Outdoors & Environment

A Guide to Walking on Snow

by KM Team February 06, 2019
ReadA Guide to Walking on Snow Photo by Aaron Huber

Put one foot in front of the other

Invented almost 6,000 years ago, the original snowshoe was made to suit the terrain it was used on. [. . .] Today’s snowshoes most resemble the Huron Cree’s, which included a webbed bottom and a wooden frame. This design tends to work for most hikers around the world, with variations depending on the terrain (flat, rolling, or mountainous). The shapes of modern snowshoes are made to interlock, meaning that the larger front of the shoe fits like a puzzle piece next to the back of the other shoe, making it easier to walk normally and stay balanced.

Hit your stride

On first try, walking in snowshoes can feel similar to walking in swimming fins. Unless the snow is a few degrees away from turning to solid ice, it will have some give, and you’ll need to raise your legs higher than normal to move forward. To avoid stepping on your snowshoes or knocking them together, take longer, wider strides. With hiking poles, you can keep your balance while maintaining an easy pace. The learning curve for walking in snowshoes is very shallow, and most people can hit a comfortable stride with just a little practice.

Find your angle

Walking uphill and downhill takes more skill than navigating flat terrain. Most snowshoes come with front and/or back crampons that help dig into the snow and ice, enabling a better grip on sloped ground. Hiking poles are always recommended.

For uphill walking in powdery snow, kick the tip of your snowshoe forward into the incline of the hill to create a step (otherwise known as the kick-step method), gradually loading it with your weight. Take smaller strides with your knees bent, and keep the weight of your body forward for momentum. Another option is to “side hill,” a way of traversing steep and difficult terrain by pushing the uphill side of each snowshoe into the slope, creating a shelf as you move up and across. A third method is the duck walk, with shoes pointed outward at roughly 45 degrees. Pack out the snow with your foot to create a solid base before taking the next step. Regardless of which technique you use, always rely more heavily on your traction devices and poles when the snow is hard or icy. If a hill seems too steep, try finding another route before attempting what might be an impossible climb.

For downhill, take slow steps downward as you lean slightly back, planting your foot from heel to toe. Your knees should be bent. Use your poles for extra balance and better control. You may start to slide, which is okay—just be cautious of your pace. You can always stick out your butt and fall backward to halt an overly steep descent.

If the shoe fits

Here’s a simple equation to find your approximate snowshoe size: your weight in pounds (add in your gear if you carry any) equals the same number of square inches in surface area you’ll need for your snowshoe to stay afloat on the snow. For example, if you and your gear weigh a total of 200 pounds, you want about 200 square inches of surface area per shoe, which in snowshoe sizes would be 8×25 inches. For toasty toes, wear pure wool socks that wick away moisture. Go with insulated, waterproof, lace-up boots to keep your foot as secure as possible in the snowshoe bindings.

*This is an excerpt from “The Kaufmann Mercantile Guide.” To see more guides for a slow and thoughtful life and original artwork, check out the book in our shop.

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