Big Shoes, Small Footprints

Snowshoeing lets you burn calories
amid nature’s winter glory.

by Sascha Zuger

February 2009

Some historians trace the origins of snowshoes back 13,000 years, when our ancestors used broad, flat boards to help them cross the great land bridge from Asia to North America. The quest for easy transport while hunting and gathering through rough winters created the forerunner to one of the hottest new calorie-burning winter sports for nature lovers.

“There aren’t too many other environments likely to be as beautiful, serene and tranquil as the woods in winter under snow cover,” says Declan Connolly, PhD, program director of physical education at the University of Vermont, who adds that the sport is similar to jogging in terms of calories burned. “Snowshoes offer you the opportunity to blaze your own trail. ”

Modern snowshoes bear little resemblance to their wood-and-rawhide forbears. “One of the appeals is that there is a very small learning curve. In fact, if you can put them on, you’ve gone from beginner to advanced or intermediate snowshoer,” says Ray Browning, PhD, assistant professor at Colorado State University. “There’s really little skill involved and it opens up a lot of terrain that many people, unfortunately, think of as off-limits in the winter time. It’s a nice, easy, out-your-door activity that most people who have close proximity to snow can do.”

Trekkers can touch base with the environment and enjoy the peaceful serenity of the white-blanketed woods—concentrating on spotting wildlife instead of attending to equipment woes—thanks to innovations in the sport. Lightweight aluminum frames and woven decking (think of the neoprene-like material used in wetsuits) ease muscle strain. Gender- specific frame shapes allow for a more natural stride for men, women and children. Shock-absorbing bindings make snowshoes as simple to don as stepping onto the decking in everyday winter boots and tightening a single strap.

Exercise, Watch Wildlife
Snowshoe devotees say that an outing on groomed trails can be as easy and relaxing as a winter stroll—and kinder in terms of impact, thanks to snow’s softer, more forgiving surface.

Enthusiasts range from people looking for some exercise by walking at a comfortable pace to those who use snowshoes specially designed for running. Racing or running shoes are shorter and narrower, with tapered tails. They are lighter weight and, to keep the shoe from loosening during quick strides, have a more secure binding than regular recreational snowshoes. People who run with snowshoes “are serious about getting a significant cardiovascular exercise session,” says Browning.

Connolly says adding a set of poles to the outing will give you “a great full body workout” in which you’ll burn anywhere from 500 to 1,000 calories per hour.

The recent addition of Nordic poles to the sport has not only helped snowshoe buffs burn more calories but has made snowshoeing a gateway sport for those interested in Nordic skiing but intimidated by the unfamiliar equipment. Backcountry snowshoes, designed for more strenuous, off-the-beaten-path hikes, and streamlined aerobic styles made for racing, offer a tougher, but very heart-healthy, workout.

In losing its reputation as a quirky way for the über-fit to explore remote wilderness environs, snowshoeing has become a family-friendly way to break the lure of television and video games on frosty days. A number of woodland animals, which are typically camouflaged under ordinary conditions, stand out against the white drifts. For a truly natural connection, enthusiasts can set out for remote locales sans the groomed trails of cross-country skiing or rumbling motors of snowmobiles.

“Walking in snow tends to be a fairly quiet activity. You’re not crashing through the woods scaring everything away,” says Browning. “There is a significant opportunity to see wildlife, which is a little slower moving in the winter. We often see deer, elk, fox and, occasionally, a bear.”

Trails and Tours
Without the need for slope-specific terrain, snowshoeing opportunities can be found around the country, wherever there is snow, and offers a great alternative for non-schussing ski vacationers. You can find both advice and trail options across North America through an interactive information site, www.tubbs-trailnet.com.

Though heading out on a trek takes no more than a set of shoes and a nature-loving spirit, many organizations cater to the newest of outdoor enthusiast populations by offering specialized tours to fit every interest. Add adventure to a stroll with moonlight cheese and wine tastings, snowshoe safaris and destination treks, leading to secret sugar shacks for “maple-on-snow” treats or cabins that serve lunch by a crackling fire.

Inexpensive rentals and affordable lessons make this a no-risk sport to try. Whether opting for guided treks with bells and whistles or breaking into the backcountry in search of solitude and untrod snowfields, strapping on a pair of snowshoes lets you enjoy winter while leaving little environmental footprints from some pretty big shoes.
—Sascha Zuger

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