Snowshoeing Tips and Techniques for Winter Fun on the Trail

A snowshoer enjoys the afternoon view of Long Pond from Beech Mountain in Acadia National Park. Photo by Carey Kish

One of the best things about snowshoeing is that the sport doesn’t require a lot of preparation or skills beyond the ability to put one foot in front of the other. The techniques are much the same as hiking, with the snowshoes simply providing the flotation needed to travel over the snow.

Tramping around the woods and fields near home is one thing, but when your winter adventures take you into the more challenging terrain of the hills and mountains, there are a few simple tips that’ll greatly enhance your snowshoeing enjoyment and safety.

Start with quality snowshoes that have secure, easy-to-use bindings and a pair of well-fitting boots. Hiking boots are fine for short trips, but insulated boots are best for longer outings. Add knee-length gaiters to help keep the snow out.

Shorter snowshoes offer good maneuverability, while longer snowshoes are better for use in deep snow or for trudging with a backpack. Add a pair of trekking poles with oversized baskets for stability and you’re ready to tackle the snowy trails.

Position your boot in the snowshoe binding so that it pivots at the ball of the foot, allowing your toe to push through the opening to gain traction. Then it’s simply a matter of left, right, left, right up the trail.

A hiker snowshoes through the hushed coniferous woods near the Moosehead Lake Region Visitor Center in Greenville. Photo by Carey Kish

To turn, move in the desired direction in a small semicircle. Or use the step-turn, lifting your leading snowshoe and turning. In deep snow or steep terrain, employ the kick-turn. Lift your leading snowshoe just higher than the snow level and kick it out to the left or right as desired to make the turn.

The author, who has been snowshoeing for five decades, enjoys some quality time on the snowy trail in Maine. Photo by Carey Kish

To climb directly up a moderate slope, lift your knee, roll your foot forward, and dig your boot toe into the snow. Step up and push down to create a step or platform, engaging the crampon or cleat underneath for added grip. Repeat the sequence with the other snowshoe to proceed.

On steeper terrain, turn your body perpendicular to the slope. Step up and sideways using the outside edge of your leading snowshoe, then push down to form a stable platform. Bring your trailing snowshoe up and set it in place of the shoe you just moved above and repeat. On long steep pulls, engage the heel-lift mechanism (if your snowshoes are so equipped), to ease the strain on your calves.

Trekking poles help with stability when you’re snowshoeing. Photo by Carey Kish

On long climbs, if a route becomes too steep, or there are obstacles in your path to be avoided, try zigzagging up the slope on a rising traverse. This switchbacking technique allows you to advance forward and upward at an angle.

When descending, keep your weight centered over the snowshoes, your knees flexed, and the snowshoes level to the ground. Plant your trekking poles out in front of you and go. On steep descents you may want to side-step downhill using your snowshoe edges. For some real fun in deep snow, weight the back of your shoes and pull up on your toes, then take longer than normal strides and watch the snow fly.

Sooner or later you’re going to lose your balance and fall over in deep snow, and that’s when trekking poles really come in handy. To right yourself, roll onto your back like a turtle, remove your wrists from the pole straps, then cross the poles to form an X on the snow beside you. Roll over onto the poles, which now form a stable platform. Grip the poles firmly and bring one knee up at a time, then stand.

A snowshoeing enthusiast enjoys the wide open terrain at Sunhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford. Photo by Carey Kish

If you’re in the market for snowshoes, look for reputable brands like Atlas, Tubbs, and MSR. Snowshoes lengths generally range from 27 to 32 inches. Make sure your choice has a secure binding plus toe and heel crampons. Men’s and women’s models are available. Expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $300.  

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