REI’s Snowshoeing Basics class is worth your time

2015 will mark the first time I don’t migrate to Florida for the winter in several years, so I’m super excited to spend this winter trying out snow sports. I tried both downhill and cross-country skiing once last year, so not only am I excited to learn more about those sports, I’m pumped to try out snowshoeing so I can hit the winter sports trifecta.

Step one of my forays into snowshoeing was REI’s Snowshoeing Basics class at my local store. The class was free and definitely worth my time. I highly recommend it to any fellow beginner as a great complement to your outdoor education journey (that sounds very Colorado-ey of me, doesn’t it?).

Since hitting the trail myself, this blog has become a mash-up of the REI class plus my own experience as a first-time snowshoer. The REI class gave me a really solid foundation of knowledge, so I definitely encourage you to check it out for yourself – classes run throughout the winter. Worst case scenario, you get a 20% off coupon to use and you found out you don’t want to attempt snowshoeing.

Your experience could vary based on the REI employee teaching the class, but Matt at the Denver store was awesome and did a great job of covering the basics while giving us really useful insider tips. Here’s a brief rundown of the evening, interspersed with my actual experience as a beginner on the trail:

Anatomy of a Snowshoe + Types of Snowshoes

Who knew there were even more than one type of snowshoes? Not this girl. My boyfriend and I rented from Bent Gate, where they actually only had one type of snowshoe anyways. This is still good information to have in case the rental place you choose has questions.

Aluminum vs. Composite. Composite snowshoes are durable, less expensive, and can be repaired out on the trail, so give them a try. The composite ones we rented from Bent Gate Mountaineering in Golden were great! Light on your feet, easy to use, and, fortunately, we didn’t have to to test out the repair process.

Tension Pivot vs. Free Pivot. This refers to the type of pivot point on the snowshoe, which is where the binding is/where you stick your foot. Tension pivots are great for fitness/ambitious peeps since they are more maneuverable. There is a negligible difference of energy expended in either type – it comes down to personal preference (pretty much the theme of 99% of outdoorsy things). As far as I know, the ones we had were free pivot, and they were fine.

Sizing and Fit

Snowshoes are awkward. Like SUPER awkward. You want the smallest pair that is appropriate for your activity level and size (not just your personal weight…don’t forget about your backpack). The rental place should be able to make this judgment call for you, similar to when you rent skis or any other equipment.

Make sure your boots fit through the hole in the deck of the snowshoe. The deck is the big bottom part – like the deck of a skateboard.


Poles. These will make your life SO much easier. I forgot to get poles on our first trip and deeply regretted it. You can use trekking poles, just get snow baskets for them. If you have poles, they’ll be useless without snow baskets.

If you’re wondering what the hell trekking poles are, they are the sticks you probably have judged people for hiking with because they look ultra-nerdy. Banish that thought from your mind. Poles are your best friend for hilly terrain. Try them once (or twice…they were awkward at first for me) and you will never go back. One last note on poles, whether you buy or rent – lever locks are easier to use than twister locks.

Happiness is having trekking poles on several miles of steeply downhill trail.
Happiness is having trekking poles on several miles of steeply downhill trail.

I’m 99% sure you can rent poles with your snowshoes, which brings me to…

Renting vs. Buying

I’m a huge proponent of renting because it’s cheaper, plus you don’t want to blow a few hundred bucks on something you may never actually want to do again. Renting from REI is $24 per day, which includes a day for pick up and a day for drop off. After that, it’s an additional $8 per day. That price is for members…which if you’re smart, you’ll have already become.

Since first writing this blog, I have realized that REI is actually wildly expensive as snowshoe rental prices go. The extra time to pick-up/drop-off didn’t matter for me since I was only doing a day trip and the rental place we went to was on the way.

Estes Park Mountain Shop, which is at Rocky Mountain National Park‘s doorstep, is only $5 a day – a steal compared to REI. If you’re sticking to the Front Range, Jax is a great option for the Fort Collins area and Bent Gate Mountaineering is conveniently located in Golden. Adult snowshoes are $12 a day at both places. Not as cheap as Estes, but still half of what you would pay at REI. If you don’t live in the Denver area, I would highly suggest doing some research on local rental companies before wasting your money at REI (which is not a phrase I say often).

Basic Skills

Matt did a great job of doing a nice overview of basic mechanics and skills – it was a good primer for their field class or simply trying it on your own. The best way to learn to snowshoe seems to be to just get out there and do it. Start small and progress conservatively – it’s no fun being over faced and you should be doing this for you, not to impress anyone.

The most confusing part about actually snowshoeing turned out to be putting them on. Ours weren’t marked left and right, so we put them on so that the extra part of the straps were on the outside of our feet. This keeps you from stepping on them and potentially tripping.

Once you’ve decided which shoes go on which feet, make sure your toe is far enough back from the front of the snowshoe that it won’t get stuck as you walk. There’s a big hole for your foot, so it’s pretty easy to figure out.

Widen the straps so you can slide your foot in, then tighten the straps starting with the toe strap. Do the heel strap next, and the instep is the last one you adjust. Make sure they’re secure to your feet without cutting off your circulation. It’s easy to adjust on the trail, which I did several times before I found the sweet spot.

What to Bring

It’s always a good policy to be prepared for anything when you’re on the trail, but this is especially important in the winter. A sunny winter day can turn into a whiteout blizzard, which although this is rare, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here’s what I had in my backpack:

  • LOTS of snacks. Multiple Probars and a huge bag of trail mix.
  • A bladder full of water. My body heat kept it from freezing – just make sure you blow the water back into the actual bladder and don’t let it sit in the tube or mouthpiece, where it can freeze up.
  • First aid kit, including an emergency space blanket.
  • Headlamp for emergencies.
  • Extra layers, toe warmers, and hand warmers. Great tip from Matt at REI – Put hand warmers on the insides of your wrists or the back of your hands for maximum effectiveness.
  • Sunblock. Schmear it all over unexpected places. The bottom of your nose, under your jawline, under your ears. Snow gives you a sunburn in places you wouldn’t think possible, a lesson I have unfortunately learned firsthand.
  • Chapstick
  • Ski goggles/sunglasses. Whichever one you have, bring them. Or suffer through a squinty, migraine-filled outing.

Other Random Hints

  • Waterproof shoes are an absolute must. Nikwax was Matt’s pick for re-waterproofing your shoes (although, due the questionable online reviews, I’m going to try it on a pair of my boots…stay tuned!)
  • The “umbles” are a sign of hypothermia encroaching – stumbles, mumbles, and fumbles. Keep an eye on your buddy and make sure they put on an extra layer or drink something warm if they start exhibiting any signs of hypothermia.
  • The first signs of frostbite are waxy/white skin on extremities.
  • Use lithium batteries for anything battery-operated. Other batteries tend to freeze.

The next step after attending the Snowshoeing Basics class is hitting the trail. So strap on a pair of snowshoes and get going! If you want a bit more guidance, the National Park Service offers free guided snowshoeing programs at Rocky Mountain National Park throughout the winter.

Note: In case you were curious, I received absolutely no compensation from REI for this post. The class was free to begin with, and I wanted to find out more about snowshoeing. I’m happy to share the information with my fellow OBs 🙂

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