Dec 28 2010

If the Shoe Fits: Tips For First-Time Snow Walkers

So you found a pair snowshoes under the tree, did you? Wonderful! Snowshoes make walking through the winter woods almost as straightforward as taking a stroll in a city park. And even if you’re retracing your steps along familiar summer trails, you’ll be surprised at how different things look—and at how much more you can see. Not only are all the leaves off the trees, but the snow faithfully records the comings and goings of every sort of wild creature from mouse to moose. There’s an aesthetic treat in store for you, too, particularly if you’re a photographer. The low sun and long shadows highlight the grain of the landscape like nothing else can.

Is that all? Not quite. If you made too many trips to the groaning board over the holiday—and if the bathroom scale is doing a little groaning of its own on that account—you’ll be happy to hear that walking on snowshoes can give jogging a run for its money in the calorie stakes. That’s a good thing, of course, but it serves as a reminder that snowshoeing isn’t just a walk in the park. It’s strenuous exercise. And the winter woods can be a bad place to get into trouble. So here are a few tips to make your first few snowshoe treks easier. To begin with, …

Adjust Your Bindings Before You Step Out.  For maximum ease, do this inside, out of the weather. (But if your shoes have traction claws—and most aluminum-framed ‘shoes do—stay off polished wood floors and vinyl tile.) Take the boots you’ll be using and fit them into the snowshoe bindings, adjusting the straps to hold the boots snugly. Most ‘shoes are symmetrical, but you’ll want to make sure the binding buckles are on the outside, where they won’t become entangled and trip you up. Some shoes are marked R and L; others aren’t. But you can easily decide which is which, anyway.

Once you’ve completed the trial fitting, remove your boots, put them on your feet, and step into the ‘shoes. Now cinch up the bindings and take a few steps on a carpeted floor. Don’t spraddle your legs as you walk. Keep your stride as normal as possible. Do your boots stay put? Do the shoes go where you point them? Good! You’re ready to venture out of doors. Now …

Snowshoeing

Emulate the Onion.  If you’ve ever peeled an onion, you know all about layering, and what works for onions also works for winter walkers. Snowshoeing is sweaty work—it’s as strenuous as jogging, remember?—but sweat-soaked clothes offer only cold comfort. So dress like an onion, in layers. Peel off layers as you heat up. Then put them back on when you stop to rest or snap a photo. Materials matter, too. Stick to fleece, polyester batting, and wool. Leave your cotton jeans and tees in the closet. And be sure to bring a rucksack so you’ll have a place to park the layers you shed, along with …

A Little Something to Eat and Drink.  Winter air is cold and dry, and you’ll probably find yourself panting on the hills. That frosty breath you see streaming out of your mouth is water leaving your body. So you’ll need to drink now and then to keep thirst at bay. You’ll need fuel for you engine, too. Sugary drinks combine fluid and fuel in one, though plain water is OK, too. (Pack bottles upside down to keep the caps ice-free for as long as possible. But first make sure the caps don’t leak!) Want a treat on the trail? Then bring along some hot cocoa or sweet tea in a thermos. Snacks can be whatever you like, though you’ll want to avoid anything that freezes hard. I like homemade Hundred-Mile Bars, but the range of choices is just about endless. (A hint: If you’re worried that your favorite trail food will get too chewy in the chill air, just carry it in an inside pocket.)

Anything else? Yes, …

Walk Before You Run.  Of course, you can run on most snowhoes, even long traditional ‘shoes like Ojibwas. But it’s a good idea to learn to walk first. And while it’s easier than learning to ski, walking on snowshoes takes a little practice. Choose a level field with no more than a foot or so of new snow on the ground for your first outing, and use a ski pole for balance. (I use two. Large baskets beat small baskets. Keep your wrists out of the straps, too, at least at first.) Now walk. As normally as possible. Don’t spraddle your legs. Lift each shoe in turn—just high enough to clear the snow, and no higher!—easing it past the opposite leg with an inch or so to spare. (Now you know why it’s important to keep the bindings’ buckles on the outside!) Soon you’ll be gliding along. Then it’s time to look for a gentle slope to conquer. You’re on your way.

But while you’re congratulating yourself on your newfound freedom of the winter hills, …

Snowshoeing

Don’t Fall for This!  Every now and then, a powder-filled hollow forms under the lower branches of a conifer. Walk too close to the trunk of such a tree, and you may find yourself floundering in a chilly pit-trap, while your startled companions stare down at you. Moreover, once you’re in the trap, it can be surprisingly difficult getting out. The moral of the story? There are two, really: (1) Don’t walk alone in winter. And (2) approach conifers with caution after any heavy snowfall, using your ski-pole to probe ahead of you. Your pole can also be used to sound ice to see if it will bear your weight, but ice crossings are always dangerous. A tumble into a spruce hole will usually leave you winded and cold, but no worse for wear. But breaking through the ice on a remote beaver pond can leave you dead. ‘Nuff said, I’m sure.

Happily, the only misadventure you’re likely to suffer is a simple tumble, caused—more likely than not—by inadvertently treading on one shoe with the other and tripping yourself up. Unless the snow is really deep powder, self-rescue in these situations is easy. Simply plant the points of your ski poles near your body, then climb the poles hand-over-hand until you’ve pulled yourself back upright. But don’t be fooled. Snowshoeing may be easy, but it’s also strenuous, and it makes unexpected demands on thighs, butt, and hips. So unless you snowshoe year-round, …

You’re Sure to Discover New Muscles.  Even the Hudson Bay Company’s hard-bitten “servants” suffered aches and pains after the first snowshoe treks of each season. Christened mal de raquette, this “snowshoe sickness” was a classic type of overuse injury. How do you avoid falling victim? The recipe is about what you’d expect. Take it easy at first. Build up gradually before undertaking longer walks and steeper climbs. And if prevention fails? I treat mild soreness with massage, coupled with a hot bath and a wee dram. Your favorite remedy may be different, of course. (Hot baths aren’t part of the RICE protocol for treating overuse injury, after all. But they work for me.) One thing is certain, however: Anything more than slight, short-lived discomfort warrants a professional consultation ASAP. Tendinitis is no joke.

Want to Know More?  Sure you do! Begin with “Exploring the Frozen World,” one of Farwell’s “off-season” articles for Paddling.net. Then hit the local library. After that? Go snowshoeing. Winter won’t last forever, you know.

After the Hike

 
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