Women snowshoeing in the forest

How to start snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is one of the easiest winter sports to try. It’s also pretty easy to make sure you stay safe and have fun too. Follow our step-by-step guide to take your first steps on snowshoes this year.

If you’re a beginner, here’s how to get ready to snowshoe:

  1. Get the right gear: Rent or buy snowshoes and consider poles and traction devices too.
  2. Dress for winter: It’s all about the right layers from head to toe.
  3. Pack a backpack: Bring the 10 essentials for safety, plus a few extras.
  4. Choose a place to go: Before you head out, check the weather, conditions and avalanche forecast.
  5. Practice your technique: Learn how to travel safety in hilly terrain to avoid wipeouts.
  6. Follow our trail tips: Advice on snowshoe etiquette and how to keep the wilderness wild.

Learn all the details below, then start playing in powder snow and crunching along winter trails.

1. Get the right gear

Two people snowshoeing in an open field

Snowshoes

Obviously you’ll need snowshoes. Choose a pair that’s designed for the type of terrain you’ll be tackling (flat trails vs. steep peaks or something in between) and can accommodate your weight, plus gear. For a full guide to buying snowshoes, check out how to choose snowshoes. If you aren’t ready to buy a pair, you can rent snowshoes from your local MEC store instead.

Poles

Some people like to use poles to help with balance and stability. They can be particularly helpful in deep snow and give an extra sense security on slopes. Adjustable poles with snow baskets designed for backcountry skiing make great snowshoe poles. If you have regular ski poles sitting in the garage, those will do in a pinch. Just make sure they’re the correct size for you. For more pole tips, check how to choose and size ski poles.

Traction devices

If you plan to snowshoe in steep or icy terrain, or if you regularly head out on hard-packed trails, you might come across snow that’s too icy and crusty for snowshoes to be helpful. Consider stashing traction devices in your pack that you can swap out for your snowshoes.

2. Dress for winter

People snowshoeing wearing bright winter clothing

Once you’ve got your gear, the secret to staying warm and comfortable when snowshoeing is dressing in layers. This lets you shed a layer if you warm up while working hard or add a layer for extra insulation on breezy mountain tops or chilly mornings. If you start to sweat, take off a layer to avoid soaking it, otherwise you’ll be cold and damp when you stop.

Choose warm, moisture-wicking base layers next to your skin, and waterproof or water-resistant outer layers to protect from snow or sleet. Add a fleece jacket or lightweight puffy jacket as a mid layer when it’s really cold. Check out what to know about clothing layers for more tips.

Keep your hands, neck and head warm

Bring a toque along, plus a neck gaiter to keep your throat warm. Pack waterproof and insulated ski gloves or mitts for cold temperatures and bring lighter weight water-resistant fleece gloves for warmer days.

“I always bring two pairs of gloves when I go snowshoeing so I have a dry pair if one gets wet. Nothing’s worse than wet hands when it’s cold out.” Taryn E., MEC Head Office

Choose insulated boots

For casual snowshoe walks, insulated winter boots will keep your feet warm and dry. They don’t offer much ankle support, though, so for backcountry snowshoe adventures you’ll be more comfortable in hiking boots. You can wear your summer hiking boots for snowshoeing, along with some warm wool or synthetic hiking socks. If you’re prone to cold feet, invest in a pair of insulated winter hiking boots. To keep snow out of the tops of your boots, layer on a pair of gaiters.

3. Pack a backpack

Snowshoer wearing a green backpack

Not sure what to bring snowshoeing? Even if you’re heading out for a on a short trip, it’s important to pack some key items. The weather changes quickly in the winter and you should be prepared in case you are out longer than you planned for.

When you’re packing your bag, make sure it includes all of the 10 essentials +1, along with the gear and clothing outlined in the points above. To make sure you don’t forget anything, use our helpful snowshoeing checklist.

“Always bring a headlamp and a map of the trails – it’s easy to get disoriented in winter. Pack lots of snacks in your bag too!” – Pascale V-R from Chèvres de Montagne, an MEC Outdoor Nation partner

Add extra items to stay warm

Stash a few extras in your backpack for a snowshoe trip to keep you warm:

4. Choose a place to go

As long as there’s snow on the ground, it’s fairly easy to find a place to go snowshoeing. Some suggestions to get you started:

  • Pick up a local snowshoeing guidebook or map.
  • Head to a ski resort or cross-country ski area. Many of them have snowshoe trails that you can use for a fee.
  • Visit the trails at local regional, provincial or national park.
  • Check out what your favourite local hiking trail looks like in winter mode.

Before you head out, check the conditions and weather forecasts to ensure you have the right gear and know what to expect. Trails can be hard to follow in winter, so remember to pack a map and compass or GPS and brush up on your winter navigation skills.

If you plan to snowshoe in BC and Alberta (or anywhere with avalanche potential), check the avalanche forecast too. Trails that are fun hikes in the summertime can become treacherous avalanche terrain in the winter – learn about avalanche safety and training.

5. Practice your technique

If you can walk, you can snowshoe… on flat ground at least. Things get a bit more complicated once hills are involved. Poles can help a lot with balance and control, and if you brought traction devices, steep slopes are where you’ll want to use them.

Two people snowshoeing uphill

Tips for snowshoeing uphill

  • In soft snow, use the toe of your boot to kick steps into the snow.
  • If it’s icy and crusty, use the crampons on the bottom of your snowshoe to bite into the hard top-layer of the snow.
  • If it’s too steep, try to make your own switchbacks (zigzagging back and forth) up the slope.

Tips for snowshoeing downhill

  • Keep your knees bent and your body weight slightly back.
  • Plant your poles in front of you for balance.
  • With each step, make sure your crampons dig into the snow.
  • If you start to slip, sit down to stop yourself from sliding further.
  • When the slope is too steep, take off your snowshoes and put on your traction devices, or kick steps down in your boots.

Tips for traversing or side-hilling

  • Use your uphill snowshoe to dig into the slope and make a flat surface to stand on.
  • Keep your weight on your uphill snowshoe.
  • Use your poles for balance. If you have adjustable poles, make your uphill pole shorter and your downhill pole longer.

Tips for turning and going backwards

  • Make wide turns so you don’t step on the back of your own snowshoe (and trip in the process).
  • You’re likely to step on your own snowshoe if you try to walk backwards, so make a U-turn instead of putting yourself in reverse.

6. Follow these trail tips

It’s awesome to see snowshoeing getting more popular. Since there are more people out in the trails, follow these snowshoe etiquette tips to keep things fun for everyone:

  • Move aside: Step off the trail when you stop for a hot chocolate break or if there are faster snowshoers who want to pass.
  • Yield to skiers: It’s way easier for a snowshoer to step out of the way than it is for a skier to stop.
  • Stay off ski tracks: Snowshoe prints ruin groomed cross-country ski tracks or backcountry ski skin tracks.
  • Take turns breaking trail: In deep snow, it’s hard work going first!
  • Slide off the trail: If you bum slide or toboggan on your way down, do it off the trail. Sliding on the trail makes it icy and hard for others to walk on.

Finally, when you’re outside playing in powder or crunching along trails, keep the 7 Leave No Trace principles in mind. A few ways to keep the wilderness wild:

  • Pack out your garbage: Yep, this includes nut shells, orange peels and banana skins. They’ll all melt out of the snow and be litter for hikers.
  • Pick up poop: Clean up after your dog and pack it out. No one wants to stumble on a poop landmine in spring.
  • Don’t be tempted by cuteness: Even if they’re adorable, don’t feed the squirrels and birds. They have their own winter food sources and we don’t want them to start relying on people.