A First Timer’s Guide To Snowshoeing

When it snows – and it will snow sometime this winter – maybe this is the year you give snowshoes a try. If so, here’s our primer for anybody stepping into a pair of rug beaters for the first time.

For suggestions as to where to go snowshoeing, check out MichiganTrailMaps.com where more than 200 trails have been covered and mapped.

By Jim DuFresne

I took Patty Zwers snowshoeing for the first time because I was the one who took her cross country skiing for the first time. She thought Nordic skiing was interesting but I could see from the beginning it wasn’t her sport.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Too much slipping and sliding.

But Zwers loves winter, loves a fresh snowfall, loves being in the woods so I borrowed a pair of rug beaters and introduced her to a new sport. She fell in love with snowshoeing immediately.

Within minutes of arriving at Saugatuck State Park, she had her snowshoes on and was strolling through the woods. “Who would have ever thought walking on tennis rackets could be so easy?” Zwers said.

Then she fell.

She crossed her tails and entangled the crampons of one shoe into the decking of the other, effectively tying her feet together, and it sent her face first into the deep power. “Whoa! Spoke too soon!” she said laughing.

But then Zwers discovered another nice aspect of the sport; a spill while snowshoeing is not half the disaster it is when skiing because getting up is twice as easy.

She’s not the only one to stumble on that.

According to Outdoor Industry of America, the number of people who snowshoe has almost doubled since 2008, making it the country’s fastest-growing winter sport. In 2012, almost 4.1 million people snowshoed, 44 percent of them women.

Is it time for you to don a pair of snowshoes for the first time. Once you tried the sport, it’s easy to understand its growing popularity:

Patty Zwers snowshoes in Saugatuck State Park.

Patty Zwers hits the trail with snowshoes in Saugatuck State Park.

Better equipment: There is no comparison between the wood-and-rawhide models I strapped on in the 1980s and the pairs I use now. Utilizing synthetic decking and aluminum tube frames, my models are lighter to walk in and provide greater floatation on the snow. Crampons on the bottom – there are two sets on each shoe – allows me to climb, descend and traverse the steepest slopes with little or no slippage.

Utilizing synthetic decking and aluminum tube frames, my models are lighter to walk in and provide greater floatation on the snow. Crampons on the bottom – there are two sets on each shoe – allows me to climb, descend and traverse the steepest slopes with little or no slippage.

Rotating bindings use metal rods under the balls of my feet to allow my boots to pivot up to 90 degrees for a more natural stride. The bindings also cause the tails of my shoes to fall away as I raise my leg, shedding snow off them and reducing leg fatigue.Even the price – most snowshoes range from $130 to $260 a pair – is less than what I paid for Nordic or downhill skis.

Even the price – most snowshoes range from $150 to $280 a pair – is less than what I paid for Nordic or downhill skis.

Easier To Use: The best improvement of snowshoes in the past few years has been the ease of putting them on. No more wrapping long laces around your boots with icy fingers. On many models, you step into the bindings and simply tighten them with ratcheting straps on top and behind the boot.

Saugatuck State Park's scenic Lake Michigan shoreline during the winter.

Saugatuck State Park’s scenic Lake Michigan shoreline during the winter.

Greater Availability: Due to their booming popularity, any place that was selling or renting skis a decade ago are probably also stocking snowshoes today.

You can now rent snowshoes from many ski resorts, outdoor shops and nature centers. Places like Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville and Nub’s Nob in Harbor Springs even maintain special snowshoe trails. So does Forbush Corner, a Nordic center south of Gaylord.

Many parks offer guided snowshoe walks on the weekends and have a limited number pairs available for rent. Parks include Ludington State Park (231-843-2423), Hoffmaster State Park (231-798-3711), Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231-326-4700), Hemlock Crossing, an Ottawa County park (616-786-4847) and Meridian Township’s Harris Nature Center (517-349-3866).

Quicker To Master: The main attraction of snowshoeing has never changed; it’s easy to learn. Unlike like snowboarding or skate skiing, anybody can step into a pair of shoes and within minutes be confidently trekking through the winter woods.

In snowshoeing it’s important to keep a wider stance and a slightly longer stride than normal to prevent stepping on top of one snowshoe with the other. During ascents, kick your snowshoe into the slope and step down to maximize the grip of the toe crampon under your boot. When going downhill, maintain balance by leaning back on the heal section.

That’s pretty much it.

It Burns Lots Of Calories: When ski poles are added, snowshoeing becomes a great way of cross training, a low impact exercise that combines an aerobic workout with strength training.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a male would burn almost 700 calories an hour snowshoeing, women usually more than 500. In comparison, most people burn less than 300 calories an hour walking at a pace of 3 mph.

It’s Fun: For all its benefits – low cost, low impact, easy to do –  many people take up the sport because it’s simply enjoyable. Snowshoeing is an uncomplicated way to get outside and into the woods during a long, snowy winter like this one.

One trek through the woods to the frozen shoreline of Lake Michigan at Saugatuck State Park and Zwers was hooked.

“It’s so quiet,” she said as we headed back. “That’s what I really love that about snowshoeing in the winter.”

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2 Responses to A First Timer’s Guide To Snowshoeing

  1. I am new to the activity. With the recent snow MI has finally received, I am hoping to find out a bit more about snowshoeing prior to setting out on a random trail for a trek. The concerns I have are; Will any trail be acceptable to hike on with snowshoes?, or are there restrictions? Are cross-country ski trails a no go completely? or just respect the ruts and skiers on the trails?
    -Thanks

    • Snowshoes are great for random trails. If the trail is groomed for Nordic skiing signs will tell you to stay off the tracks but more often than not on most you can hike along the side of the tracks or skating lane. Just avoid interfering with the groomed portion of the trail. At downhill and Nordic ski resorts like Forbush Corner there will be dedicated snowshoe trails. If you come to a trail that is “skier set” (in other words not groomed but used by enough backcountry skiers so there are a set of tracks) like the Sand Lakes Quiet Area again just walk along the sides of the trail. You’ll probably see a set of snowshoe prints already there.

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