Snowshoes can open up a whole new world of exploration
Until taking a Level 1 avalanche course a few years ago, I never thought snowshoeing had much epic potential. But something about that trip – maybe it was the whiteout with a single raven calling in the blankness, the binding that broke on another student’s snowshoe (which is why you always carry repair supplies, right?), the near-paralyzing whumph of a slab collapsing beneath us as the nearby mountains greedily sucked up two days worth of fresh snow – something in there convinced me that as simple as snowshoeing is, it’s totally worthy. Of your respect and your enjoyment.
Most of my other snowshoe outings have been nice and tame – putting through Moose Meadows in Girdwood, watching the dog bound through powder like a rabbit; topping out a wintry ridge to catch the sunset or ducking in and out of trees, exploring places where my skis are too long or my skill level too low to safely take me.
That ease – truly as simple as putting one foot in front of the other – is a huge part of snowshoeing’s appeal. After just a few minutes of tromping around you can tackle almost any terrain, and no need to wait for the groomer. That short learning period is also one of snowshoeing’s greatest dangers. Without any sort of apprenticeship or built-in skill threshold to keep you in tame terrain for a while, there’s precious little chance to build the sort of winter travel know-how and avalanche savvy that it takes to stay safe out there.
So. The first thing a snowshoer should do isn’t go for a walk. First, learn something about avalanches. Get an idea of where the line lies between acceptable and unacceptable risks, and how close you can safely get to it. Once that’s out of the way, you’re down to selecting your gear: winter layers; the 10 essentials; gaiters to close the gap between pants and boots; trekking poles with snow baskets for stability and help getting back up if you fall; and, of course, your snowshoes.
Snowshoes are sized by weight, so look for a pair that can support the combined weight of you, your winter clothing, and your full pack. If you’re near the top of the weight range for any given size, it’s usually a good idea to bump up, especially if you’re planning on traveling on loose snow, which requires greater flotation.
Take a look at the bindings on the snowshoe. They should fit your winter boots or shoes of choice, and be easy to operate even with gloves on. Then flip the snowshoe over and look at the cleats on the bottom. The more you plan to travel on packed snow or slopes of any sort, the more important those cleats become for traction; modern snowshoes have them positioned to offer traction to the front, rear and sides, both under the balls of your feet and your heels. Some also offer serrated ridges around the edge of the snowshoe frame for additional grip.
If you’re primarily interested in running in snowshoes, most major manufacturers offer at least one running or racing model. They’re usually smaller and lighter than snowshoes meant for backcountry use, and are built to facilitate a more natural foot strike and stride. And finally, if you’d like to give snowshoeing a try but aren’t ready to drop $100 or $200 on a good pair just yet, you can rent them from REI, AMH, UAA and APU. REI also offers in-house classes on snowshoeing basics almost every month during the winter.
Once you’ve got your snowshoes, where should you go? The beautiful answer is that you can go absolutely anywhere, as long as you stay out of groomed ski tracks – nothing will ruin them faster than snowshoe tracks.
Beginners may be most comfortable in the relatively flat lands of Campbell Tract or Russian Jack Springs here in Anchorage, and the wide expanse of Moose Meadows in Girdwood. Once you’re comfortable tackling small hills, check out the untracked snow between ski loops near Service High. (Remember, stay off the groomed tracks!) Glen Alps and Prospect Heights are other excellent intermediate snowshoeing destinations; I especially love exploring the side trails around Campbell Creek Gorge.
Just make sure you take your savvy brain with you wherever you go – being on snowshoes doesn’t make you immune to danger.
Want to learn?
Snowshoeing is really as simple as getting used to a slightly different gait while walking. REI offers a Snowshoeing Basics class 6-7:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at the store.
Experienced REI staff will share the appropriate selection of gear needed for the type of snowshoeing you want to do – running, deep powder, etc. – as well as the basics on what you need and where to go to get started. Register at rei.com/stores/anchorage.html/.