If you are an avid hiker considering snowshoeing for the first time, you may be wondering about the difficulty of this new way to travel through the mountains. Well, snowshoeing might be the best way to stay out on the trails year round. However, be warned it is a little bit more challenging than hiking. In this post we take you through everything you need to know about snowshoeing, and why it’s more difficult than hiking.
So, is snowshoeing harder than hiking? Yes, snowshoeing is without a doubt more difficult than hiking. You will encounter freezing temperatures, more challenging navigation, more energy exerted per step and there is simply more to think about with all the extra gear required compared to hiking.
With all that being said, snowshoeing is still a very fun and great way to keep active during winter.
Why Snowshoeing Is Harder Than Hiking
Snowshoeing obviously requires snow, which means that temperatures will likely be at or below freezing when your venture out on your snowshoes. This brings the added challenge of clothing selection and layering. Temperature regulation is much more difficult but important while snowshoeing compared to hiking.
Sweating in freezing temperatures can cause you to get very cold which can lead to hypothermia. Layers allow you to maintain a comfortable temperature to avoid sweating.
As a beginner, snowshoeing will be harder than hiking. Learning how to balance correctly and getting used to wearing snowshoes may take a little while. However, it really isn’t that different to walking. You may need to walk with your feet further apart to make sure you don’t step on the frame of your snowshoes. You can also utilize poles to aid you with balance.
One of the largest differences is the number of calories you will burn. In fact, you can burn up to 45% more calories than normal walking. Being exposed to colder temperatures will have your body working harder to stay warm. Furthermore, walking through very powdery snow can be tough as you will still sink a little bit into the snow.
This is known as breaking trail and will be particularly prevalent if you go backcountry snowshoeing. This makes snowshoeing more physically exerting than hiking making it more difficult even for fit hikers.
Another challenge associated with snowshoeing that makes it harder than hiking is difficulty with navigation. The normal paths and trails that you follow will obviously be hidden under a thick layer of snow. However, on popular trails there may well be a clear path through the snow where other snowshoers have passed before you.
If you are a beginner, it’s advised to stick to well-marked and popular trails. Once you have built up confidence on your snowshoes and navigating during winter you can begin to be more adventurous.
Snowshoeing requires a significant build-up of snow, which brings with it unique challenges in the backcountry. Principally if you are travelling in mountainous terrain you need to be aware of the potential for avalanches.
Avalanches require a few basic conditions, first a steep slope, second snow coverage, third a weak layer in the snow pack. Changes in temperature or a trigger can cause the snow above the unstable layer to slip.
Learning about avalanches takes a bit more learning than just reading an article online. Have a look at going on an avalanche awareness course which can be run by companies like REI or your regional avalanche center.
How To Decide if Snowshoes are Necessary for Your Hike
Whether or not you need snowshoes is dependent on the trail conditions and recent snowfall. When you get to the trailhead have a look at the conditions. If the trail you want to use looks hard packed and well used, and it’s been a while since fresh snowfall then you may not need snowshoes. If you only sink an inch or two into the snow, then it’s unlikely you will need snowshoes. Basic traction devices on your boots may be all you need.
If there has recently been fresh snowfall, then you may need snowshoes. If there hasn’t been time for other people to pack down the snow along a trail, you may find it challenging to walk along. If you find yourself sinking more than a few inches its time to get your snowshoes out. Your snowshoes will help you float on top of the fresh snow by distributing your weight over a larger area.
If you are wanting to go off trail then you are more likely to encounter deep soft snow, as it won’t be packed down by other users. It’s always a good idea to bring snowshoes if you are planning on going off trail particularly if there has been recent snowfall.
Always bring your snowshoes to the trail head where you can make a quick assessment of the conditions before deciding if you need to wear your snowshoes. If you are still unsure it is always best to be cautious and bring them anyway. Post holing through deep snow is miserable and will quickly spoil your winter adventure.
Equipment Needed for Snowshoeing
Having the appropriate equipment and clothing will make your first foray into snowshoeing enjoyable and memorable. You need to choose the correct type of snowshoes and know how to dress effectively for the cold. Luckily in this next section we will run you through all the need to know information about equipment and gear choice.
There are a few different types of snowshoes depending on the terrain you want to tackle. There are four main types of snowshoes, flat terrain, rolling terrain, mountainous terrain and running snowshoes. Their names pretty much explain what their purpose is for…
- Flat terrain snowshoes are the most simply designed and cost the least. These are perfect for the casual user or a beginner.
- Rolling terrain snowshoes offer crampons and traction features to help while ascending and descending slopes as well as a heel lift in some styles. They are more expensive than flat terrain snowshoes because of their more advanced features.
- Mountainous terrain snowshoes have aggressive crampons designed to give purchase on very steep ground and more advanced binding systems. They are some of the most expensive snowshoes but are only needed by serious mountaineers.
- Running snowshoes are super lightweight designed to allow the user to move quickly with a full range of motion in their feet.
Note: For the casual user or beginner, flat or rolling terrain snowshoes will be more than adequate. Choosing lightweight snowshoes is advantageous for a beginner as it will be less strenuous. However, lightweight snowshoes will be more expensive, so you have to balance cost with performance.
At the low end a pair of flat terrain snowshoes suitable for casual use will set you back about $100. The price only goes up from there with a pair of technical mountainous snowshoes costing anything up to $300. However, for a winter sport, that’s relatively inexpensive.
Poles are pretty much essential for snowshoeing. While you can do it without, they make it much easier to remain balanced and to ascend and descend slopes. The key when buying poles is to ensure they have a large basket. A basket is necessary to stop the pole from sinking too deeply into the snow. You want a broad basket for snowshoeing, as opposed to trekking poles which have a narrower basket.
Adjustable or telescopic poles are advantageous as they allow you to adjust the height of your pole. This is important aspect of ensuring your poles are comfortable. When climbing uphill you may want to shorten them, so you don’t have to lift your arms up as much. Alternatively, when descending you may want to lengthen your poles so you can reach down slope.
As with snowshoes, choosing lightweight poles will make them easier to carry and use, helping to prevent you from fatiguing early.
Always utilize multiple layers of clothing so that you can shed and add layers as the conditions change. You will need a moisture wicking base layer, like merino wool followed by a warmer mid layer. Your mid layer should be changed depending on the day. For milder days a fleece mid layer may be suitable, on particularly cold days you might want a down jacket.
The last component is your outer layer, which is designed to shield you from wind and snow. Gore-Tex is one of the most popular materials as it is very breathable, helping prevent sweat build-up. An outer layer, also called a hard-shell jacket is designed to repel the elements.
For your bottom half you may opt to just use two layers. Your legs probably won’t get quite as cold as your upper body so a base or mid layer plus an outer layer will probably suffice. You could use a base layer of merino long johns plus a pair of ski touring pants as an outer layer. Soft shell pants won’t be waterproof so you might need to bring a pair of rain pants to keep your legs dry.
Also read: What Kind of Pants Do You Wear Snowshoeing?
You could use insulated ski or snowboarding pants if you already own them, however they could potentially be too warm depending on the outside temperature. A little bit of trial and error should help you find a good combination for you. What works for one person may not work for another.
Boots are very important, as you will be on your feet all day. You need boots that are completely waterproof, if not your feet will get wet and cold very quickly. A pair of insulated winter hiking boots are worth the money if you are serious about snowshoeing. They should be 100% waterproof with high ankle support.
Gaiters are a good addition as they form a waterproof barrier between your boots and pants. Your pants should cover the top of your boots anyway but having gaiters ensures snow won’t get into the top of your shoes. Luckily gaiters are very affordable and worth investing in.
Gloves and Hat
The final elements of clothing that you need are gloves and a hat. Probably already things you own if you live in a country with weather that enables snowshoeing. A pair of waterproof gloves or mittens will keep your hands toasty warm all day long. It’s also important to cover your head, as you lose a lot of heat through the top of your head.
Is snowshoeing good exercise?
Yes, you will burn more calories snowshoeing than you will hiking. It can be hard work breaking trail and keeping warm, as a result your body will be using up lots of energy. Couple that with the leg workout you will be getting, and you have a fantastic way of keeping fit.
Is snowshoeing bad for your knees?
No, it is the complete opposite in fact. As you are walking on snow, often fresh powder, it is a very low impact activity. This means your knees won’t be jarred as you snowshoe. Hiking and running contain much heavier impacts than snowshoeing and are considerably worse for your knees.
How many calories do you burn snowshoeing?
Hiking on a flat trail will burn about 350 calories an hour. Snowshoeing on an equivalent hard pack trail will burn about 450 calories an hour, already significantly more. If you are snowshoeing off trail on steep terrain in fresh snow you could burn up to 800 calories an hour.
Snowshoeing is a fantastic winter sport if you find yourself missing hiking during the colder months. It is relatively inexpensive to get into and a great way to keep fit during winter. Mountains and forests have an ethereal atmosphere during winter, and there is no better way of immersing yourself in the tranquility of nature than on a pair of snowshoes.
In my opinion, snowshoeing is more enjoyable than hiking because winter brings with it a unique beauty. Hopefully you have found this article useful, see you out on the trail!
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Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.