Growing up on the East Coast, winter was something to dread. Once it arrived, you wrapped yourself in blankets and just waited for it to be over. In Colorado, it’s different. Winter is something to get excited for. Snowshoeing was my gateway drug.
Step one of my foray into snowshoeing was REI’s Snowshoeing Basics class. It was free and a huge help in knowing where to start. I learned how to dress, how to put on snowshoes, and how to pick out what to rent. It was a huge confidence boost, and I highly recommend it for any fellow beginner. Worst case scenario, you get a 20% off coupon to use at REI and you find out you don’t want to try snowshoeing.
Check out all of REI’s current class listings here.
Since originally writing this post, it’s become a mash-up of the REI class plus my own experience as a first-time snowshoer.
Renting vs. Buying
Renting is 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 for members (you just have to give them you’re phone number, it’s not a skill-based membership). BUT that’s way more expensive than smaller, local shops.
The only difference is the extra day REI gives you to return your snow shoes, but it’s not hard to just bring them back and pick them up all in one day since you’ll only be going out for an hour or two.
Estes Park Mountain Shop, which is at Rocky Mountain National Park’s doorstep, is only $5 a day – a steal compared to REI. 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.
If you don’t live in the Denver area, I would highly suggest doing some research on local rental companies before wasting money at REI (which is not a phrase I say often).
Sizing and Fit
You want the smallest pair that is appropriate for your activity level and size. 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.
Types of Snowshoes
Who knew there were even more than one type of snowshoes? Not this girl. Most rental places may only have one type, but this is still good information to have just in case.
Aluminum vs. Composite. Composite (aka plastic) 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 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.
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 regular hiking 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.
REI did a great 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. It didn’t seem like rocket science to me, so my husband and I tried it on our on at a trail close to home. If you would rather go with a group, take a look at REI’s day trips.
The most confusing part about 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 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 (aka the one over your toe). 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. That’s rare, but, 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 1.5-liter reservoir of water. You can also just bring multiple water bottles. If you do use a reservoir, make sure to blow the water back into it after you drink – if it sits in the tube, it freezes.
- 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.
- Ski goggles/sunglasses. Whichever one you have, bring them.
Other Random Hints
- Waterproof shoes are an absolute must.
- The “umbles” are a sign of hypothermia – 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 🙂