I get it. I, too, was there just a few short years ago. You love hiking and really want to get out there but snow is now covering the trails you once frequented. You think “maybe I’ll give it a shot, maybe there isn’t too much snow, I can still hike it” only to be unpleasantly surprised and your feet are quickly soaked and you can’t even make it up that first seemingly not-so-steep hill. Or you start mentally preparing to make this the year you finally get your $h*t together and figure out this whole snowshoeing thing once and for all…but then all the things are just overwhelming and you figure hey, it’s only another a few months til the snow melts, I want to catch up on those Netflix shows anyway…
Don’t fret! Read on for a quick guide about snowshoeing for beginners!
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: snowshoeing is just hiking, but on snow! That’s right, that’s all there is to it. It’s not a different activity really, it’s just different terrain. It’s like jogging on the beach instead of jogging on pavement. Snowshoeing is just hiking on more resistant terrain. It’s a bit more effort to get to your destination, but you’re still just putting one foot in front of the other.
Of course with different terrain means different gear. This is usually the non-starter for many people. “Do I really have to buy more stuff?” you wonder to yourself. The short answer: yes. The only two things you really need to have though are snowshoes or spikes, and some way to waterproof your feet.
Snowshoes VS Spikes
Here’s another secret: one very rarely needs snowshoes – but you do need traction. Snow and ice are slippery so you definitely need some sort of traction device.
You only need actual snowshoes if you are hiking in deep, soft, untracked snow like if you’re hiking on a trail that is rarely used so it’s not packed down, or if it has just snowed a bunch.
I hike in snow quite a bit and I’ve used my snowshoes maybe 3 times ever. I HIGHLY recommend getting a pair of spikes instead. Pictured above are the ones I have: Kahtoola MICROspikes, but I’ve heard great things about a local Vancouver company called Hillsound. There are a few different companies that make them. Just make sure they provide enough traction. There are things like nanospikes which are not sufficient – they’re more for things like trail running in winter or shovelling your driveway when an ice storm has just hit. There are also crampons which are way more heavy duty than you need. These are for mountaineering or ice climbing.
Lots of places sell snowshoes and spikes, like MEC, Valhalla Pure Outfitters, Atmosphere and Amazon. Or save some cash and buy used like from Craigslist or Sports Junkies. You can also rent them from MEC and VPO, as well as up at most resorts like Cypress and Seymour but it’s much cheaper to rent from a store than a resort. Do yourself a favour though and buy. You can purchase a decent pair for the cost of renting them 2-4 times, especially if you buy them used. If you don’t end up liking the sport, you can always resell the gear.
Keeping Your Feet Dry
If you’re really into hiking, you may already have a pair of waterproof boots or shoes. If not, I’d recommend investing in a good pair. They’re good to have year-round, even in the summer for super rainy days or for crossing streams. Not ready to shell out or hate wearing big, clunky boots? Get a pair or Goretex socks. I have had mine for years and they are amazing, especially for backpacking adventures. It’s much better to wear them in light trail shoes or boots that will dry quickly. These are the ones I have. Alternatively if you’re super tight on cash, you can layer a plastic bag between socks. Put on the technical, sweat-absorbing hiking socks against your skin, then stick your foot in a plastic shopping bag, then either stick it in your boot, or cover with another thin sock to keep it in place. Ghetto, yes, but it works!
Most of the time the above info will keep you dry enough as most trails you’re likely to hike on will be packed down by other hikers using it. If the trail has lots of fluffy snow, your ankles and shins might need a bit of protection. In this case you might want to wear snowpants or rain pants, or my preference is gaiters. Gaiters are like leg warmers that are waterproof. They go over your shoe and calf. These are the ones I have, by Rab from Valhalla Pure Outfitters.
Other Snowshoeing Gear & Clothing
Above is really all the technical gear you need that is different or in addition to what you would normally use hiking. Some people, including myself, like to use poles, but it’s all about personal preference at this point. I use them snowshoeing but never summer hiking. I like them for stability on the slippery ground but rarely find I want them for summer hiking.
Make sure you dress warm enough for the coldest temperatures but like any hiking, dress in multiple layers. Even if it’s really cold outside, you’ll likely get quite hot while snowshoeing. If you can avoid it, don’t just wear a shirt with a thick winter coat over top. Ideally you’ll have a sweat-wicking layer against your skin, then a mid-layer, then a top layer, then an outer layer or two as I guarantee you will want to shed some layers at some point.
When I snowshoe this is what I wear: tank top against skin, then a thin merino technical top with armpit and back venting, then a thin sweater or thicker merino top, then depending on the temperature either a vest with a waterproof shell in my pack if it’s warm and dry out, a down jacket if it’s cold and my shell over top if it’s wet out. I always bring but rarely wear a thin pair of gloves and a toque. On the bottom if it’s dry but cold I wear a pair of merino baselayer pants with some tights overtop, or waterproof pants over tights if it’s wet out. I always wear warm, merino wool socks. Your toes can get quite cold so I think it’s important to not just wear warm socks, but choose socks that wick sweat like Icebreaker merino hiking socks.
Where to Snowshoe
OK, you’re now all dressed and ready to go. Now you’re wondering where to and how to get there? Where to is dependent on how you’re getting there. Another reason a lot of people get put off snowshoeing is accessibility. Lots of Vancouverites don’t have snow tires (GET SOME!!! It now snows in Vancouver like every year!!! But I digress…) so they can’t access lots of spots. Or they don’t have a vehicle at all. Luckily Vancouver is home to so many options that no one is left out!
Our local North Shore mountains are home to lots of amazing, marked snowshoeing trails with varying degrees of length and difficulty. As well there are lots of great trails farther out like in Manning Park, Chilliwack, Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.
There is a paid shuttle that goes up Seymour and Cypress, and even public transit goes to Grouse. Each park’s website will list their trails (paid trails on the resort website and free trails on the BC Parks website). Make sure to stick to recommended winter routes only as summer hiking trails often venture through dangerous avalanche terrain (more on this later). Here are some popular trails:
Be Safe & Prepared
Like hiking any time of year, it is important to be safe and prepared. No one goes out expecting to get lost or injured, so always prepare for the worst just in case. It is especially important in the winter as the conditions are much more harsh and less forgiving should anything happen. Make sure you do your research before heading out, make a trip plan and share it with someone, and always carry the 10 Essentials. I never venture on a trail without at bare minimum a headlamp, emergency blanket, lots of water and some high-energy snacks (tip: I buy bulk boxes of Simply Protein or Vega bars from the awesome Canadian online health store Well.ca), but the more gear you have, the better.
For more safety tips, visit BC AdventureSmart.
Make sure you research the trail and pay attention when you’re out there. Make sure you can always see a trail marker and turn back if the weather starts closing in on you. Winter weather can change on a dime. One minute it’s sunny and the next you can be in white-out conditions. I’m not trying to freak you out. Snowshoeing is so awesome but the new element of snow poses a big potential danger so you have to know what you’re getting into.
Most importantly, make sure the trail you plan to hike is not in avalanche terrain if the Danger Rating is above low and you are not trained and equipped for rescue. Check the Danger Rating at https://www.avalanche.ca/map The closest area to Vancouver (like the North Shore mountains) are part of the South Coast area, which you can see at https://www.avalanche.ca/map/forecasts/south-coast. Just because other people are hiking somewhere does not mean it is safe. For example, lots of people think hiking to St Mark’s Summit in the winter is safe. IT IS NOT. Lots of summer trails travel through avalanche paths in winter – like Elfin Lakes, Needle Peak, and First Pump on Seymour (anywhere past Brockton Point) just to name a few.
There is a lot to know about avalanches. If you’re going to be spending time in the snow, whether you’re snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling or anything, you should really consider getting properly educated about this topic as an avalanche can occur anywhere there is a slope (which is practically everywhere around here!). There are lots of great courses offered throughout our region. Learn about them at https://www.avalanche.ca/training Not ready to dive in yet? Get a basic overview in Avalanche Canada’s free online tutorial at https://www.avalanche.ca/tutorial
Don’t let it overwhelm you. Snowshoeing is super fun and can be a great, safe way to stay active outdoors all year long. Knowledge is key. Connect with others who share your interest. There are lots of groups and pages on social media that are excellent for learning and connecting. Chilliwack BC Hiking is my favourite hiking group as there are so many people on it creating a massive collective of information. There are also lots of groups you can join to meet new hiking friends like my group “Group Hikes Near Vancouver” on Facebook.
I am by no means an expert but I’m happy to help in any way I can. Feel free to reach out with any questions. Send me a DM on Insta, PM on FB or shoot me an email.