I had a 12-gauge shotgun slung over my back and snowshoes on my feet, and the moderately steep incline ahead of me looked ominous, though my good friend assured me I’d be fine.
“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” he said, a not-so-subtle reference to my status as a snowshoeing neophyte.
We were shoeing through 4 inches of fresh snow, en route to one of those way-off-the-beaten-trail late-season pheasant magnets that all but guaranteed multiple flushes and, with any luck, pheasant under glass.
“It’ll be worth the hike,” he assured me yet again.
I didn’t come close to cresting the small hill before I lost my balance and tipped over backward like a felled hardwood. Timber! The long, clumsy, old-school snowshoes I was wearing — the same kind American Indians used to hunt deep snow — betrayed me like an old girlfriend.
“They don’t have much traction, do they?” said my friend as he stood over me. “You should have been walking at an angle up the hill.”
I laughed recently at that memorable statement, uttered circa the Clinton administration, as I went to purchase my first pair of snowshoes for winter exploration and exercise. Before I started shopping, I went on a fact-finding mission to educate myself on what to buy. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I hit the jackpot and contacted Kristine Hiller, a park naturalist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Jay Cooke State Park, about 20 minutes south of Duluth.
Hiller has been snowshoeing her entire life and leads the snowshoeing instructional program at Jay Cooke. She’s a wealth of knowledge and practical experience.
“The first thing you have to decide is if you want to buy traditional or modern snowshoes, and that all depends on the person,” said Hiller, who began snowshoeing with her father’s “heavy” WWII-era shoes. “Some people like the traditional wooden snowshoes because of how they look and out of nostalgia, I think. For someone who is new to snowshoeing, I try to steer them to modern snowshoes because there’s very little learning curve involved.”
Typically made of aluminum, modern snowshoes are lighter, smaller and typically have better traction than traditional snowshoes. “They’re easier to walk in, which is obviously helpful for someone new to snowshoeing,” said Hiller, noting that while modern shoes are nearly maintenance-free, they’re also more expensive. For most novice snowshoers, the extra cash is probably worth it. “In my experience as an instructor, if you’re not having fun, you aren’t going to do it very long,” counsels Hiller.
Snowshoes, Hiller says, are designed to distribute body weight over a wider and longer surface area so that you don’t sink into the snow. That’s why, she says, it’s critical to purchase the right size. “You have to buy for weight,” she said. “The heavier you are, the longer or bigger the snowshoes you’ll need. Every pair of snowshoes has a weight designation. Be sure to check it before you make a purchase. When in doubt, and especially if you’re going to be breaking new snow, go bigger.”
Another important consideration, Hiller says, is “ease of use,” which begins with the binding system. Snowshoe bindings attach to your boot, and the tighter they fit, the more control you have. “The binding systems of most modern snowshoes are pretty easy to figure out, but some are complicated, and that can be a problem,” she said. “Try your snowshoes on in the store and have the attendant explain the binding system to you. Don’t leave until you understand it.”
Added Hiller: “If you have big feet, make sure the binding system fits properly. That’s another good reason to try them on in the store.”
Hiller says if you’re unsure on what to purchase, go rent a pair at a state park or elsewhere “for a trial run.”
“Actually, renting snowshoes is a great place to start before you make a purchase, because the truth is, you may not like it,” she said. “The bottom line is that you don’t want to spend a lot of money on something you won’t necessarily use.”
Three hours after I talked to Hiller, and armed with her sage advice, I purchased my first pair of snowshoes at a local outdoor retailer. Given my wobbly and embarrassing experience with traditional snowshoes, I opted for the modern style, complete with an easy-to-use, ratchet-style binding system and snowshoe cleats for extra traction. I even purchased two snowshoe poles for additional stability.
As I learned the hard way, you can never be too careful.