Whether you are a beginner or veteran, there are many factors affecting your snowshoeing travel “style”. Factors include snow conditions which are hugely variable, icy crusting, lake ice conditions and slush, terrain and elevation, bushwhacking VS open trail travel, camping VS day trips, and whether you are hauling sled or carrying a heavy pack. Style affects how you use snowshoes and your choice of models to bring on your trip. There is no one design, size or materials that fit every condition, so you will likely acquire several pairs over the years. And then there is the controversial topic of whether or not to use ski poles.
Snow Conditions: The more you spend trekking across and camping in snow, the more you will discover its variability and you too will be inventing a vocabulary to describe these variations. Snow in the bush is not wind packed, and it’s often shaded, and will be deep, fluffy, soft, and you tend to sink. Also in the bush, snow will get perched up on air pockets created by shrubs and logs, and the effective depth of the snow due to this airy base can be double the actual snow depth. You may find yourself walking up a micro slope, which is really a pile of logs, only to fall through into an air pocket almost to your chest, even though the snow is only 2-3 feet deep. In these conditions you will want very large and wide snowshoes for maximum floatation.
On windswept lakes, the snow consistency gets denser and effectively shallower. But it can also get a wind pack crust on top covering a soft airy interior, making trudging very hard work as you have to lift up and over the wind crust with every step, instead of swishing your snowshoes along easily in dense “sugar” snow. On big lakes, much of the snow can be blown onto the shores into deep drifts where high floatation is needed, whereas out in the open ice lesser floatation is needed.
Lakes, roads and open trails which receive a lot of sunlight will develop a denser consistency snow than shady areas. When the crusts start forming in mid to late winter from freeze-thaw events, the shady areas will have less crust and you will sink lower, whereas in the sunny areas you might be able to cruise along the top of the crust like a snowshoe hare, or the lynx that is following it! On icy crusts, you can’t beat the modern crampon synthetics, and since the snow transforms then into heavy granular snow, there is less of an issue with packing a flat float trail for a toboggan. Your float in late season transformed snow will be naturally much shallower.
Lake Slush: Slush or overflow is the bane of our existence for the lake ice trekker. You have to snowshoe quickly when the slush starts seeping up through the snow. Flat, wide, huge traditionals with maximum floatation are needed. You can’t have crampons chewing down into the trail and letting the slush seep up to flash freeze on your sled. Getting slush frozen onto your traditionals is no fun either. For light slush problems, you can click-clack one shoe against the other and the frozen slush will shatter off. For big slushing ice-ups, you have to take the snowshoes off and bang them together. You also have to find a place to do this so your boots are not in ankle deep or deeper water getting soaked. With experience you have your slush radar on all the time, and try your best to detour around it. Sometimes no detour is possible and you have to power-trudge through it, click-clacking with every step and running for that drier snow, hoping you don’t fall and do a full body plant into the slush.
Terrain: In steep terrain where backpacks and not sleds are used, the largest of the synthetics with crampons are often chosen. If using traditionals, you have to punch into a hill with every step, and articulate your toe into the hole and jam it into the slope for extra grip. This is definitely a learned technique, but quite do-able. But with crampon’d synthetics, you can walk differently, punching the snowshoe down flat for crampon grip. As soon as the snow crusts over however, crampons are the way to go if you have a choice. If using traditionals on crust you can always rig a gnarly knotted cord underneath, or rig a sharp edge of something underneath, such as splitting small diameter wood with your knife into a sharp edge, and wiring it or lashing with cord underneath (always have wire and cord in your day bag kit). Our ancestors figured it out so you can too.
Poles: The modern market and literature seems to be pushing the use of poles for snowshoeing. Traditionally poles were not used. One of the great joys of snowshoeing is getting off trail and gliding over the snow through the bush. The snow in the bush is full of air pockets and blown down logs and debris, and you will plant your pole into air pockets and fall over. Poles will sink into tangles of sticks and the baskets will get stuck. When bushwhacking you will also need your hands free to grab onto branches, push them aside, crawl over logs, etc. When gathering wood, and when setting up your camp in deep snow, you will need your snowshoes on as your arms are doing all kinds of work. Forget poles in the bush. Walking with snowshoes is a natural easy movement.
On the open trail or open lake free snowshoeing (i.e. no sled or big pack), I am of the school where poles again are a liability. Your arms swing in natural rhythm to help you walk, and your entire body moves to balance you with every step. Poles just get in the way and keep your entire body from balancing itself. However others disagree and like poles. Some people like hiking in summer with poles. So whatever works for you is great.
When hauling sled, poles can be beneficial. A lot depends on the harness system you have and how you like to use it. Using a rope harness with snowshoes, I like to use the classic arm wrap technique and lean into the harness, so again I don’t like poles. I can haul comfortably using the arm wrap technique all day. My buddies however almost always use their ski poles with their rope harnesses, so it all depends on what you like. When hauling sled, we have our poles with us anyways since we always travel with both back country skis and snowshoes, so if you travel in this style you always have the option to mix and match techniques.
Bringing 2 Pairs on a Trip:
Sometimes we each bring 2 pairs of snowshoes on a trip: one very large, long-tail trail breaking pair, and a pair of small bearpaws (traditional or synthetic), for working around camp. Do not underestimate how difficult it is to break trail in deep snow when hauling a sled or wearing a heavy hiking pack. It is exhausting! Don’t even think of using smaller snowshoes in deep soft snow when winter trekking long distances – get the maximum size because you will need them. Every bit of extra floatation is well worth it. Buying smaller snowshoes to save a few grams of weight is illogical in deep snow trail breaking conditions. The extra floatation more than compensates for weight on your feet. If you can afford the extra weight on a sled, it’s so nice to have a pair of bearpaws around camp.
Trekking style and snowshoe design is one of those topics which we could talk about forever, so we look forward to discussing more about this in our Discussion Forums.