As with any piece of gear, getting the right equipment will help you perform better and enjoy the experience more. A small investment in time and money can provide you with a new hobby that will enrich your winter days. I have personally tested all gear in this section. Any gear that does not perform well doesn't make it to these pages. I keep the reviews real and point out the aspects of each piece that a snowshoer most needs to know about when making their buying decisions.
Revolutions in snowshoe design over the past few years have made them lighter, stronger, and more comfortable. Today, snowshoes even come with engineered bindings that focus on foot pressure points, control, and ankle and foot flex, and crampon systems designed for maximum spike penetration and traction. From a gear perspective, it's a great time to be a snowshoer. Get all the details on how to choose a snowshoe: size, weight, crampons, etc. in Chapter 2.
I'm often asked if you really need poles for snowshoeing. Certainly there are times when one would not "need" poles, but the primary uses for poles include balance, stabilization, increased cardio and upper body workout, and as an instrument to ward off bears and other wildlife (I'm just kidding about that last part.). Things to consider when looking for poles include the ability of the pole to adjust in height. Adjustability is useful when you need to stick the poles in/on a backpack and also when you are on in traverse incline where one half of your body is closer to an uphill and the upper pole needs to adjust to a smaller size. Weight and strength of the pole are also considerations. The lighter a pole the easier it will be to carry. And, it can ultimately be very frustrating to have a pole bend on you when serious pressure is applied. For more information on how to use your poles, see "equipment and dressing" in Chapter 2.
There's nothing like cold, wet feet to ruin a great experience. When choosing footwear, go for warm, dry, and comfortable. Your choice of footwear will depend on the type of snowshoeing you do. If you'll be cruising deep, backcountry snow, an insulated, waterproof boot will serve you best. If you are taking a run on a packed trail, a pair of waterproof trail-running shoes will do the job. Make sure whatever you wear is waterproof or can be waterproofed. Because snowshoeing requires foot articulation, flexible boots are essential. For more information on choosing the right boot, see Chapter 2.
Gaiters are designed to wrap around the lower leg between your knee and ankle to keep the snow from getting down into your boot or shoe. They help keep you dry and warm. Gaiters come in a variety of lengths. A hiking gaiter is usually short and is used to keep pebbles out of the shoes. A snow gaiter usually comes up higher on the leg. Gaiters can be specially reinforced for use in ice climbing, but special reinforcement is not necessary for snowshoeing.
Good socks are essential. They should keep your feet dry and cradle them in a comfortable cushion. Companies like Darn Tough, Smartwool, and Fox River carry all-weather performance socks with wicking capabilities. These socks provide non-itching cushion and can add a great deal of comfort.
Remember, heat escapes through your head. Use a hat as needed for heating and cooling. On cold days a warm beanie keeps me warm and controls my hair. On warm days, I snowshoe without a beanie, but if it's sunny you may want to throw on a baseball hat to keep the sun out of your eyes and off your face. I always keep a beanie with me in my pocket in case the temperature drops. It's a snowshoe staple.
Everyone regulates temperature differently. Some may have poor circulation and need a heavier glove, while some may need only light handwear in order to stay comfortable. You know what YOU need, but we'll review gloves and you can decide which ones are right for you. Remember - mittens allow your fingers to stay warm together, while gloves seperate. Everyone has a personal preference, but both do a great job. As I've tested gloves I've found that some fall apart, some are less comfortable than others, some have implimented touch pads or key pockets, and while fun ideas, they don't always work. We'll test them out and let you know what holds up and what keeps our testers warm.
What to Wear
There is only one word you need to know about dressing for snowshoeing: layering. With layers you have thermostat control. Too hot–take some off; too cold -–put some on. Snowshoeing generates a great deal of energy and thus heat. Within 10 minutes of starting a trail, I inevitably stop to remove layers. I find that I consistently need to re-layer on the return trip. In addition, winter conditions change. If a storm blows in or the temperature drops, being prepared to add a layer could, in a bad situation, save a life.
BASE LAYER: A base layer is the thinner, "long underwear" layer that sits next to your skin. It should breathe and keeps you comfy at skin level. It should also dry quickly when wet. A tight, sleek fit, that resists odor and is easy to care for is ideal.
MID LAYER: The second layer is an insulator—fleece, down, wool, or some other comfortable warm layer you like to wear. On warmer days you may stop at the second layer using a fleece vest which allows core warmth but cooler extremities.
OUTER LAYER: Your outside layer should be waterproof, windproof, and breathable. Gore-Tex is perhaps the most well-known of these fabrics, but there are many to choose from. Zippered pits in both the second and outer layer are often helpful. Keep a down jacket handy in case temperatures drop, especially on longer trips. A hood protects you during a storm.
Pick clothes that give you options. For more information on how to dress for snowshoeing success, see the "What to Wear" section in Chapter 2.
Hydration systems abound on the market. You can get waist-mounted models or larger daypacks that have a built-in hydration system for longer excursions. Hydration pack companies like Camelbak even make systems specifically for men and women. Backcountry packs, like the Backcountry Access® Stash packs, have a larger carrying capacity and a built-in hydration system, nice for longer excursions where more water and space are needed for the trip. Hydration packs of all sizes and styles exist—find one that works for your snowshoe groove.
When you're in an alpine environment, it's important to protect your eyes from the sun's reflection, from the sun itself, and from blowing snow. Get something lightweight with UV protection that doesn't bounce around on your nose. Companies like Native® and Smith® make interchangeable lens systems with clear, yellow, orange, or dark lenses that can be used according to the day's light range. Polarized sunglasses reduce the glare from the snow, and venting is a must. The Native Silencer has been my personal favorite.