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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The author's wife treks on lightweight modern snowshoes hinged with cleats on the bottom. © Patrick Lisi

February 2002

Floating on snow

Lighter materials and varied designs offer snowshoers new twists on an old-fashioned way to get around.

Patrick J. Lisi

The author's wife treks on lightweight modern snowshoes hinged with cleats on the bottom.

© Patrick Lisi
Different strokes for different folks
One foot in front of the other
Warm up before you set out
Making the right moves
Places to go

Out of necessity, I became an adoring fan of snowshoeing in the early 1990s when I moved to Washburn to assume the post of conservation warden. Bayfield County gets a lot of snow. Depths can easily reach 150 inches by the end of a winter season, and "lake-effect" snowfalls near Lake Superior will typically add 25 to 50 more inches just to make things interesting.

When I arrived midway through the winter of 1994, I was greeted to every bit of 125 inches of glittering white stuff blanketing the landscape, and the forecast called for a few inches a day, it seemed, right through March.

To a game warden working in true snow country, a pair of snowshoes is an invaluable tool. My boss let me take a couple hundred bucks from the station budget for a set of Tubbs, a popular brand of snowshoe, and I was ready to tackle the meanest, toughest blizzards Mother Nature could possibly throw my way! Soon, I was walking almost on top of the snow instead of plowing through waist-high banks and drifts, trying to get closer to someone ice fishing or to a set of traps along a creek.

Many times I would spot a fisherman out on the ice from the highway, then don my Tubbs and ease through a woodlot to close the distance. Sometimes I would carry a white plastic pail with a couple of jigging rods hanging over the edge, then simply walk towards a suspect fisher on my snowshoes at a pace that allowed me to get to him or her before they could take in that fourth, illegal line.

After bragging to my wife, Marjorie, about how much fun it was to walk atop deep snow instead of slugging through it and creating an awful sweat (This is a great workout by the way!), she soon convinced me to dip into our savings so she could have some Tubbs, too. This was her first experience with snowshoes, and I dare say she is hooked for life. Now, we spend as much time as we can in the winter hiking most anywhere we can find suitable snow to 'float.'

Floating is the essence and the thrill of snowshoeing. It's almost akin to cross-country skiing. The most common technique to work your snowshoes is to schuss-schuss-schuss along, feeling light and gliding as you create a new track in the fluffy flurry.

Different strokes for different folks

In the world of snowshoes, there are many styles and brands to choose from. And some people choose to carry a ski pole or poles. I opt for one pole for balance, while Marjorie just likes to swing her arms for that purpose. The shoes you choose should depend on the type of snow you are shoeing, how far you want to go, and how fast you need to get there.

The old-fashioned long-tailed wooden snowshoes still work well, and they have their champions, but now there are many options in lightweight, aluminum framed snowshoes as well.

The traditional wooden snowshoes have a frame made from varieties of soft or hardwoods that have been steamed and bent to a particular shape. The webbing is woven from deer hide or rawhide, and the strapping where the feet go can be made from strips of hides or anything else that's handy to bind the wearer's boots to the shoe. Early snowshoes were "long-tailed" (let's call them pin-tailed, like the duck) at the rear which made the shoe more stable in deep snow.

The toe was similar to the modern day snowshoe with a tip that curves upward to keep the shoe from digging into the snow and help the wearer flatten the path with each step. Some staunch snowshoers cling to the pin-tailed design to retain the tradition of the sport, much the same as many archers prefer to stay with a recurved bow or longbow as opposed to the compound bow.

Today's snowshoes come in an assortment of sizes, shapes, colors and materials. Enthusiasts select snowshoes by the type of recreation they have in mind. An easy way to choose what style of snowshoe to use is to gauge the depth and rigidity of the snow you intend to conquer. A hard-surfaced, shallow snow blanket can easily be tread wearing smaller, round-shaped snowshoes; deep or powdery snow requires a larger, oval-shaped snowshoe for easier travel. Some folks buy several pair to fit their every whim.

They've come a long way from rawhide thongs: Today you can find snowshoes to suit different types of snow. © Robert Queen
They've come a long way from rawhide thongs: Today you can find snowshoes to suit different types of snow.

© Robert Queen

There are even special designs for snowshoe racers. With a little practice, they actually sprint across the frozen tundra in several wintry marathons held across the United States.

Snowshoes for small kids commonly use a bear paw design, though they make bear paws for adults, too. In kids' sizes, bear paws are cute little snowshoes, almost round, with simple, fine bindings for petite feet. Competitive snowshoers often use bear paw style snowshoes too, as they are very light and easy to maneuver.

There are many brands to chose from, though Tubbs and Sherpa seem to dominate the industry at this time. They are costly. Expect to pay $225 – $450 for Tubbs or Sherpa, and only half that much for lesser-known brands in adult sizes. My personal snowshoes are made by Atlas, for which I paid $100 at a little shop in Iron River, Mich. Another great brand to consider, the Yakima, is priced a little higher than Atlas, but less than the top brands.

Sound expensive? Marjorie and I figure it's a lot less of an investment than a snowmobile or downhill ski package, and we get a much nicer, quieter workout with our snowshoes.

One foot in front of the other

So, you have a pair of snowshoes. How do you use them?

This isn't as silly a question as you might think.

Using pin-tailed snowshoes, you will definitely be schussing and gliding your way down the trail, especially if you are breaking-in fresh trails after a snowfall. Expect to sink 6-10 inches into new snow if you weigh more than 150 pounds excluding your winter clothing.

Your technique will mainly be sliding one foot and then the other, almost like cross-country skiing, but without as much hinging with your feet. Pick up the toe of your snowshoe a couple inches with each step, allowing your heels to contact the snow underfoot. The tapered tail of the shoe will cut a groove behind and will help keep you and the snowshoes from slipping side to side.

Warm up before you set out

I predict you will feel soreness in your thighs and calves the next morning after your first couple of times on snowshoes. You need to walk somewhat bow-legged, especially if you are using pin-tailed or large framed snowshoes. To avoid tender muscles, do at least 15 minutes of careful stretching before engaging in snowshoeing or other outdoor winter sports. Here are a couple of suggested stretches you might try:

To work the calf muscles, stand facing a waist-high countertop with your feet slightly apart. You want to stand far enough away to simulate doing a standing push-up by keeping your arms straight to the edge of the counter with your hands resting on the edge. Now, back your feet away from the counter so your body slants at a 45-degree angle. The key now is to keep your feet flat on the floor and then slowly bend your arms and lower your torso almost to the edge of the countertop. If this is too much stretch at first simply reposition your feet closer to the counter, and then try to work them farther away as your calves stretch out.

A great way to loosen your thighs is to do a series of "quad stretches." Stay at the countertop, place a hand on the edge for balance, and then bend and lift the opposite leg back so you can grasp your ankle with your free hand. Bring the heel of that foot straight up from behind until it touches your backside. Hold this position for 10 seconds and then exercise the other quadriceps muscles in the same way.

There are numerous other ways to stretch out the muscles that will get worked during your snowshoe activities. It is very important to take a few minutes to stretch both before and after engaging in any outdoor sports, especially in the winter.

I suggest you wear as light a boot as possible for pin-tailed snowshoeing, and that you wear socks made from a wicking material as a first layer to keep perspiration from freezing to your skin on your rest stops. Wear a warmer pair of socks on top of these.

In deep snow, a two-mile hike provides one heck of an exercise. On hard snow, where you might only sink a couple inches, you can go for the day, but don't overdo it on your first few outings.

Let's move on to the 21st century snowshoe. The biggest difference between then and now is the bindings. Notice in these photos that my wife's feet are working a hinged axle as she simply walks on the snow. It's almost that easy – just walk. You need to keep the toe of the snowshoe up somewhat so it won't nose-dive into the snow, and there is a certain amount of schussing, but the axle allows her to use her feet as they were designed – one in front of the other with a full, normal range of motion.

Bindings on snowshoes come in various configurations. You will find everything from simple rawhide lacings to quick-snap connectors fitted on nylon wrappings for ease when donning your snowshoes. My wife and I prefer the latter. The disadvantage is we have to spend a few minutes readjusting the strap lengths whenever we wear a different style of winter boot, but that's a minor inconvenience. Rawhide bindings are simply tied like you would cinch and knot regular shoes or boots. Your bindings need to be secured as tight as possible to prevent your feet from working the straps loose as you walk, which results in a side-to-side slipping.

Choosing boots to bind to your snowshoes also takes a little care. Shop for flexible, warm boots sized large enough for you to wear a thin sock that absorbs sweat and a thicker, wool sock for warmth. Heavy boots like Sorels and Icemens are poor choices for this sport; they are bulky and heavy, your feet slip in them and you will find yourself constantly adjusting your bindings.

Making the right moves

Maneuvering any style of snowshoe can be tricky at times. For example, if you decide to turn 180 degrees and go back where you just stepped, you will have to complete this mission with short, baby steps if you are wearing pin-tailed snowshoes. With a style like Marjorie's Tubbs, she can complete this turn in half the time since her shoes are shorter and do not have a long, trailing tail. Bear paws are easy to turn around in – two steps and you're heading in the opposite direction!

Going up or down hills is fun in snowshoes, but it takes some finesse to stay standing. A technique to use going uphill is to turn sideways to the hill and then sidestep as you inch your way along. This is when I find a ski pole extremely handy as a brace against the downhill side while I take my steps.

You can almost use your snowshoes as skis when coming downhill, especially if you are wearing pin-tailed shoes. If you want to avoid coming down the hill too quickly, bend your knees and lower your center of gravity so you are just about sitting on your snowshoes, then slowly descend.

Places to go

The first ingredient, of course, is great snow. You'll be happier if you can find an area that has at least 18 inches of snow so you get the sensation of floating. Otherwise, you might as well put on your Gortex hiking shoes and just hit the trail. Theoretically, the farther north in Wisconsin you venture, the more snow you'll find.

Marjorie and I used to live in snowshoe heaven in Bayfield County. Now we are in Calumet County, and we're lucky to see a total of 40 inches all winter. Therefore, we travel for our winter sports activities. Door County is an obvious place for us to look first, so we end up doing most of our snowshoeing in the state parks and along rivers there.

Snow-covered ice on rivers and lakes can provide excellent snowshoeing. Wide-open spaces provide an easy environment for learning how to use your snowshoes; there are very few obstacles on a frozen lake to manipulate around. However, if you use ice-covered areas as your classroom please use extreme caution. I never consider ice to be completely safe.

State and county parks north of a line drawn east to west across Wisconsin's Highway 29 will typically provide snowshoeing opportunity. Watch for entry fees at public parks into these areas and don't snowshoe beyond posted boundaries.

My wife and I love to photograph waterfalls, which is a wonderful excuse to grab the snowshoes and camera gear, and head up to Marinette, Iron or Florence counties for some adventurous trooping through the snow. We love to be the first ones to break a snowshoe trail, which we find pretty easy to do in the more remote forests and river systems that we seek in the winter.

Many golf courses in Wisconsin allow snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Sometimes, this is a great solution when time is short and all you need is a chance to work those legs, then get back home to a warm cup of tomato soup. Please check first with your local golf course to learn which portions may be open to snowshoeing or skiing.

Private property is also a fantastic option when you are out looking for areas to snowshoe. Most folks are quite receptive to families that want to try a silent sport on their lands, so long as you leave fences, vegetation and everything the way you found it when you entered. Again, please ask permission before venturing onto private lands.

We find snowshoeing to be a super way to spend a wintry day outdoors. Rent or borrow some. Try several designs. Buy a set you like. Practice with them, then plan a nice day hike with your family. You too, will become a convert to a sport that lifts your body and spirit above the snow.

Conservation Warden Patrick J. Lisi is the recreational safety specialist for DNR's Northeast Region.