Snowshoes are an easy way to enjoy the woods in winter

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter



Veteran snowshoeing enthusiast Mike Little says there is almost no learning involved for his mode of backcountry winter travel.

I've never seen people, even those who aren't very coordinated, have trouble walking on snowshoes,'' Little said. "I've never seen anybody get out who just couldn't do this. It seems to be pretty automatic.''

Gifford Pinchot snow report

Mount St. Helens -- Cougar Sno-Park has about 30 inches of snow, while Marble Mountain has about 50 inches. Road No. 83 has been plowed.

Wind River -- Old Man Pass and Koshko sno-parks have about 40 inches of snow. Wind River road No. 30 has been plowed, but the trails have not been plowed.

Mount Adams -- Pineside Sno-Park has about 14 inches and Snowking has approximately 16 inches. Trails at Pineside were groomed on Saturday. Road No. 82 is not plowed beyond Pineside. Atkisson Sno-Park has about 30 inches, while Flattop has about 42 inches.

His advice: Find a winter walking partner with a similar fitness level and "just try it.''

Little, a West Linn, Ore., resident and board member of Cascadia Wild, offered a variety of tips about snowshoeing at a seminar in mid-February at REI's Clackamas store. Little works at the store.

"Snowshoeing has grown tremendously in popularity,'' Little said. "I used to be able to go places on a Saturday and there were three cars and they were cross-country skiers. Now, literally, you can't find a place to park. It's really, really grown.''

Little said fledgling snowshoers need to have the appropriate winter clothing.

That starts with synthetic material like polypropylene next to the body, or perhaps silk or wool.

"The old saw about cotton kills is true,'' he said. "You won't get a cotton T-shirt or sweatshirt dry or warm once it's wet.''

While polypropylene is a well-used standard. Little touted merino wool.

"It's expensive,'' he said. "But the shirts will last a long, long time and they're quite warm...If you have a fear of wool, you should feel this stuff.''

Fleece long has been used as the middle, insulating, layer. Just about everyone in the Northwest has a fleece jacket or two.

Little said all the major jacket makers — Columbia, Mountain Hardware, Marmot, REI — are marketing versions of thin insulated jackets, filled with either down or synthetics.

These jackets squish down to almost nothing, yet are surprisingly warm, he added.

Little recommended a waterproof, breathable jacket for the outer layer. While these coats can be very spendy, a Marmot PreCip jacket for $99 is a good and relatively inexpensive choice, he said.

Waterproof, breathable rain pants are the best, but cost about $100, Little said.

A non-waterproof pair for $35 to $40 will work almost as well, he added.

The key in buying rain pants is to get a pair which will unzip from the bottom to about the top of your calf muscle.

"If you are out snowshoeing along and you aren't needing to wear your rain pants, and it starts raining and you want to put them on, you've got to be able to get your boots through the pants,'' Little said. "It's very hard to take your boots off in the snow.''

He recommended wearing a light to medium boot, but not the boots that are basically bolstered running shoes.

"When you fasten the bindings on your snowshoes you can compress your foot and your foot gets cold from the binding on down,'' he said. "It's good to have something with some lateral stiffness to it.''

Gaiters to fit over the boots are a very good idea.

"It's not comfortable to have snow in your boots,'' Little said.

Other suggestions include three pairs of gloves or mittens, an ear gaiter for when it's windy and a hat.

Little is big on the $59 Seattle Sombrero hat by Outdoor Research. It is waterproof, breathable, fleece-lined, adjustable and has a chin strap.

"It beats a hood because you can be walking along and can hear everybody,'' he said.

Northwest snowshoers can get away with slightly smaller snowshoes because the snow here is "Cascade concrete'' compared to lighter and fluffy snow in places like the Rockies, Little said.

MSR's Evo snowshoe, which is what REI rents, is made of solid plastic and has full-length traction on the bottom.

"The reason we rent these is because they are bulletproof,'' he said. "We rent them for years.''

Little urged beginners always to rent before making the investment in a pair of snowshoes.

Two other snowshoes he mentioned were the Atlas 9 series and the MSR Lightning Ascent, which he called "the lightest, strongest snowshoe in the world.''

Not all snowshoers use poles. Little recommends them, specifically the brand Black Diamond due to their locking mechanism.

Little said he carries a 40-liter day pack, although most day packs will work. Among the accessories he carries are:

• Sitting pad — Even a small piece of blue foam will work. The piece does not need to be very big.

"It's really nice to have something that will keep you dry and comfortable.'' he said. Plus, the pad could prove critical if an unexpected overnight stay happens due to an injury.

• Sunscreen, lip protection — "It's like walking on a mirror when you are out on the snow. You can burn the underside of your nose. If you are breathing hard you can get like a pizza burn on the roof of your mouth.''

• Sunglasses, navigation (map, compass, GPS), fire-starting material, snacks/food and a repair kit (duct tape, mechanic's wire and a multi-tool). A whistle is needed, but not one with a pea inside, which can freeze.

Staying hydrated while snowshoeing is a key, Little said.

"One of the mistakes a lot of people make and why they get cold out snowshoeing is they don't drink,'' he said. "You're burning twice the calories you are when hiking.''

It is necessary to know your route. Do not expect simply to follow your tracks back.

"People will cross your track, it can rain, you can lose the track. It's much harder than you might expect.''

If the fog moves in and a whiteout occurs, stop.

"Just stop and wait,'' he said. "It will go away. It won't last forever. Don't try to keep going in a whiteout. You may get completely disoriented.''

Respect cross-country skiers and walk beside their tracks, not in them. Still, don't expect cross-country skiers to embrace you.

"Expect every now and then to have a cross-country skier get upset with you,'' Little said.