With my car loaded up and 4 wheel drive in tact, it’s time to head up to the mountains. What started out as a way to pass the time until the ice melted enough to take my bike out of hibernation has become a bit of an obsession in it’s own right. It’s been years since I sat with my face pressed to the glass of my front room window at the first sign of snow daydreaming about the massive dump in the canyon; pondering layering options.
Snowshoeing has become a lot more popular for cross training, among cyclist in particular. The small stride and varied terrain works many of the same muscles used in cycling. With no trail restrictions to inhibit your inner Banshee, the mountains become your own personal playground. Favorite trails during the summer contain your freedom out of moral obligation to “Leave No Trace”, but in the winter the snowy world is all yours to explore, guilt free. Wildlife abounds and always seem genuinely surprised to see me. To offer a little advice… remember to wear layers and bring food/water. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses as the snow will reflect the sun. If you are warm at the trail-head, you’re wearing too much. The sun will be hot and the shade can be freezing. Wear clothes you can take off and put back on easily. I prefer a long sleeve base layer, vest and a light shell. I also wear tights and ski pants, but I’ve seen many other variations. Make sure you bring a hat or beanie as well. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is nothing more than a glorified hike. You will be working hard and sweating a lot. Plan accordingly by bringing plenty of water and a snack if you’re going to be out more than an hour. You’ll be surprised how fast you get hungry.
And finally, how do you choose your first pair of snowshoes? These aren’t the old school Jeremiah Johnson snowshoes your grandpa has hanging on the wall of his Alaskan hunting cabin. Consider your terrain. Snowshoes work by distributing the weight of the person over a larger area so the user doesn’t sink completely into the snow, a quality referred to as “flotation”. The more packed the trail, the less flotation needed. Heading into the backcountry to break fresh trail? You better make sure you have some snowshoes with good floatation or you’ll be “post-holing” for an hour before you realize you’ve only made it a few hundred feet. Plan on staying on packed or icy trail? Make sure you have some good crampons (the metal ‘claw like’ attachment on the bottom that provides traction) and a smaller snowshoe for easy mobility. Consider price. They range anywhere from $70-$310 for the hard core backcountry and race versions. Generally speaking, the more you spend the better quality product you’re going to get. This isn’t always the case with other equipment, but it certainly is the case here. Manufacturers have a small consumer base who know what they want, (mountaineers are notorious for rejecting shoddy products) and they make their money by increasing quality not quantity. If you think you’ll get out only a few times I wouldn’t bother spending much, in fact there’s places you can rent a pair, but if you plan on trading your Saturday trainer time for the woods, it’s definitely worth the money.
We selected some of the best companies and put them to the test. Here’s a rundown of what we found. See you on the trails!
Description: “Winner of the Outside Magazine 2010 Gear of the Year award, the FLEX ALP represents true innovation. The patented FLEX Tail™ design, tested by the Colorado State University Health and Exercise Department, reduces stress on joints in the lower leg, making long day trips on arduous terrain more comfortable. Designed to tackle even the most treacherous terrain, the FLEX ALP is outfitted with micro-serrated 3D-curved traction rails and the Active Lift™ heel lift for maximum grip and seamless ascents.”
Terrain: Performed best on packed trail with little fresh snowfall. They far out-performed the other snowshoes on hills and icy terrain with their wicked crampons. (Which my husband began referring to as the “crampons of justice” as he assumed he could easily take out a bear with them.)
Experience: We tested both the men’s and women’s version on trails in Colorado and Utah. The tightening mechanism was easy to use with or without gloves, for a quick in and out. They were significantly quieter than other comparable snowshoes and the heel-lift made steep ascents a breeze. It was a bit tough to get the lever back down without taking off gloves, but eased up a bit after some use. The FLEX tail seemed less than useful in the first hour and I wondered out loud if it was even necessary. However, after a few hours of trekking, fatigue began to set in a bit and the FLEX tail was incredibly useful and made a noticeable difference. Another feature we really liked was how the loose hinge mechanism allowed for easy kneeling without kicking up snow. Just remember, it will make back pedaling a bit tougher. As long as you keep that in mind before you try to back up, you won’t end up taking a face-plant in the snow… or so I hear.
Details: Tubbs Flex Alp Snowshoe’s come in Men’s size 24 and Women’s size 22 and retail for $219.95. For more information go to: www.tubbssnowshoes.com
Description: “For the most serious winter enthusiasts, the Backcountry™ features forged aerospace aluminum crampons, energy return heel, and an enhanced rear crampon. Winner of the prestigious 2009 Outside Magazine Gear of the Year Award.”
Terrain: As their name implies, these snowshoes were created for the backcountry. The Split-Axis forward crampon means you don’t lose traction in varied terrain. I did find that the stiffer boots prevented the Split-Axis from performing as well, so keep that in mind when choosing footwear. These performed well in deep or fresh snow and would be perfect for long treks, overnight backpacking as well as trail hiking.
Experience: We tested the women’s backcountry over the period of a month on trails all over Utah. They were taken in fresh, deep snow and on packed trail, over varied terrain and on steep ascents for long and short hikes. Essentially, we put them through everything! These were the most comfortable snowshoes over all. Easton has taken a bit of a departure from the norm and created an articulating frame that adjusts to absorb stress normally distributed to the ankle, knee and hip. In addition, they’ve added a pivot point at the footbed that moves with the motion of your foot for increased traction and reduction of stress. The rear crampons are not as intense as the hiking version, but more than adequate in the backcountry and they compensated by adding some sweet front point crampons. The Quick-Cinch binding wins my award for allowing one hand entry and exit. It’s absolute perfection with gloves on! These snowshoes were also ergonomically formed to make walking much easier without hitting your front shoe. In addition, I have been plagued with shoulder problems but found the trekking poles fantastic and created no stress on my shoulder like my old ones. They also have padding that extends farther down the length of the pole to aid in steep ascents.
Details: The Easton Artica Series Backcountry Snowshoes come in Men’s sizes 21, 25 and 30, and Women’s sizes 21, 25 and 30. They retail for $200.
For more information go to: www.eastonmountainproducts.com
Description: “Take it from the experts – the Atlas Racing Team. The Race is the snowshoe of choice for our athletes, and together they’re found on snowshoe and adventure race podiums around the world. Driven by Spring-Loaded™ Suspension, the unisex designed Race stays close underfoot and allows for a natural stride over uneven terrain. The one-pull binding wraps under the arch and ball of foot for comfort and security. We pared down the ounces on our lightest snowshoe with a 7075 aluminum frame and titanium toe and heel crampons that provide grip without drag while running uphill or down, to help our runners gain a competitive edge.”
Terrain: These are aggressive, snowshoes meant for racing on packed or established trail.
Experience: As a happy owner of Atlas Backcountry Snowshoes, I really wanted to try some of their Race shoes. I liked the idea of extending my race season by entering a few 5/10K snowshoe runs and looked forward to meeting some of the winter triathletes. I loved that there was a good spread of experience and a nice mix of fun and competitive drive. Their light weight and Spring-Loaded suspension made them a breeze to run in. Pair them with running shoes and gaiters and you will hardly know they’re even on your feet. The frames have been ergonomically formed to adjust for a smaller stride and made it easy to keep from tripping. My first question was, with them being so light and tiny, why bother wearing snowshoes at all? The answer goes back to float and traction. Take them off and you’ll quickly realize that they’re not only more comfortable to run in but necessary if you intend on finishing your training run before dark. I had a lot of fun in these shoes and highly recommend to runners and triathletes to pick up a pair. If you’re feeling less aggressive, but still want to run the trails, Atlas offers a Run version for about $100 less than the Race.
Details: The Atlas Race comes in Men’s/Women’s size 22 and retails for $309.95. For more information go to: www.atlassnowshoe.com
Photos by Cat Barney
Description: Custom-designed for women, the perfect snowshoe to access backcountry. by enhancing medial clearance and ensuring a comfortable natural stride. The bent tail offers less dragging effect and improves backward motion. The “V-RAIL” provides maximum traction uphill, traverse and downhill and Freeflex Pivot, provides shock absorption and free foot rotation on axle for an efficient stride.
Terrain: Designed for technical hikers and backcountry exploring. Good for steep hills and descents in various conditions.
Experience: We took these out on trails in Utah and Colorado over varied terrain and in deep snow. While they didn’t perform as well as one of the other backcountry pairs, they certainly held their own. They performed well cutting trail and excelled in semi-packed trail. We really liked how the “V-Rail” had sloped edges making it extremely easy to pop the rail up and down with a ski pole while still maintaining it’s climbing strength when up. The closure was simple and easy to use, but we did have to remove gloves to adjust on the trail, a minor inconvenience. The snowshoes were comfortable and the women’s fit really showed itself after a few hours and fatigue set in. If it weren’t for the thinner shoes, I would have been falling on my face. These are quality snowshoes that would be a great entry-level shoe for the occasional hike as well as for those interested in weekly longer trips. Besides, how can you go wrong with Garneau?
Details: The Men’s Freeshape FX Pulse II comes in 925 and 1036, Women’s FreeShape FX Pulse II comes in 822 and 925. They retail for $199.99. For more information go to: www.louisgarneau.com