By Jonathan Wiesel, originally published in SeniorSkiing.com
‘Shoes Have Come A Long Way. Have You Looked Lately?
Back in 1971, when I transferred winter affections from downhill to Nordic skiing (due to a spectacular fall in Austria that racked up one knee and stripped off my ski suit—but that’s another story), I also tried snowshoeing. After all, cross-country skis and snowshoes were both made of wood and quite beautiful; they’re both ways to travel over snow rather than wade through it; they’re both very low-impact sports.
But cross-country evolved into my lifelong true love, while snowshoeing became merely the affably boring cousin you contact every few years. Too much work; bindings were crappy (now you’re in, now you’re not—and your fingers are gonna freeze putting the damn things back on); ‘shoes didn’t slide like skis, except sideways downhill on crust; wood frames cracked; rodents enjoyed chewing the rawhide webbing in summer storage.
Modern snowshoes confirm the theory of evolution. They’re clearly descendants of the woodies but virtually a new species in design, materials, flotation, and fun.
I found this out one January about a dozen years ago, laying out ski trails at a resort in Montana. (Sadly, I hadn’t visited that cousin in almost 30 years.) The snow was too deep, buried underbrush and deadfall too catchy to use Nordic skis. So since slogging through waist-deep powder on foot was out of the question, what to do? Happily, intuition had suggested bring my new aluminum snowshoes along to test the frozen waters. They behaved magnificently, though I dumped a couple of times trying to back up, sinking the tails of the ‘shoes. (My style of absorbing knowledge always seems to be “education through error.”)
So what’s new about this next generation (or two – more on that shortly) of snowshoes? It may seem minor at first, but bindings have improved incredibly; they’re easy to use, they stay on, and they don’t stretch. The ‘shoes themselves are durable and have no food value to rodents, since they’re generally made with aluminum frames and synthetic decking that’s durable and gives great flotation. That combination is light weight, so there’s less effort. The addition of bottom cleats gives you much better grip on crust and even side-hills, though it’s still smart to avoid those when possible.
What else? Modern models definitely aren’t as pretty, but it’s a trade off of aesthetics for dependability, longevity, and convenience.
Snowshoes are nowhere near as pricey as Alpine or even Nordic gear, but it’s still smart to rent before you buy to see if you like the sport. You can use hiking or snow boots with today’s adjustable bindings, or even sneakers with neoprene booties.
There’s a new kind of ‘shoe that came on the market this fall ago from Crescent Moon Snowshoes, a Colorado company. They’re made of foam (!) but from my destructive testing are not just light but also sturdy, incredibly maneuverable. I backed up in them, did a 180 degree jump-turn for no good reason. They have great binding and are setting the snowshoe industry on its butt.
There are a thousand more subtleties to fun snowshoeing—using poles, running vs. walking, clothing, etiquette, and the like. They’re mostly unimportant. Snowshoeing has become easy, and easy on your bones and joints. And even if you don’t glide, just repeat too yourself, “600+ calories per hour!”, enjoy the burn, and head for the dessert tray.