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Essays

Why Postholing Is the Only Real Winter Adventure

Sure, snowshoes make hiking in snow easy. But are you the kind of person who takes the easy way out? Yeah, that's what we thought.

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Backpacking is serious business, except when it’s not. Chuckle along in our twice-monthly humor column

There’s a special kind of peace in snowshoeing through the wilderness in winter. With the birds flown south and a thick blanket of snow muting the ambient sounds of nature, you glide through the woods, the only noise around you the whisper of the snow under your feet. Sounds boring as hell, if you ask us.

Yeah, that’s right, we said it: Snowshoeing is boring. It might be “efficient” and “practical”, but it’s also too easy. Where’s the challenge? Where’s the glorious, character-building struggle? If you really want to prove that you have what it takes to defeat winter—to go into the Thunderdome with Jack Frost and come out battered, and maybe frostbitten, but alive—you have to master postholing, the fine art of trudging through deep snow with just the boots on your feet. Let us show you the way.

Don’t Use Snowshoes

This is the most important step to proper postholing: Whatever you do, don’t use snowshoes. Strap these shortcuts to your feet, and all of a sudden you’ve transformed what could have been a true adventure into just another stroll. So don’t use snowshoes. In fact, don’t even carry them “just in case”. Did legendary Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott bring snowshoes “just in case” when he was racing that nerd Amundsen to the South Pole? No, he trudged the whole way on pure badassery and British grit, just like you’re doing. What happened to Robert Falcon Scott, you ask? Beats me, I didn’t finish reading the Wikipedia article.

Pick the Right Snow Conditions

Obviously, you need deep snow to posthole. Everyone knows that. But don’t cheat by running out the day after a blizzard when everything’s loose, dry powder that you can just wade through: Like fine whiskey, good postholing snow needs to be aged to perfection. Wait a day or two and let the sun bake the top layer of the snowpack. You want a crunchy crust, so when you step on it, just for a second, it feels like it might hold your weight. Then, just as you commit, you break through, wobbling on your feet as you try to regain your balance. After an hour, you’ll have covered 100 feet or so, and your hips will be creaking like a rusty see-saw. This is the essence of postholing.

Snow-covered rocks
Pillowy snow or jagged rocks? Only one way to find out. (Photo: George D. Lepp via Getty)

Pick a Trail With Plenty of Surprises

Half the fun of postholing is discovering what’s underneath the snow: Where skiers and snowshoers just skim the surface of the winter wilderness, you’re really going to explore its depths. Find the right trail, and postholing can turn a workaday hike into an exciting obstacle course. Hike through a talus field and try to predict which step will send you plunging into a hidden hole underneath a boulder. Pick a route with a lot of stream crossings and see if you can recognize what’s soft snow and what’s slick ice covered with a thin dusting of powder. It’s like a gameshow, if all of the prizes were bruised shins.

Bring the Right Partner

Every great adventure story has an element of interpersonal conflict, as conditions get dire and the explorers’ patience begins to fray; that’s part of what makes them so thrilling. Create your own by bringing the perfect partner on your postholing expedition. Friends and family are good, but the best postholing partners are spouses and significant others. Get yours excited for a fun, romantic stroll through the winter woods; say you don’t need flotation because the trail is “totally mellow.” Later, when they comment on how deep the snow is, say that you’re just hitting some drifts, and it’ll get better. When they tell you that they want to turn around, insist you’re “almost halfway” and “it’d be faster to just keep going.” Your goal is to have them mentally dividing up your possessions by the time you get back to the car. Don’t worry: They’ll forgive you once they’ve warmed up, probably!