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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Snowshoes Terrain Techniques

Techniques for winter trekking. Find out the advantages snowshoes provide for getting over hill and dale.

by: Kristin Hostetter

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Carrying A Pack

Snowshoes: If you can stay upright with a heavy pack while wearing hiking boots, chances are you'll do just as well in snowshoes. Just be sure to bring trekking or ski poles to help you maintain equilibrium.

Skis: After one sunny lunch break, Shaun clicked into his skis and shouldered his 30-pound pack. He took two steps forward, hit a slight dip, and promptly had powder for dessert. A pack combined with slippery ski bases, free-heeled bindings, and a few ups and downs can mean many a wipeout for the novice. Balance is something that takes lots of practice and confidence, so start out with a light pack (under 20 pounds). If this means daytrips, so be it.
Advantage: Snowshoes

Getting Up From A Fall

Snowshoes: Just roll over, get the shoes under your body, and stand up.

Skis: At the bottom of a hill, both Shaun and Autumn were sprawled in the snow, surrounded by their packs, a stray hat, and a few snow-covered mittens. Skis and poles were tangled like piles of chopsticks. It took 8 minutes or so before they were upright. The simple act of standing up with 6-foot boards strapped to your feet is tricky, especially on a hillside. A tip: Swing your skis around to the downhill side, point them completely sideways across the hill, lay your poles in an X on the uphill slope, push on the center of the X, and use those thigh muscles.
Advantage: Snowshoes

Going Downhill

Snowshoes: Allowing gravity to carry you plunge-stepping down a steep hill is fun, plus it's more efficient and easier on the knees than backpacking on dirt.

Skis: This is where the payoff comes for experienced skiers. Paul described the reward of linking graceful downhill telemark turns as "a spiritual high when done correctly." Sure it takes practice. Sure it takes confidence. Sure it means you'll have 1,000 wipeouts before you finally make a good turn. But when you do, it's all worth it.
Advantage: It's a draw. This is a tough one to judge because snowshoers have the immediate advantage. But once a skier gets the hang of it, he'll be in heaven.

Breaking Trail

Snowshoes: Trailbreaking can be particularly arduous for snowshoers if the snow is wet and heavy or more than a foot deep, since each step requires lifting your feet high enough to clear the surface. To make trailbreaking easier, use larger snowshoes with optimum flotation, so you won't sink so deep.

Skis: Trailbreaking on skis is easy, particularly if the snow is light and airy and you can cut right through. On crusty snow, it's a toss-up depending on how deep you sink and how thick the crust is.
Advantage: Skis. (Note: The general rule for trailbreakers of either discipline is to switch off every half hour or so, so one person doesn't become exhausted or overheated.)

Tip for efficient trailbreaking: Breaking trail on snowshoes in deep snow can be exhausting. If your party consists of two people, try to walk in each other's shoe prints. Three or more showshoers can work in unison to conserve energy by laying down a smooth, consolidated trail.

The lead snowshoer measures his stride so each snowshoe print begins where the previous one ended. The second hiker's left snowshoe falls directly beside (to the left of) the lead hiker's right imprint. The third snowshoer further compacts the track, smoothing it out for the rest of the party. The leader drops to the back of the line when tired.

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