TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Often when people think of snowshoeing, they conjure up images of humongous wood and wicker contraptions that hang from the walls of Tahoe cabins.
The truth is — the reason those ginormous snowshoes are on walls instead of under feet is that they have been replaced by today’s snowshoes which are sleek, light and fast.
Snowshoeing today allows you to get a workout while getting away from the crowds. Depending upon your desires, you can take a relaxing stroll in the woods, or an endorphin sprint on packed snow. There are lots of places around Tahoe and Truckee that are great for snowshoeing, from the groomed trails at Nordic centers to deep powder in the backcountry.
“Modern snowshoes allow the user a bulletproof product that is reliable, hardy, a one-time purchase, and the ticket to a peaceful wilderness experience,” said Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City.
Snowshoes use aggressive cleats to allow users to go straight up fairly steep slopes. The bindings are fairly easy to take on and off, and the shoes are light and don’t take up too much room in your car.
Runners can use a smaller shoe with a sleeker profile on groomed trails. These snowshoes are lighter and built of more high end material then your standard shoe. There is even a series of snowshoe races held throughout the country under the auspices of the United States Snowshoe Association (snowshoeracing.com).
“Snowshoes are fit by body weight, snow type (think Maritime snow versus Wasatch champagne), and gender (males and females have different strides which call for different shapes),” said Madigan.
Unless you are going to run regularly, the snowshoes most people need can be found in the $200 range.
Before you buy a pair of snowshoes, however, rent one and see if this is the sport for you. While many people love the slow-paced, relaxed feel of walking through the woods, some who are accustomed to the thrill of skiing may find snowshoeing boring.
The good news is that unlike other snow sports, there really is no learning curve. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Literally. A great place to start would be a cross-country ski resort. Valli Murnane, general manager at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area in Tahoe City says, “even beginners can explore the winter environment with confidence on a pair of snowshoes.”
At a cross-country ski area, the whole family can snowshoe together, or some family members can ski while others snowshoe on the same trail system. With maps and groomed trails, there is little danger of getting lost.
“Here at Tahoe XC, you can snowshoe to the top of the Lakeview Trail to enjoy the great views or head out to one of the huts for some hot chocolate. It’s a fun activity for the whole family,” said Murnane.
For those who are ready for a bit more adventure, or want to avoid paying a trail fee, you can head out into the wilderness on snowshoes. While it is similar to hiking, walking on snow is more of a workout. How much of a workout you will experience is very strongly correlated with the depth of the snow.
Tromping through several feet of fresh powder on snowshoes can be a major workout, especially for the person breaking trail. If showshoeing with a group, be sure to take turns breaking trail as the person in front does most of the work.
While snowshoeing is a simple activity that anyone can do, there are a few tips that can make it easier and safer. First, walk with a slightly wider stance then normal. When going uphill go straight up the slope, to take advantage of the cleats which are directly underfoot. When going downhill the same rule applies, just walk down the contour. You will find on a steep downhill that slightly leaning back can be helpful. Adjustable poles can be helpful for balance.
One etiquette rule for snowshoers in the wilderness is to take backcountry skiers into account. Follow other trails that have been packed by snowshoers, or break your own trail, rather then walking over ski tracks. These tracks are set by skiers, and when tromped over by snowshoers, it can make skiing more difficult or dangerous.
When deciding what to wear, remember that you will be working up a sweat so dress more like you would for cross-country skiing or winter running then downhill skiing: Synthetic light-weight layers that are comfortable for strenuous exercise.
If the snow is soft, powder pants might be advised as you will be kicking up lots of snow onto your butt, but remember not to overheat yourself, and be sure to have a lighter layer underneath that you can strip down to if you get warm.
Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.