No matter how much fun you're having on your ski vacation, everybody deserves a day off. Scheduling a break in your ski vacation with a day of snowshoeing is a great way to loosen tired muscles, get your dose of aerobic exercise, and see sights that you'd ordinarily overlook while riding on a chairlift.
Snowshoeing has been around in one form or another for over 6,000 years and has enjoyed a renewed resurgence as a winter sport since the 1970s. Since then, ski and outdoor shops have begun carrying a wide variety of snowshoes to rent or buy. But before you head off into the wilderness, there are a few important things to keep in mind.
There are as many different types and manufacturers of snowshoes as there people who use them. The most popular snowshoes are made by Atlas, MSR, Tubbs, Yukon Charlie, REI, and Patagonia. Which model snowshoe you choose depends on your size, gender, the amount of gear you'll be carrying, and the current snow conditions.
Snowshoes come in a variety of sizes, depending on your total weight - the heavier you are and the bigger the backpack you're carrying, the larger the snowshoe you'll need. There are different models for men and women that take into account differences in gait and physical strength. You'll also need to determine what type of snow surface you'll be trekking. For hardpacked conditions (like the sides of ski runs or heavily trodden Nordic trails) you'll use snowshoes that are much smaller than those used for breaking trails on new snow. Generally speaking, the firmer the snow, the smaller the snowshoe required. You'll need snowshoes with a larger surface area to provide more "buoyancy" for deeper snow.
Modern snowshoes are made with "space-age" materials like aluminum frames, polyurethane "decking," steel cramp-ons, durable plastic bindings and heel lifts. The frame is the metal structure that surrounds the perimeter of the snowshoe. It gives structure to the shoe and supports the webbing or decking material. Frames are available in a variety of sizes that depend on your application. The decking material is what allows you to "float" on the snow. Deckings are firmly attached to the frame and are made from combinations of reinforced rubber or plastic. Snowshoe "bindings" serve the same function as ski bindings: they hold your foot onto the snowshoe. Most are made from plastic or rubber and come with easy to use buckles - usually two or more over the foot and one that passes behind your heel to secure your foot into the bindings.
You'll usually find "cramp-ons" and "heel plates" on the bottom surface of the snowshoes. Made from heavy duty steel and sharpened like razors, cramp-ons are what keep you glued to the surface of the snow when ascending steep pitches. Cramp-ons pivot under the ball of the foot to allow your heel to flex upward like a regular hiking boot. When walking on flat or descending terrain, the heel plates (also made with sharp spikes) allow you to put all of your weight on the snowshoe without slipping and sliding.
You may need to buy or rent other equipment, in addition to snowshoes, depending on how long you intend to be out. For short hikes consisting of an hour or two, be sure to carry enough water to stay hydrated. Since hikers typically dehydrate faster at higher altitudes than they do at sea level, plan on drinking at least 1 liter of water for every hour of activity. Platypus and Camelbak make excellent hydration systems for hiking and snowshoeing.
Although they're not required, many snowshoers use telescoping trekking poles to aid in balance and stability, especially if you're encountering rough conditions. REI carries a wide variety of telescoping ski poles that are ideal for backcountry snowshoeing. Unlike the ski poles that you use for skiing, trekking ski poles collapse into shorter, more manageable lengths that easily fit into your backpack when not in use. You also can use them for summer hiking.
Another handy add-on is the snowshoe "tail" made by MSR. Snowshoe tails add length to your snowshoes and provide better flotation when you're breaking trail in new snow and easily snap off when you get back to firmer conditions.
Finally, don't forget the rest of your outdoor survival gear if you're headed out into the wilderness, away from the crowds. Lightweight daypacks, shovels, avalanche beacons, snow probes, saws, and snow testing gear are essential to insure that you get back to your hotel safe and sound.
Snowshoeing can be a great way to take a break from your ski vacation and can provide you with a lifetime of memories. The next time you schedule a ski trip, try penciling in a day of snowshoeing. Don't forget to bring your camera.