Not XC’s Poor Cousin Anymore.

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 nifty French-made Fusalp ski suit– but that’s another story), I tried snowshoeing too. 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 fill new niches in design, materials, flotation, fun…

We moved ‘way beyond Sergeant Preston and his gigantic snowshoes.

I found this out one January about a dozen years ago, designing XC trails near Big Sky 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 bringing my new aluminum snowshoes along, to test the frozen waters; and 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 – of snowshoes? It may seem minor at first, but bindings have improved incredibly – they’re easy to use, stay on, sturdy, and they don’t stretch so they slide off your boots. The ‘shoes themselves are durable and have no food value, since they’re generally made with aluminum frames and synthetic decking that’s durable and gives great flotation – that combination also allows light weight, so less effort. The addition of bottom metal cleats gives you much better grip on crust and even side-hills (though it’s still smart to avoid those when possible).

Let’s, what else? Modern models definitely aren’t as pretty, but it’s a trade of aesthetics for dependability, longevity, convenience, and ease of movement.

Snowshoes are usually not 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. A pair of gaiters will help keep out the snow and make sure your feet stay warm and dry.

There’s a new kind of ‘shoe that came on the market recently from a Colorado company (www.crescentmoonsnowshoes.com). They’re made of foam (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 – no falls!), have great bindings, 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, blah blah. They’re relatively 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 after your outing.

Snowshoe hiking gets you out on the snow and sunshine.

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