Snowshoe Basics

I like to think of snowshoeing the same way Gandalf referred to Hobbits; “Hobbits really are amazing creatures.  You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.” Snowshoeing is a lot like Hobbits.  


You can learn all you need to know about snowshoeing in a day, and yet it can unlock a lifetime of amazing experiences, fun, and adventure.


Picking a Snowshoe

Snowshoe Size

Snowshoes are sized by weight.  Don’t use your body weight alone though, or you’ll be sinking deeper than you expect.  You have to account for all your winter clothing and gear, which can be enough to move you up a size.  Weigh yourself all dressed (including boots!) and with your backpack (including snacks!) to see what weight you should be using.

Terrain & Snow Conditions

The kind of snow you will be traveling in will impact what snowshoe you should get.  If you will be breaking trail in deep powder, consider going up a size.  If you will be on well packed or narrow and steep trails, a smaller size will be more comfortable and maneuverable.

“Trail” snowshoes are designed for flat or gently rolling terrain.  They are lightweight and less expensive.  “Mountain” snowshoes are for advanced terrain.  They will have more aggressive crampons (spikes on the bottom) for traction, heel lifts for steep trails, and sturdier bindings. When adventuring with us here in Northern, BC we always recommend more aggressive snowshoes with traction along the bottom. These types of shoes make way more terrain and conditions way more accessible, plus we like to make you climb mountains!

REI has a great article going further in depth on how to pick a snowshoe.


The Ten Essentials is the perfect starting point for packing for any outdoor adventure.  

Bring enough clothing layers that you can be comfortable both when on the move (generating lots of heat!) and when stopped (where you cool down fast).

Winter boots are key to having toasty toes and good times when snowshoeing.  Waterproof leather hiking boots are ok for a few trips in warm weather.  For regular snowshoeing in the depths of winter you’ll need a warmer boot.  Look for winter boots that have thick soles, good insulation, and solid ankle support.


Snowshoeing is basically walking with wide feet, so it will feel natural for most people.  There are a few things we can do to be more efficient and balanced.  

  • You want a little swagger, like a cowboy, to keep your feet further apart so you aren’t banging your snowshoes together or stepping on them.  It’s ok if they hit once in a while though, we can’t be perfect all the time!
  • If you feel out of balance or awkward, try taking smaller steps.  Very often, the reason we feel off balance is because our feet are spread out too far.  Bend your knees and keep your feet below your center of gravity.  The trickier the terrain, the deeper you’ll want to bend your knees.
  • Poles help with balance.  Keep them relatively close to your body.  Most people will want two poles with snow baskets.
  • On icy and uneven sections ensure the snowshoe is flat on the ground.  This allows all the spikes and grips on the bottom of the snowshoe to get traction.  They are snowshoes, not skis, so the edges won’t do much for you.

If you are traveling off trail, try to make a smooth track that follows the terrain you are in.  Don’t go too steeply up a hill; try to keep the upwards angle at less than 15 degrees.  Any steeper than that and it can be both exhausting to slog up a steep slope and frustrating as you will slide backwards.   I like to imagine I am a train on a set of tracks; smooth corners, gentle rise over hills, and consistent effort.  Choo Choo!

Winter Hazards

Winter involvesa few extra hazards.  We can still have amazing adventures, but it can take more planning to keep the risk reasonable.

Avalanches: Check out Avalanche Canada’s fantastic website for up to date avalanche forecasts and education.  If you don’t know anything about avalanches, the free online tutorial, Avy Savvy, is the place to start. 

Cold Weather: Cold weather can be intimidating, but we can manage it.  Bring lots of warm layers, and change them whenever you need to.  If you are too hot or cold, don’t wait to stop and change layers, do it right away! If someone on your team is cold, breaking trail will warm them up. Rotating who is up front is a great way to ensure nobody is too hot or cold.

Shorter Days:  The shortest day of the year in Prince George is only 7 hours, 23 minutes.  With sunsets at 4-6pm in winter, it can take extra planning to finish a snowshoe before dark.   Always bring a headlamp, just in case.  Experienced snowshoers may explore after dark, but it’s best to stick to daylight when you’re starting out.


Picking a Trail

If you’re a snowshoe newbie, then a great place to get started is on well established and marked trails.  This can take a lot of the stress out of the day.  Nordic centers, like the Caledonia Nordic Center near Prince George, have well maintained and easy to follow snowshoe trails.

Adventure is always better with a friend!  Joining up with an outdoor club can help you find trails and adventure buddies. 

Heading out with an experienced guide can help you get started right.  Guides do more than show you the way, they also share their knowledge on movement, gear, navigation, and local wildlife.  It’s always nice to have an expert on hand to deal with any unforeseen challenges too.

Winter has a magical effect on landscapes, and will transform even the most familiar trail.  If you are a summer hiker just getting into snowshoeing, try choosing a trail you’ve been on in summer for your first winter trip.  It will look totally different, but with enough familiarity you’re less likely to get lost.  We travel 25-50% slower on snowshoes than summer hiking.

Guidebooks have lots of information, including difficulty ratings and key landmarks.  Start out with the most easily trails in an area, and then build up to more adventurous ones.

Have Fun!

The whole point of snowshoeing is to get out in amazing places and experience nature in all it’s winter glory.  Don’t forget to stop and appreciate the beauty of the outdoors and the joy of adventure!  It’s ok to fall over a few times, just untangle yourself (perhaps with the help of a friend) and keep on going.



Article written by Susan Twitchell – ACMG Apprentice Hiking guide