If it’s covered in snow, it’s a good trail for snowshoeing, right? Or is it? Personally, I enjoy cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking – but rarely on the same trail despite the presence of snow on all three kinds of trails. While you can certainly go out for a hike on any snowy trail and bring your snowshoes with you, your walk will be much more enjoyable if you choose a trail that is optimal for snowshoeing. Some trails are much more fun on skis, and other trails honestly don’t require anything other than a warm pair of boots. So how do you decide which trails are best for snowshoeing when you need to use snowshoes?
Guidelines for When To Use Snowshoes
Follow these guidelines to choose the perfect trail for your next winter adventure, so you know when you need and when you don’t need to use your snowshoes.
1. Soft snow and powder is your best friend on snowshoes.
Once you’ve snowshoed in freshly fallen powder, you’ll never go back. Snowshoes may feel cumbersome when the trail is too firm and hard under your feet, but add powder or soft snow and you’ll feel like you’re floating.
People who say that “snowshoeing is boring” probably haven’t tried snowshoeing in soft snow or haven’t discovered the joy of jumping off of a big boulder and landing in waist-deep powder. Soft powder provides an opportunity to use your snowshoes to their fullest and have some fun adventures. You can make frequent stops to make snow angels, have a snowball fight with the kids, or even tromp out a circle with spokes like a wheel for a fun game of pie tag.
Special notes when hiking in powder or deep snow:
- Children won’t be able to hike very far if the snow is knee-deep. Either choose a trail that is soft packed and where the kids don’t sink very far, or bring a sled for when they tire out.
- Beginners to snowshoeing will also tire quickly if hiking through deep snow. Muscles fatigue easily when you sink past the top of your boots with each step. Choose your distance with care based on who you will be hiking with.
- Snowshoes will need to be longer and specially designed for deep powder if you are planning to head off the beaten path in the backcountry. Don’t choose a pair of trail snowshoes that are intended for racing or running. If in doubt, rent a pair of longer snowshoes for those special trips where you’ll need something different from your usual gear.
2. Hard packed trails do not require snowshoes.
I cringe every time I see a family or group of adults walking down a perfectly hard-packed trail on snowshoes. The very nature of snowshoes is that they help you to stay on top of the snow when walking through powder. If there is no powder and you can stay on top of the snow without sinking, they are not needed.
Basic guidelines on when to use snowshoes on the trail:
- If you post hole on the trail without snowshoes, creating huge holes in the trail (thereby destroying the trail for other users)
- The snow is soft enough to sink in without snowshoes and hence wearing them is justified and enjoyable
- The trail has already been damaged by other users, is full of post hole marks, and is dangerous to hike. This is often the case in the spring when snow starts rotting and turning to crusty ice. On these outings, snowshoes help you stay on top of the holes so you won’t have any surprises where you suddenly sink up to your knees and get a boot caught in a small tight hole. (I’ve had a hard time prying my feet out of such holes and have risked spraining an ankle.)
3. Choose walking crampons or ice cleats on slippery solid trails.
We like to do winter canyon hiking and it’s much safer with a pair of Kahtoola micro spikes or a pair of Yak Trax (or similar ice cleats), rather than with a large pair of snowshoes. Snowshoes are designed for snow rather than for ice and you’ll just find snowshoes feel awkward if using them on solid ice that is not snow covered. With my micro spikes, I can jump off small waterfalls and make a clear landing without hitting my snowshoe tails on the hard surface.
Basic rule of thumb: Snowshoes for snow, spikes or cleats for ice.
4. If it’s track-set, ski!
Many parks where I live have separate trails for snowshoers and it is preferred that you use these trails rather than hiking on designated cross country ski trails. And why you wonder? Why not just hike to the side of a ski trail or walk down the middle and avoid the tracks? Because nobody does! Hikers like to walk side by side in the middle rather than hugging the edge of the trail single file, they tend to take up a large portion of the trail, they accidentally step in the tracks, and they destroy the corduroy grooming for skate skiers. Why would you want to hike on a ski trail anyway? These trails are so hard packed and groomed, you wouldn’t need snowshoes to walk on them without sinking and there’s no powder to play in. Leave the ski trails to the skiers and find your own powder stash to play in on your snowshoes.
Guidelines for using multi-use or shared trails:
- Give skiers coming downhill the right of way. It’s just good self-preservation, no?
- If on a ski trail, hike to the side of the trail when possible and don’t step on the ski tracks.
- Skier-tracked tracks are the same as machine-tracked tracks. Don’t step on tracks period! It’s just disrespectful.
5. Just because you hiked it in summer, doesn’t mean you should hike this trail in winter.
Many summer hiking trails make excellent snowshoe trails in winter but you should always check with a visitor centre first to find out if you will be hiking in avalanche terrain. If you aren’t properly equipped and trained for traveling in avalanche areas, it’s highly advisable to stick to official snowshoe trails that you know to be safe. It’s also wise to check avalanche reports before heading out. Some trails could still put you at risk when conditions are high or considerable.
Snowshoeing is a great sport when you choose the right trail, play it safe, and respect other trail users for maximum enjoyment on all sides. Kids can be introduced to snowshoeing as well and in the right conditions, will have a lot of fun. Our family does a mixture of snowshoeing, winter hiking, and skiing depending on the destination we are visiting. And sometimes we do all three in the same day for those special backcountry outings where we have to trek a long ways into a backcountry cabin or hut. It’s all about choosing the right sport for the trail and conditions.