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Backpacking Fitness

Winter Skills: Snowshoeing

Forget CrossFit. Forget hot yoga, Soulcycle, Soloflex, and your Body Pump class. There is no better short-duration, full-body workout than postholing. With a pack on. While snowshoeing. Uphill.

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If you can hike, you can snowshoe. Find some snowshoes, either from the nearest rental shop (about $10/day), Craigslist, or Backpacker Magazine. Head to the trailhead and strap them on. Then start walking. That’s it. No learning curve, no fear, no stress. The snow-covered world that moments before seemed forbidding and inaccessible is now your playground. No hill is too steep, no powder is too deep. The only thing to learn the hard way is it’s pretty tricky to walk backward. Luckily, thanks to the freedom they offer, there always seems to be something great ahead. 

Choose Your Snowshoes

Snowshoes come in three general categories. Knowing your experience level and what you plan to use them for should help you determine which is best for you.

  1. If you’re just looking to dayhike on mellow trails (nothing too steep or deep), aim for recreational snowshoes. They have easy-to-adjust bindings, minimalist traction (best for flat, simple terrain), and are usually available for rent. 
  2. If you would be running if there weren’t 4 feet of snow outside, then fitness snowshoes are for you. They’re sleeker and lighter than rec options (for a more natural gait), but that comes at the cost of top-notch flotation: They relegate you to groomed trails and no more than a few inches of powder.
  3. If you’re planning more intense backcountry objectives, then you need backpacking snowshoes. The largest of the lot, these shoes have the most surface area (for maximum flotation), more aggressive traction, and more sophisticated binding systems.

How to Walk in Snowshoes

Right foot, left foot. Good, you’re learning. OK, OK, there is a bit more to it than that. First, you’ll be walking in a wider stance than usual to accommodate the shoes (expect to feel underworked muscles, like your inner thighs and hip flexors, at the end of the day). Try ski or trekking poles for balance. 

Ascending: Save energy with the herringbone step: Point your toes outward, keeping your heels shoulder-width apart, and weight the inside edges. (If it’s really steep, put your weight over the toe crampons.) 

Descending: Bend your knees and keep your weight centered. Consider creating switchbacks on steep slopes. 

Traversing: Cut shelves with each step, keeping your weight into the mountainside.

Choose the Right Size

Snowshoes are typically available in three different sizes—but which is for you? Take this quiz to find out.

How much do you weigh?

(a) <150 lbs.

(b) 150-175 lbs.

(c) 175-200 lbs.

(d) >200 lbs.

What type of snow will you walk in?

(a) Hard or groomed; wet or dense

(b) Light or ungroomed; deep or powdery


A’s = 1 point; B’s = 2 points; C = 3 points; D = 4 points

2-3 points: 8 by 25 inches 

Since you’re a small fry, no sense hauling the extra weight and girth if you don’t need it.

4 points: 9 by 30 inches

You’re the Goldilocks of the bunch—you need a little more length, but not a ton.

5-6 points: 10 by 36 inches

For the maximum benefit (flotation), you need the most surface area.

Gear Up


Tapered and pintail shapes (left)promote a more natural gait, while ovals improve flotation.
Tapered and pintail shapes (left) promote a more natural gait, while ovals improve flotation.


Recreational models usually have a single crampon underfoot that bites the snow when you weight it. Backpacking models may also sport teeth around the frame and extra crampons near the toe and tail.

Climbing features

Look for a model with a heel lifter; when you ascend, flip the small bar up and it will support your foot in a more level position, even while the shoe is angled on the slope. If you plan to go on longer missions, look for a spring-loaded binding that will push your heel upward after you step, saving your calves.

How to Pack for Backcountry Skiing

Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.