In the interest of trying new things (as I wrote about in my last column), I tried snowshoeing for the first time last week.
In places with more reliable snowfalls throughout the winter, many runners use snowshoeing as a winter activity to maintain their fitness — and even race. The past week or so notwithstanding, we usually don’t have enough snow here that I know many people with snowshoes.
But Cara Finnegan of Champaign grew up in Minnesota and has an appreciation for outdoor winter activities. She cross-country skiied while growing up, but for her husband’s birthday a couple of years ago, she bought snowshoes for him and herself.
They’ve used them in Minnesota and also snowshoed at the University of Illinois Arboretum. They hoped to snowshoe in Michigan early this week.
“Part of the reason we got snowshoes is because we wanted to do something wintry, but we didn’t think it was worth getting cross-country skis because the snow we get here is so unpredictable. (Snowshoeing) is just walking, which is what I like, as opposed to skiing, where you have to have wax and the right snow conditions and stuff. Everything has to be perfect so you can move properly (on skis).”
Lisa Ellis of Champaign also likes snowshoeing because it is more accessible than skiing and requires less equipment, she said.
“It’s nice because compared to downhill skiing, and even cross-country skiing, it’s a sport that’s a low investment up front,” Ellis said.
In flat areas such as central Illinois, poles aren’t even necessary, she said.
Ellis grew up cross-country skiing, in upstate New York. She tried snowshoeing a few years ago with some friends who did it, then asked for a pair of snowshoes for Christmas. She’s snowshoed at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and at Lake of the Woods in Mahomet.
“It kind of surprises you what a great workout it is,” Ellis said, noting it engages the hip flexors more than just walking. “You really just have to get used to how it feels, walking-wise.
“You have to kind of walk like a martian, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s a spatial awareness thing. You also have to have a wider stance, because of the distance (of the snowshoe) that’s around your foot.”
While snowshoeing is just walking, Finnegan said, it’s harder — and it really feels like a workout.
“I think it’s deceptively hard,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like running. It doesn’t feel like walking. It feels like clunky cross-country skiing because you’re not sliding but you have poles.
“Once you get going, it feels like a good, hard hike.”
Finnegan said you must pick up your knees more with snowshoes, so your quads get a workout.
When I tried it, I occasionally caught the toe of my snowshoe on the snow, if I didn’t pick up my foot enough. And once or twice, my snowshoes bumped together when I didn’t keep a wide enough stance. Otherwise, it was easy and fun.
Finnegan got snowshoes with aluminum frames. They came with poles. She uses her regular winter boots, and she and her husband bought gaiters to use also.
“Those are great, so then you can just wear any pants you want. Even if you’re out there in jeans, you keep pretty dry,” she said.
Ellis advised using boots with full, hard sole and base around the foot.
“Uggs don’t work with snowshoeing,” she said. “Any type of soft boot is not going to work.”
Ellis noted any place there is cross-country skiing with groomed trails, there is probably snowshoeing as well. One rule of etiquette Ellis mentioned: Cross-country skiiers aren’t fond of having their tracks messed up by snowshoes, so she tries to avoid walking on the tracks.
But, she said, “you can go places with snowshoes that you can’t always go with skis.
“You can go out for half an hour or you can go out for a day. It’s free, once you get the equipment. For people who have families, it’s affordable. It’s a great way of getting outside.”
Finnegan agreed, saying snowshoeing gives her the opportunity to be out in nature in the wintertime. It’s also a good way to supplement running.
“I like taking advantage of winter. I like being out in the snow,” she said. “I think it’s partly being a Minnesotan. In the middle of town, you get out there and you’re more in nature.”
Tips for showshoeing beginners from Snowshoe Magazine:
*Snowshoes come in three types: recreational hiking snowshoes, a basic snowshoe good for beginners and for terrain that doesn’t involve steep climbs or descents; aerobic/fitness snowshoes, more suitable for running; and hiking/backpacking snowshoes, stronger and more durable for use in tougher conditions such as backcountry snowshoeing.
*Snowshoes are sized according to length, with the appropriate size based on the weight of the user.
*The cost of snowshoes typically ranges from $100 to $300.
*If you are buying used snowshoes, check the frames for damage such as chips and the bindings for stress.
*Dress in layers you can remove as you warm up. Always have a hat that covers your ears, gloves or mittens, waterproof boots and wool socks, waterproof pants and jacket, and sunglasses. Use clothing made of wicking fabric rather than cotton, which no longer provides insulation and doesn’t dry quickly once it gets wet. Leather hiking boots, trail running shoes and snowboarding shoes are all appropriate for snowshoeing.
*Walk with a natural stride, but a slightly wider stance to accommodate the width and length of the snowshoes. In deeper snow, lift your knees and push down so the cleats on the bottom of the snowshoes grab the snow. Shorten your stride and dig your cleats in when climbing a hill. Bend your knees and crouch slightly to lower your center of gravity when going downhill.
*It is difficult to back up on snowshoes, as the heel of your boot is not attached to the snowshoe. Turn around rather than backing up. To turn, position one snowshoe in front of the other in a “T” formation in the direction in which you’d like to turn.
If you are interested in racing, there are a number of snowshoe races in the Midwest. The following is a list of some upcoming races. See snowshoeracing.com or cutemoose.net for more events.
*Bigfoot Snowshoe Race, Traverse City, Mich., Jan. 18 (runsnow.com)
*Phillips Flurry, Phillips, Wis., Jan. 18 (phillipsflurry.com)
*Winterrific Snowshoe Race, Savage, Minn., Jan. 18 (winterrificmn.com)
*Iowa Games, Cedar Falls, Feb. 1 (iowagames.org/Sports/WinterGames/Snowshoeing.aspx)
*Twin Cities Snowshoe Shuffle, New Brighton, Minn., Feb. 1 (snowshoeshuffle.org)
Photo, top, by Robert K. O'Daniell/The News-Gazette