiking season hasn't ended - it has just begun.

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