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Four Days, Three Nights, and a Hundred Inches

By Jason Lathrop - March 8th, 2001

Witness the Golden Age of Snowshoeing, where winter adventure happily collides with comfortable resort escapes designed for family fun.

Winter transforms the wilderness into a subtle museum of light and sound. Sunlight pirouettes between the blanketed ground and laden pine branches. All other sound muted by the snow pack, your own breathing and crunching footfalls rise in volume and clarity as if nothing else stirred.

Wilderness in winter grows on its travelers, an addictive, splendid place to spend time. But, ironically, those travelers are not many in number, most folks driven by the cold to hang up their hiking boots.
Instead of putting away their hiking boots, however, increasing numbers of people are opting to add a pair of snowshoes. With the wilderness in such sublime—and sparsely trafficked—condition, you’ll find snowshoeing a natural, graceful extension of your wilderness season.

For dedicated hikers, snowshoeing offers a liberating new means of traveling by foot. With brush covered over with snow, following a trail becomes less critical. On today’s light, maneuverable shoes, you’ll find the whole forest transforms into an easily navigated expanse. A snowshoe outing can be as gentle as or rigorous as you want, depending on your level of experience and desire to explore. It just takes a little more technique and practice.

For families, snowshoeing offers a relaxed alternative to the usual winter vacation. Unlike alpine skiing, everyone can easily stay together. The day slows down, leaving time to interact. And kids love snow—roughhousing in it, throwing it at each other, building forts out of it.

Planning a snowshoeing vacation has never been easier than today. As snowshoeing’s popularity has boomed in the past few years, winter destination resorts have expanded their offerings, their trail programs and rental packages. Now, for substantially less than alpine skiing vacation, you can take yourself and family or friends to a winter-specific resort to enjoy lazy days in the wilderness and the evening amenities.

What to expect

At snowshoeing’s most basic level, you merely need to strap snowshoes on your feet and shuffle around. Frankly, though, shuffling around can get a little old. So most destinations these days make efforts to keep the activity interesting and remain beginner-friendly:

Groomed trails. Groomed, marked trails make for the beginner’s ideal entry into snowshoeing. Such trails relieve you of the hassle of fresh, heavy snow and the risk of route finding. A typical area will maintain between 3K and 20K of trails, usually through some of their most picturesque country.

Guided day hikes. As a step up from day-tripping on groomed trails, guided day hikes provide a good first backcountry encounter for inexperienced snowshoers. These run the gamut from “easy” to “aerobic-monsters-only-please.” Most areas will tailor a trip to your needs. Go for the gourmet lunch tour, as long as you’re at it.

Moonlit tours. Moonlight bouncing off snow illuminates the forest with an atmospheric blue glow. You’ll find it (duh) colder at night, but well worth it. Schedule carefully as these typically occur on full moons.

Races. Similar in format to a 5K or 10K foot race held in town, these make for a fun novelty afternoon. Even if you run 5 minute splits on pavement, you’ll find your first snowshoe race a bit humbling (notably, the falling on your face part).

Many resorts also offer multi-day options for those more confident in their family’s snowshoeing abilities.

Hut trips. With the route carefully marked and the huts stocked with firewood, a hut-to-hut trip without question makes for the best experience in serious backcountry travel. Carrying only food, clothing, and a sleeping bag, you’ll snowshoe from hut to hut along a prescribed, usually well-marked, route. If the navigation intimidates, you can hire a guide. Either way, this remains the least-burdened, most-comfortable way to spend time deep in the backcountry.

Snow camping. The thrill of sleeping in a snow cave is lost on some. But for sheer adventure and, frankly, comfort, nothing beats them. An overnight trip using a cave as your tent requires some expertise and doing, so hire a guide your first time out.

Costs

With the price of a lift ticket heading north of $50 at some resorts (never mind the actual skis and boots), ski vacations can prove too costly for a spur of the moment three-day-weekend or a second winter vacation.
Not so with snowshoeing. In the end, transportation, lodging, food and a minimal (typically $10 or so a day) rental fee gets you going. Of course, if cost poses less of an obstacle, you can always go crazy with the accommodations. Rooms tend to fall into three categories:

Nearby bargain hotel ($35-$100). Chain or locally owned traveler-style hotels often set up shop nearby relatively upscale winter destination resorts. While the desk at the official resort hotel might not volunteer the information, finding these can get you a Whistler vacation at Motel-8 prices.

Resort accommodations ($75-$250). Most winter resort and vacation areas offer a range of rooms right on site, though the prices vary mostly based on demand. The rooms aren’t necessarily anything special, but the convenient access to the trails and the snowshoe rental shop make up for a lot. The important point to remember here is dicker for a deal. Persistently ask about special deals and you can usually get one.

Upscale accommodations ($200 on up). Most resorts offer a higher class of room, often called a suite or some other fancy name. We’re talking hot tubs, wet bars, and private decks. Again, ask about specials. They’d usually prefer have your $150 than leave the room unoccupied. If you have a large family, a suite will sometimes actually save money if you make liberal use of the kitchenette and grocery store to avoid restaurants.

How to prepare

One thing you’ll notice about snowshoeing is that it’s cold out there. While any destination snowshoeing resort will rent you snowshoes, you’ll need to bring along your own warm clothes and a sensible pair of shoes.

First, the clothes. The basics of outdoor clothing apply as well to snowshoeing as any outdoor sport. You want versatile, breathable, quick drying clothes, in many layers. Start with base layers, polypropylene or other synthetic long underwear. Add a fleece or pile sweater and pants. Then add a midweight fleece jacket. Finally, layer on a waterproof-breathable shell set, storm jacket and pants. [For more detail, see this discussion on dressing for the cold and bluster.]

Shoes, on the other hand, become a bit complicated for snowshoeing. The traditional shoe, and perhaps the most appropriate, is a full-size, pac type boot, such as Sorels. Undeniably warm and comfortable, they only receive low marks for the somewhat loose fit. Sometimes, mainly when engaging in more strenuous hiking or running, you’ll want a more snugly fitting boot.

Consider a standard pair of insulated hiking boots as one option. Well-fitted, supportive and warm, these boots provide the snug, tactile fit needed for more high-output snowshoeing. Look for a boot made of full-grain leather with a light layer of synthetic insulation, such as Thinsulate.

Snowshoe racers often go even lighter, selecting a heavy approach shoe or low-cut hiking booting. While not comfortable for many hours of snowshoeing, they provide the agile comfort required for bursts of highly aerobic snowshoeing.

Links to resorts by region

Rocky Mountains

Beaver Creek/Vail

Spring Creek

Northeast

Bretton Woods

Okemo

Southwest/California

Alpine Meadows

Mammoth Lakes

Northwest

Grouse Mountain, British Columbia

Sun Mountain, Washington

Midwest

Grand Geneva Resort

Boyne Highlands


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