In The Field: Summit County snowshoeing 101
January 13, 2016
Snowshoeing is the oldest way of moving across snow.
Ancient records show that snowshoes were developed in Central Asia and then North America roughly 6,000 years ago. A separate and even older line of development is the kanjiki of Japan, which date from about 12,000 BC and, in some cases, are cited back to 14,500 BC.
The earliest versions of North American snowshoes for open country were made from wood slabs sometimes as long as seven feet, similar to current-day skis. Made for use in heavy timber, these were built with a frame of white ash or willow strung with rawhide to provide a platform for flotation.
Technology has come a long way since then, and modern shoes are usually aluminum frames with urethane decking. Mountain Safety Research uses a design developed by Bill Forrest, a long-time Colorado mountaineering pioneer.
The shoes are made from molded plastic with a detachable flotation tail and steel crampons. This shoe is 8 inches wide and 25 inches long. The tail is easily attached with one thumbscrew. The shoes will support an adult with a heavy load.
Don't be intimidated if you haven't tried snowshoeing – it's the easiest way to move through snow. It's just walking in big shoes. All snowshoe bindings are similar, consisting of a toe piece and heel strap. Simply locate the ball of your foot over the pivot point of the binding and tighten up. I would also place the buckles on the outside so they don't interfere with walking, similar to buckles on a ski boot — although there are no left and right shoes. If you are carrying a heavy load or moving in deep snow, use poles to stabilize your body.
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The real perk
The real advantages of snowshoeing: no formal instruction required, no need for groomed terrain and no big investment in gear. (Most trails also don't require a lift or day pass.) All ages, from 8 year olds to 80 year olds, can participate. The only real cost is the gear: Modern snowshoes range in price from $90 to $300 new, $30 to $100 used. I found two pairs locally for $80 just last week.
Snowshoes are available in lengths from 18 inches to 36 inches. The following is a rough sizing chart based on length. Widths will vary:
Children less than 70 pounds — 17-inch length
Adult on packed trail, no pack — 20-inch length
Adult on semi-packed trail, light pack — 24-inch length
Adult on unpacked trail or new deep snow, light pack — 30-inch length
Adult on deep snow with a heavy load — 36-inch length
Women can generally use the same length shoes as men. Small women and racers use shoes from 15-20 inches in length.
Rentals are a good way to get started. Former Olympian Jana Hlavaty at the Keystone Nordic Center rents shoes and poles with access to groomed trails for $15 to $25 per day by calling the center at 970-496-4275. You can also check local ski rental shops.
Where to go
Summit County offers snowshoeing opportunities right outside your door. I like to use single-track bike trails (ex the Rainbow Lakes system outside of Frisco, the Tenderfoot Mountain system in Dillon and the French Gulch trails in southeast Breckenridge) or pioneer trails on U.S. Forest Service land.
You can get a great workout without going far from home, or you can make an expedition into the backcountry with low impact and few people. It's up to you.
What to wear
Start with the same clothing you use for skiing or riding and add a pair of stout waterproof hiking boots with a medium-to-high collar. Make sure you include:
Lightweight synthetic underlayer
Medium-weight synthetic or wool sweater
Medium-weight synthetic/wool blend knee-high socks
Lightweight pants (fleece pants with a windproof shell are ideal)
Lightweight jacket or fleece pullover
Knee-high gaiters to keep snow out of your boots (optional for a short trek or packed trails; a must in deep snow and traveling off trails)
1-2 liters of water
Trail food (about 1,000 to 3,000 calories)
What to wear in the backcountry
For longer treks into the backcountry, don't forget this optional gear:
Local maps or trail guides
50 feet of 550 parachute cord for making repairs
First aid kit
Ground cloth (uninsulated nylon poncho or bivouac, which is French for mistake)
Small pocket knife
Plastic signal whistle
Telescoping ski poles
Avalanche probe poles
Cell phone (just remember that you can't rely on a signal in the backcountry)
If you are not yet knowledgeable about backcountry winter travel, I recommend taking an Avalanche Safety Class. Peter Krainz at Rocky Mountaineering offers AIARE (Avalanche Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Basic Backcountry Avalanche Safety classes by calling directly at 970-409-9555.
Be safe, and get out and go snowshoeing — residents and vacationers, alike. Try a new sport, and get away from the crowds for a day. The best snow is yet to come.
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