Walking through or on Snow

[Note: The following was first published in the February 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We knew we were going to have trouble as soon as we stuck one of our trucks in the snow at the beginning of a trail we had driven many times in previous years. After some effort rocking the vehicle back and forth, we got it free—but we knew this particular trail would be closed to vehicles this hunt. The other alternative was to walk up the trail. After all, it was just a kilometre or so to the area we wanted to hunt. However, the snow pack had a couple of crusted layers and once you placed your full weight, your leg crashed down past the knee in snow depth. To walk this particular trail would be an exhausting exercise just to get to where we wanted to begin to hunt, let alone hunt or haul an animal out.

Michigan snowshoes

Don with his traditional ‘Michigan’ snowshoes.

Since this was the first day of our annual deer hunt, we decided to check out other access points to better plan our week. Although this particular trail provided access to one of our best hunting areas, there were alternatives. We ended up hunting off an unmaintained road allowance where the snowpack had been broken by previous vehicles, allowing our 4×4 vehicles to drive and manoeuvre without too much problem.

However, we still had to get out of the trucks, where we faced the same knee-deep and crusted snow. Progress was slow and I quickly learned to carefully pick my path, sticking to ridges where possible and trying to avoid the wind drifts where the snow depth could go well past my waist. Needless to say, we didn’t cover a lot of ground for the amount of effort expended—not to mention not being able to hunt to best advantage.

This winter (2013/14) has been another exceptional one with regard to snowfall. For several years now, we’ve had large snowfalls, some coming early in the fall. In the past, the snow in November seldom was over a few centimetres in depth—not an issue for either driving or walking on trails. In these last couple of years, however, the snow depth, especially in late November, has been a problem for hunters—not to mention the deer. Climate change is coming fast and although it’s difficult to predict ultimate outcomes, it appears we will be dealing with highly variably weather and plenty of extremes for the next several years.

What has become obvious to our hunting party is that we need to be prepared for all occurrences. Good vehicles and tires are one thing, but one also needs the ability to walk on the snow rather than through it.

Despite my complaints about shoveling snow and poor highway conditions, I enjoy the winters in Alberta. I like being outside to watch birds and other wildlife, walk and cross-country (x-c) ski. The latter activity is an excellent way to get around on deep snow. However, x-c skiing is not ideal for hunting because skis aren’t that maneuverable in close quarters. A better choice for hunting in deep snow conditions are snowshoes, where you walk on a more stable platform that provides maneuverability and less chance of falling.

It has been a few years since I have used snowshoes. I bought my first pair over 40 years ago and still have them. They are made the old fashion way with wood frames and rawhide latticework to “float” the shoes over the snow. Snowshoes were originally developed by aboriginal people who noted how certain animals, like snowshoe hare and lynx, floated over the snow—instead of walking through it—because of their oversize feet. So, they developed snowshoes to do the same for people. European trappers and fur traders easily adopted the technology and snowshoes are still used by many to get work done in the winter. I used my pair to check a live-trapping line I was maintaining as part my biological research. When I later ran a recreational dog-sledding team for a few years, I used the snowshoes to break new trail for the dogs. Otherwise, my winter recreation centred on x-c skiing. However, with the advent of modern snowshoes made with light-weight metals and plastic, snowshoeing has taken off as an alternative recreational activity for outdoors people in winter.

Modern snowshoes

The author with his MSR snowshoes, lighter and easier to use than the traditional shoes.

Modern snowshoes are indeed a lot easier to use than the old traditional ones, but like the traditional ones, choosing which kind to buy can be a challenge. In the old days, the choices were basically between the small and round “bearpaw” design, which provided the greatest maneuverability to do close-in work, such as checking traps, to the “trail” design that was built long and narrow to provide more flotation and less spreading of the legs for long distance travel. The traditional snowshoes I own are a teardrop design called “Michigan”, which are a compromise between the bearpaw and trail.

The variety of snowshoes available today are no less varied. You can choose from aluminum-framed designs to stainless-steel to high-density plastic models. Instead of a lattice of strapping to support the shoe, manufacturers are using solid synthetic decking, which provides more flotation with less weight. Also included on many models are crampons to provide grip on icy surfaces and “ascenders” or heal-lifters that snap-up when needed to help when climbing a slope.

Modern bindings are easy to use.

Modern bindings are easy to use.

Modern bindings are also an improvement over the leather straps used to tie traditional wooden snowshoes to boots. Today’s bindings are made from nylon and plastics and offer maximum flexibility and ease of securely attaching them.

There are three basic types of modern snowshoes: 1) the smallest and lightest are aerobic or running snowshoes designed to cover ground fast—not very useful for hunting or trekking to an ice-fishing site; 2) recreational snowshoes are intermediate in size and are designed for gentle or moderately difficult walking; and 3) mountaineering snowshoes, the largest, designed for difficult hill climbing and long treks.

snowshoe crampons

Built in crampons aid climbing up hill on icy surfaces.

Within each group, snowshoes vary in size depending on intended use and the size of the user. The largest mountaineering shoes can be bigger than 75 cm (30 in.) long by 25 cm (10 in.) wide and the smallest running snowshoes can be smaller than 65 cm (25 in.) long by 25 cm (10 in.). A general “rule-of-thumb” is to figure about 15 square cm of snowshoe surface per snowshoe for each kilogram of person and gear being carried (1 sq. in./lb.). Some manufacturers sell extenders that can be attached easily to the tails of their snowshoes to increase flotation in extra deep or soft snow. Another accessory to consider is a set of ski or trekking poles to help keep your balance while walking.

As you can see, there are lots of things to consider in a purchase. Personally, I bought a pair of MSR (Mountain Safety Research) recreational snowshoes that are light enough to easily carry on a backpack while providing the flotation and traction I might need in conditions like we found this fall. I’ve decided to make their use part of my winter workout routine so I learn how best to use them in a variety of conditions. After all, hares and lynx can’t be wrong: floating on top is better than going through.


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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
This entry was posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Country Living, General, Hunting, Product Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Walking through or on Snow

  1. You definitely need to walk on snow. if you walk through it you use much more energy, not to mention that the holes that you leave are dangerous, others might hurt their ankles if they don’t see, and step into them.

  2. Lewa says:

    Isn’t it dangerous to wear these with a rifle on your back? They look like you could slip in them at any moment.

  3. Don Meredith says:

    Not really, Lewa. The platform is quite stable, especially with the crampons on the bottom. You build confidence the more often you use them. Of course, one must follow the rules regarding carrying a loaded gun: no shell in the chamber if not planning to shoot, etc. Definitely beats walking through the snow where you can get bogged down and indeed slip and fall.

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