How to Walk on Snow

Successful snow travel hinges on your ability to understand the terrain and move efficiently across it. Colorado Mountain School guide Ian Fowler shares his tips for conquering the fourth season.
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walk on snow

From left to right: French technique; kicking steps; duck walk; American technique

Going up

Duck walk: On slight, slippery inclines, splay your feet outward to maximize surface contact. Take wide steps and kick into the slope with the inside edge of your foot for better purchase.

Go American: When the slope gets too steep for flat-footed travel to feel secure, use the American step to keep going straight up: Face uphill, splay one foot outward (like the duck walk) and kick in with the other toe. Alternate sides when one leg tires.

Kick steps: For booting up short steeps in soft snow, kick twice, perpendicular to the slope, to create a platform for your foot. Straighten your rear leg after each step to lengthen contracted muscles and “rest” your weight on your bones.

Go French: On steep, hard snow, save energy (and your calves) with the French step. Make long switchbacks and use a crossover step to avoid wearing out your uphill leg. Point both feet slightly downhill to ensure maximum surface contact (wear crampons). Bring your back foot around, planting it uphill and in front of your leading foot. Use an ice axe for balance.

Going down

Plunge step: For straight-down descents in soft snow, face outward from the slope. Ram your heel into the snow and point your toes to the sky.

Stomp it out: In firm snow, splay your feet (duck walk-style) and stamp. “Keep a flex in your knees and your nose over your toes,” Fowler says. Switchback on steeps, and face the slope if you feel insecure.

Tip: Downward momentum gives falls more consequence. Stay alert, and check for loose straps, clothing, and laces.

Timing is everything

Travel is easiest on firm, but not rock-hard, snow. In winter, wait for the sun to soften icy spots. In spring, start early before slopes turn to slush. “Nothing drains efficiency like soft, punchy snow,” Fowler says. 

Get a Grip

Hard snow, icy patches, and steep slopes might require additional traction. 

Chains

Best uses: Snowy trails or flats, especially when running or moving quickly.

Limitations: Chain-style traction typically lacks the bite required for icy hills.

Microspikes

Best uses: Icy terrain or gentle slopes with safe fall zones.

Limitations: Spikes can provide a false sense of security and aren’t meant for steep, firm terrain.

Crampons

Best uses: Hard snow, steep slopes, and no-fall zones.

Limitations: Crampons should be used with mountaineering boots and an ice axe.

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