How Snowshoes Work

Using Snowshoes

There are a few different ways to use snowshoes:

  • Recreational snowshoes are good for easy hikes on even terrain.
  • Mountaineering snowshoes, as the name implies, have more aggressive traction that allows snowshoers to ascend and descend cliffs.
  • Aerobic or running snowshoes are lightweight and speedy, but not ideal for blazing trails in newly fallen snow. Snowshoe running races have become extremely popular in recent years; if you're interested in racing in the United States, a good source of information is the United States Snowshoe Association.

Once you know how you'll be using your snowshoes, you can decide what style of snowshoe will suit you best. An Alaskan snowshoe, for example, is very long and narrow with upturned toes, almost like a ski. These can be harder to maneuver and explore in, whereas bearpaw snowshoes are much more compact. Rather than having a long tail trailing behind the main part of the shoe, bearpaw snowshoes are just an oval, which is good for maneuvering but not as good as walking through deep snow. The middle ground, style-wise, is a beavertail snowshoe, which has a teardrop shape a bit like a tennis racket -- it has the oval shape of the bearpaw combined with the tail of an Alaskan snowshoe. The beavertail style is very common and may be what most people think of when they think about snowshoes.

Regardless of the style, all snowshoes are constructed in the same basic way. The circumference of the snowshoe is called the frame; traditionally, this part was made out of wood, but many models are now made with aluminum. Wooden snowshoes are still available, but they are more expensive and require a yearly varnish. Within the frame is the decking, or the interlaced mesh that bears the body's weight. Traditionally made out of rawhide, modern snowshoes usually have plastic decking now. Underneath the snowshoe are crampons, or cleats that provide traction; a snowshoe designed to climb mountains may have many more crampons than one made for walking. Lastly, bindings are important, as they hold your boot onto the snowshoe.

Getting started with snowshoes is very easy. It's like walking, but with a wider, longer gait, so that you don't step on your other snowshoe. You can use ski poles for balance and to work your upper body, but they aren't required. While snowshoeing is very easy to get the hang of, don't underestimate the workout that you get. You'll feel much more fatigued after an hour of snowshoeing than you would after an hour of walking. For one thing, your body is doing a lot more work by lugging the extra weight of a snowshoe on each foot. That means that beginners should be mindful of overexertion their first few times out, but that's not the only safety tip we have to share -- there's much more on snowshoe safety on the next page.