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Getting Started Tips: Snowshoe Basics

DeCaLiBron poking out from above the ridge at the higher elevation of Hoosier Pass.

Snowshoe Basics

I had this amazing plan. I was going to spend the winter snowshoeing and write this great blog telling everyone all there was to know about the snowshoe basics. Turns out, snowshoeing is a lot harder than I thought and I had no idea about the snowshoe basics I wanted to write about! Luckily I found an expert to help out with the best information while I still try to figure out how to get them strapped on.

Joining me today to talk about snowshoeing basics is John Bradley. John is a seasoned climber in all disciplines, John has spent many years in the mountains, including several seasons guiding in and out of North America. Trained in medical mountain rescue. John is a mountain expert with Global Exploration and Recovery Inc.

Snowy terrain can lead to some fun times in the winter but it is important to know the basics.  This is a snow covered field with green pine trees in the distance a mountain reaches for the sky
The snow can stack up pretty high, knowing snowshoe basics can keep you safe in the winter.

Picking Out Snowshoes

FM: When I am wearing snow shoes does it mean that I am supposed to walk above the snow or is more of a float? Can I still sink in snow Shoes?

John Bradley, GEaR, Inc: A properly chosen snowshoe based off your combined weight with clothing and equipment is meant to help keep you a float. With many snowshoe brands on the market, MSR gives you the adaptability to change your length with attachable tails (sold separately). Keep in mind that many factors play a roll in choosing the right length.

FM: When it comes to snow shoes there seem to be a lot of different options. When selecting some to purchase is it more important to consider my weight or the depth of the snow?

JB: It’s best to consider the environment your traveling in. Example, if you find yourself sticking to local trail systems with lots of activity or low accumulation. A snowshoe sized around 22” is more than sufficient. As we start to break our own trail it’s best to follow manufacturers recommendations. The key difference between the two is the way we walk. Traveling in snow up to a foot our bodies tend to walk more duck foot and a longer snowshoe can catch us up. In deeper snow we walk straighter and rely on the distributed surface area of our weight on the snowshoe to keep us a float.

FM: Should I buy or rent snow shoes if I just moved to a snowy area?

JB: I always recommend renting, borrowing or demo days before buying. This will really help you understand design and compatibility.

A completely snow covered trail in between snowy pine trees.  The trail leads to a sun draped mountain.  Snowshoe basics are important to know before going out on the trail
Snowshoeing in deep snow makes it much easier to traverse.

Accessories with Snowshoes

FatMan: Do I need special shoes or boots to wear with the snow shoes?

John Bradley, GEaR, Inc.: For snowshoe outings it’s important to pick out a supportive boot that’s insulated and water repellent. If you’re choosing to run, the direction becomes more in tune with comfort, weight and performance values.

FM: I like describe myself as a “Hefty Hiker”, should bigger people always order longer snow shoes?

JB: No, not necessarily. If you plan on breaking trail refer to the manufacturers sizing chart for the best length. Regardless of your weight it’s much easier getting around in a smaller shoe around 12” of snow. It’s also less cumbersome when tired.

FM: I bought a pair of snow shoes that have a metal bar that I can put up. What is the purpose of this and is it important?

JB: The heel riser located on most decking designs and a few binding heel designs will help to level the standing surface and apply pressure to the rear of the snowshoe for better traction on inclines.

A narrow snowy trail at Staunton State Park.  Knowing snowshoe basics can lead to a lot of fun adventures.
Knowing snowshoe basics can make winter hiking a lot of fun!

Techniques while Snowshoeing

FatMan: Now to some functions. Does my stride change in snow shoes? Is there a specific technique?

John Bradley, GEaR, Inc: Adding snowshoes onto your feet will come with some adjustment in your gait. This is why understanding the environment is so important. Longer snowshoes will provide better flotation, but they’ll also be more cumbersome on packed snow trails. For someone with a closer gait a narrow snowshoe will be best. The Lightning line from MSR is a favorite amongst women because of this design feature.

FM: How important are poles while snow shoeing?

JB: Poles play a very important role when snowshoeing because of the unpredictable snow pack underneath your feet. Runners might opt out of this accessory as a personal preference.

FM: Should I put the snow shoes on before I start a hike or can I put them on later in the trail?

JB: It’s a tricky question. Snowshoes are a flotation tool and in some designs a traction tool. Whenever you choose to put them on I’d make sure that you’re comfortably situated and familiar with the process. Finding out how to put your new snowshoes on while hip deep in snow is not the optimal moment.

FM: Is there a good way to attach the shoes to my pack ? Or is it more trial and error?

JB: Some backpack designs allow for the attachment of snowshoes while others don’t. If you find yourself without the capability then a few long straps could help get them attached. MSR manufacturers a backpack tote that is very affordable and practical for transport.

Wrapping up Snowshoe Basics

FatMan: Finally anything else that I might be missing that would like to pass on to the readers who may be interested in snow shoeing for the first time?

John Bradley, GEaR, Inc.: Snowshoeing is a wonderful way to enjoy winter. Familiarize yourself with your snowshoe of choice before your first outing. That could be with a rental or a first time purchase. Find a class/outing group or knowledgeable company on relaxing terrain.

Remember to pack your ten+ essentials, let someone know where you’re going and check online or with a local ranger station for conditions.

FM: John, thank you so much for helping with some of the snowshoe basics that I was wondering about. It really helps to get a more experienced point of view!

More about Global Exploration and Recovery, Inc.

Global Exploration and Recovery is a really fascinating non-profit organization. It began on a search for a Coast Guard amphibious biplane that crashed on a rescue mission in 1942. They do a much better job of telling the story at this link.

In 2010 John Bradley and Frank Marley were together contracted on a Coast Guard mission to search for the missing plane and finally bring the hero’s back. Over the next decade John and Frank’s team grew with the goal of finding the “Duck”. They were able to raise enough funds to make another trip. They traveled over 120 miles across the ocean in an open skiff only to be dropped off and have to hike across untouched ground to a campsite. After that just a 6 hour round trip hike to the search site every day. There is so much to their story and I encourage you to read more about it here.

They have continued to expand and grow are now an award winning non-profit organization focused on education, exploration and recovery. A great story about people coming together in pursuit of a common goal, and expanding to make a positive impact on the world.

More from the Fatman

I am not nearly that noble but if you are looking to get active outdoors I may be able to help. My Getting Started series includes expert opinions on Winter Weather, Winter Clothing, Footwear and more. The whole series can be found here.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions on topics you would like me to cover in a future guide, feel free to email me at You can also follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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