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A starter's guide to snowshoeing

Matt's snowshoe tracks in a hard snow-pack
Matt's snowshoe tracks in a hard snow-pack
Matt Payne

If the cold winter has prevented you from getting out and hiking, you're not alone. Most hikers tend to go out less frequently in the winter because of the cold conditions and the snow. Fortunately, if you've got a few hundred bucks to spare, you can pick up a quality pair of snowshoes and some warm clothing to satisfy your hiking desires. My goal is that after you've read this article, you'll be inspired to head on out into the mountains to explore their snow-covered beauty without the fear of freezing to death or sinking into the snow up to your chest. Just this past weekend, I was able to get out and climb a high 13er near Alma, CO. It did not require any special gear other than my warmest clothes and some snowshoes.

The first thing you'll want to do is research about what kind of snowshoes you'd like to purchase. I did that very thing last year and finally settled on a pair of MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes after reading dozens of positive reviews about their weight and performance. I wrote my own review about those snowshoes HERE. Other hikers I've talked to have purchased the MSR Denali snowshoes and have had great things to say about them as well. Sierra Trading Post has an excellent buyers guide for snowshoes as well, and I highly recommend you take a look at it before making your purchase. Some of the things you'll want to consider are your weight (the more you weigh, the longer the shoes should be), the terrain you'll be hiking on (steep terrain means you'll want shoes with heel ascenders, such as the MSR Lightning Ascent), your budget, and durability. Shoes made of plastic tend to break or wear out faster, and generally are not as good at gripping the snow like the MSR Lightning Ascent shoes.

The second thing you'll want to do is make sure you have all of the warm clothing required to hike in cold conditions. Typically, I wear a base layer on top and bottom, similar to long underwear. Patagonia makes excellent base layers called Capilene and I would highly recommend those if you are looking to purchase some. Additionally, I always make sure I have a warm fleece / synthetic hat and a neck warmer or balaclava. Another essential peice of equipment is the jacket. You'll want a jacket than can keep you warm but also allow for your body to breathe when it gets hot from all the exercising you'll be doing. A good soft-shell jacket can do just that very thing. I have found a good guide for soft-shell jackets HERE and I encourage you to read it to figure out which coat to buy. Lastly, make sure you have a warm pair of gloves or mittens that are wind and water-proof. This is really important for snowshoeing, especially at higher elevations where the wind chill factor can be brutal. The pair of gloves that I wear are manufactured by REI, and have done a good job for me so far. They are pretty inexpensive as far as high performance gloves go.

OK, you have your gear, now what? I suggest the first thing you do is practice putting on and taking off those new snowshoes. They can be hard to put on sometimes, so the better you are at it, the easier it will be for you to enjoy them. Next, go for a short hike that is local. Maybe a stroll in Cheyenne Canyon after a snowstorm? How about the local park? Anything to get a good feel for how the shoes operate. You might think it is fairly intuitive, but having the extra weight and size on your feet makes for somewhat more challenging hiking, so take time to get used to it!

Lastly, make sure you find a competent partner to join you for the hike. This is really important for shoeshoeing especially, because of the added avalanche dangers that can be present. Speaking of avalanche danger, you might want to read up on avalanche safety before heading out into the back-country.

I hope these tips will help motivate you to get off the couch and hit the snow! Just because there is snow on the ground does not mean you can't enjoy views like the one's found in the slideshow! Have a fun winter!

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