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Snowshoeing 101

Take to the snow this year by donning snowshoes. Here you'll find out the things you need to do to get started, from equipment and clothing to technique and safety.

Panorama Point Snowshoe
A snowshoer enjoys a beautiful winter day on the Panorama Point Snowshoe. Photo by bev.
If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s that simple. The trick is to find a place that is close and convenient that you can return to time and again. You won’t get bored. Snow has a way of changing the terrain so that each outing offers new discoveries and challenges.

As snow blankets the backcountry, it also beckons: Come! Enjoy the silence and the calm. Come! Explore!

Technique

It’s true that if you can walk, you can snowshoe. You just have to widen your step.

The first couple of steps feel awkward, but your body quickly adjusts to the width of the snowshoes. Walking backwards or turning takes a little practice. You may fall, but usually, the snow is soft.

Safety

Choose your destinations wisely. Some popular summer hiking routes can be deadly avalanche hotspots in winter and should never be considered as snowshoe destinations.

To find safe snowshoeing trails, consult our Hiking Guide, Trip Reports or a guide book.

Knowing how to navigate is also key. Snow tends to make the landscape look uniform and obscure landmarks.

Finally, always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return and call them when you get home.

Clothing

Lightweight ski pants, rain pants with long underwear, snowboarding pants lined with a little fleece layer or regular trekking pants will work well. Snow in Western Washington is quite wet, so you’ll want something water resistant.

Layer your upper body with a quick-dry piece close to your body then a fleece jacket that can be unzipped for ventilation. You want to be a little cold when you start because you will warm up quickly.

Artist Point Snowshoe by geezerhiker
Showing off the gear on the Artist Point Snowshoe. Photo by geezerhiker.

Footwear

You’ll want warm, waterproof boots. If your hiking boots come with materials like Gore-tex, they will be just fine.

Equipment

Before you invest, consider renting gear if you want to check out the different types.

Most snowshoes now have aluminum frames with a decking material that will keep you on top of the snow. Teeth or cleats on the bottom are essential for the icy, hard-packed snow of Western Washington. Some shoes have straps that secure your boot to the shoe. Others offer a binding mechanism similar to ski boots.

Poles, just like for hiking, can come in handy, but they aren't essential on beginner trails.

In your backpack

Snowshoeing is hiking on the snow, so you’ll want to carry the same ten essentials that you take hiking including a map and compass, a hat and gloves, water, sunglasses, sunscreen and snacks.

Some of these are extra important for winter hiking and snowshoeing:

  • Adequate extra clothing - plenty of layers made of materials such as wool or polypropolene that wick sweat and moisture away from your body.
  • Headlamp or flashlight (and extra batteries) are especially important in the winter, since days are short and night comes quickly.
  • Plenty of extra food - snowshoeing is strenuous exercise and you burn a lot of calories, so bring along plenty of extra food and keep your energy level high.

In addition, snowshoeing requires much more energy than hiking, so keep your mileage goals small, and turn around when conditions are beyond your skills or your energy level is low. A few extra items to put in the winter backpack include:

  • Plenty of water - keep hydrated by drinking often.
  • Emergency shelter and/or sleeping bag - seriously consider carrying these in case you have to spend a night out there.
  • Portable shovel - a critically important winter survival tool, which will assist you in digging snow caves in which you can survive a bitter, cold night.  And, it's nearly impossible to dig someone out of an avalanche without a shovel.
  • Avalanche beacon - in avalanche country, consider carrying an avalanche beacon. And know how to use it properly.

Etiquette

Snowshoeing is an increasing popular activity, though, not without conflict. Snowshoeing is permitted on nordic (or cross-country) ski trails, but snowshoers are requested to keep to one side and not walk across the ski track. On steep grades, snowshoers should keep in mind that skiers have the right of way. Do your best to move to one side and allow skiers to pass.

Snowshoeing with a dog

Snowshoeing Dog Snoqualmie
Some dogs like Emma need a coat and booties. Her owner keeps her on leash, and has decided not to use poles. Photo by Tyler LePard.

Most dogs love the snow, but while you're just learning, it might be a good idea to leave your pup at home the first few times out.

Also, depending on their size and coat, some dogs do better in snow than others. Your pup may need special clothing and equipment to keep her safe and healthy on a winter snowshoe adventure.

If you do plan to showshoe with a dog, make sure she is allowed on the trail where you plan to go. (Dogs are prohibited on trails in national parks and, for safety reasons, on groomed trails in state Sno-Parks because dog paws punch holes in the trails.) For everyone's safety (including your pup), it's almost always a good idea to keep your dog leashed.

Stay safe, have fun, and let us know what you find by filing a trip report on WTA’s website!

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