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Backcountry Travel on Snowshoes for Lightweight Backpackers

Backcountry Travel on Snowshoes for Lightweight Backpackers


by Don Ladigin | 2002-04-15 03:00:00-06


Originally snowshoes consisted of large wooden frames strung with rawhide lacing which allowed the wearer to walk on snow without sinking into it. Snowshoes still operate on this principle, and they are still available in that form, but snowshoes made with high-tech materials are also available and weigh considerably less than snowshoes made with the more primitive natural materials.

There are plenty of good reasons to snowshoe. Snowshoeing has a faster learning curve than cross-country skiing, the other option for winter travel. Snowshoes are less expensive and easier to transport than skis. Here is some information on snowshoes that will be useful in deciding which snowshoes will work best for your needs.

Types of Snowshoes

There are three general classes of snowshoes. They are:

  • Traditional wooden snowshoes. They have rawhide lacing and are large and relatively heavy. They are not as maneuverable as more modern snowshoes, and they require some maintenance each season. Some snowshoers prefer them because they are attractive and nostalgic, but most outdoor enthusiasts use modern high-tech snowshoes.
  • Injection-molded snowshoes. These are unlovely, inexpensive and utilitarian. They are strong and dependable but tend to be heavy.
  • High-tech snowshoes. Usually snowshoes of this sort have tubing frames made of the type of aluminum used in aircraft, and they have synthetic decking material across the broad surface instead of lacing. These are lighter in weight than the other kinds, and they are the type of snowshoe that I will be discussing.

Selecting Snowshoes

Having settled on high-tech snowshoes, you will still face a series of decisions, for the ones best for your lightweight winter outing will depend on your activity:

  • Racing snowshoes are light and small and are designed for running over groomed trails as a competitive sport. They are not large enough to use on unpacked snow, nor are they sturdy enough for backcountry use. Some high-tech racing snowshoes have titanium or carbon-fiber frames which are strong but light. They are great for getting into shape, but they are not designed or recommended for hiking.
  • Recreational snowshoes are designed for casual walking over trails or gently rolling terrain for a few miles or a few hours.
  • Backcountry snowshoes are sturdy, dependable snowshoes designed for steep slopes, deep snow, off-trail travel, mountaineering, and mountain rescue.

In selecting a pair of snowshoes, you will need to consider three variables: the size of the snowshoe, its bindings, and its crampons. You will want snowshoes that are appropriate to the conditions in which you will be using them.

To begin with, you will be selecting snowshoes of a certain length and width. Heavier loads require larger snowshoes to keep the wearer aloft on top of the snow. To figure your snowshoe size, add your body weight to the weight of your loaded pack. If you have a lightweight pack, you will be spending less energy snowshoeing and you will balance better than a snowshoer carrying a heavy one.

The standard adult high-tech snowshoe sizes are:

Width x Length Total Body Plus
Pack Weight
8" x 25" 90 to 140 lb
9" x 30" 140 to 200 lb
10" x 36" over 200 lb

Larger snowshoes give better float in soft new snow, but in consolidated snow you may be able to use a smaller snowshoe.

Bindings are needed to hold your snowshoes firmly to your footgear, and they should be easy to operate even when you are wearing mittens. The type of bindings a snowshoe has affects the way it works. Many snowshoers pay more attention to larger, more obvious parts of the snowshoe and give little consideration to the two main binding types, pivoting and fixed.

  • Pivoting-hinge bindings, also called freely-rotating bindings, allow the boot to rotate freely around a pivot, and they allow the tail of the snowshoe to drop to the ground when the snowshoe is raised to take a step. This sheds snow that has accumulated on the decking. This type of binding does not allow you to back up, because the snowshoe's tails will dig into the snow. It is the strongest type of binding, and it is best when you are going to be doing a lot of climbing.
  • Fixed bindings, also called spring-loaded bindings, have a spring that lifts the snowshoe's tail up away from the snow with every step. This makes backing up possible, but it also throws snow from the decking against the back of your legs, so be sure to wear high gaiters with fixed bindings. Fixed bindings are best on packed trails and in brushy areas where their good maneuverability is an asset.

Snowshoers need to be able to walk up, down, and across hills. High-tech snowshoes provide traction with toothed cleats called crampons. These are usually found on the toe or under the ball of the foot and also near the heel, and they grip the ground on ascents and descents. Additional crampons which run parallel to the snowshoe's sides are found on heavy-duty climbing snowshoes and provide additional lateral stability for traversing slopes.

The Rest of the Snowshoeing Outfit

Preparation for snowshoeing will involve decisions not only about snowshoes but about other items of gear as well. Most fundamentally, you will need suitable footwear to coordinate with them into a comfortable, stable, maneuverable unit. Snowshoe racers wear lightweight sports shoes for racing and training, but if you are venturing into the backcountry, you will want to use sturdy, waterproofed boots with your snowshoes. Mountaineers and snowboarders can wear their specialized boots with their snowshoes, as long as the bindings fit. Many styles of hiking boots also adapt well to this purpose.

It's a good idea to take the boots you plan to wear while snowshoeing with you when you go to rent or buy snowshoes. Most modern bindings are quite adaptable, but not all bindings may adjust easily and well to your footwear.

Snowshoeing racers don't use poles, but most backcountry snowshoers use at least one and more often two. Poles can push interfering branches out of the path and can improve balance on uncertain terrain. Either collapsible trekking poles with snow baskets or one-piece ski poles work well. Some snowshoers prefer poles that come up to the elbow, while others prefer poles that come up about to the armpit the way they would for cross-country skiing.

Not all snowshoers use gaiters, but they are useful for keeping your lower legs dry and comfortable. They are particularly welcome if your bindings are the fixed type, which otherwise throw snow onto the backs of your legs and into your boots.

Some Tips for Beginning Snowshoers

  • Rent your equipment the first few times you snowshoe. This will familiarize you with snowshoeing and will allow you to use several different brands to see which you prefer.
  • Use poles for stability.
  • Go on daytrips with a group.
  • Snowshoe on well-packed trails over gently rolling terrain.
  • Don't get too far away from your starting point.
  • Familiarize yourself with safety aspects of winter recreation, such as minimizing avalanche danger and avoiding or if necessary treating hypothermia or frostbite.

What the Author Uses

I especially like my Northern Lites snowshoes for recreational snowshoeing and I even use them for multi-day snowshoeing over relatively gentle terrain. They have proved themselves to be tough enough for long backpacking trips, and they are so light that I can carry them even when I'm uncertain that the trails will be snow-covered. These snowshoes come with fixed bindings that are very easy to use.

For mountaineering I take Mountain Safety Research Denali Ascent snowshoes. These extremely durable snowshoes are designed for steep ascents and have a televator heel-lifting device that reduces fatigue. They also have excellent traction for traversing steep hills, and they come with pivoting bindings.

Northern Lites and the MSR Denali Ascent snowshoes are both lightweight snowshoes of their type. The Northern Lites are exceptionally light for recreational snowshoes, and the Denalis are low in weight for a technical backcountry snowshoe. Both were reasonably priced, but the main reason I chose them was their suitability for my needs and their light weight.

For poles, I usually choose from among several pairs of Black Diamonds because I am particularly fond of their "flick-lock" adjusters.

Final Thoughts

Snowshoeing is an easy and efficient way to backpack in winter, and it's fun and great exercise too. The silence and peace of the white winter landscape convey a special serenity, and I especially enjoy seeing how many different animal tracks I can identify in the snow on these outings.


"Backcountry Travel on Snowshoes for Lightweight Backpackers," by Don Ladigin. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2002-04-15 03:00:00-06.