Today I did something I have never done before–snowshoeing. And if you’re in Colorado like me, you don’t always know exactly what to expect when it comes to the weather. So I’ve compiled a list of things that you should expect no matter the time or place you are going snowshoeing.
At 7 am I was ready with a group of strangers heading up to Lake Agnes, about an hour and a half away from our starting point of Fort Collins, all thanks to this really special program called Year Two at CSU. This program gets second year students involved on campus and constantly meeting new people–you can read all about my last adventure with Year Two here.
Although in Fort Collins it was 60 and sunny, Lake Agnes decided to be the exact opposite. We were expecting snow up in the mountains of course, but high winds and a snowstorm? Not exactly. Although the wind and the cold elements seemed to be a struggle at first, it turned out to be barely noticeable. All thanks to my strategic layering and preparedness.
When snowshoeing for the first time, you will NEED the following:
- Snowshoes, trekking poles, insulated mountaineering boots (waterproof)
- A synthetic base layer both tops and bottoms
- A fleece (do not ever wear cotton in the snow!) mid-layer on top
- An insulating parka or jacket outer layer on top
- Ski/snowpants (you’ll want these to be waterproof!)
- Hat, gloves, (scarf, neck protection, face mask, ski goggles, sunglasses optional)
- Wool socks
- At least 2 liters of water
- Day backpack and snacks or lunch
- Sunscreen, lip balm, hand sanitizer
- Toilet paper (Leave No Trace practices please!)
Depending on where you snowshoe, you may want to take gaitors as well to protect you from deep snow. Luckily for me, I had packed down snow and didn’t need to worry about sinking into it.
At first, walking on snowshoes feels very weird–like a nuisance on your feet that you can’t seem to get rid of. Its important to make sure your straps are as comfortable and fit as possible, especially at the start. One of my shoes came off only a few seconds into the hike and I had to reset everything. It may feel awkward at first and thats totally okay, just laugh it off as you figure out your balance and how wide you have to step not to trip over your own shoes.
I would also measure out my poles to about a 45 degree angle when standing up for best length when walking. The hardest part is getting them close enough to the same length that you don’t even notice a difference. After that, you’re all set to start.
The first couple minutes of snowshoeing are basically getting used to the shoes, but after that its awesome to see the weight distribution happen before your very eyes as you walk over softer snow. A lot of the trail was packed down for me, but the metal teeth on the bottom of the shoes give you that extra grip you need to keep you from sliding. Basically, the part your foot is strapped into moves independent from the rest of the shoe itself.
Snowshoeing is a strenuous, hard cardio sport–even more so than regular hiking. Its great to get a workout in and will have you tired after the first small hill. I took frequent breaks on my way up to Lake Agnes, warm from all the energy, even with it being 30 degrees out. One of the most important things to watch for yourself (especially if you’re not used to altitude) is altitude sickness, dehydration, and sweating. It seems counterproductive to drink cold water while in such a cold environment, but its one of the easiest ways to keep yourself from feeling sick and to make sure you’re staying hydrated when your body is working so hard. You’re trying to keep yourself warm, hike uphill, and battle cold weather–your body needs your help.
Quick tip: If you are able to, warm up your water bottle before the hike to keep the liquid from freezing. My water bottles got cold after less than an hour and there wasn’t much else I could do about it. It would be better for to drink warmer water, but for today, it was perfectly okay having cold water to drink for me.
And with your body doing all of that hard work, you’re going to get warm. You have to make sure that you don’t start sweating though, because then it will cool off and freeze, and leave you shivering. Take breaks, take a sip of water, and take it easy. Snowshoeing is more cardio-based than I recently believed, and it had my heart pumping the whole time.
Beyond the physicality that comes with snowshoeing, try to travel light. Packing only essentials makes a difference in the long run (like with hiking as well), not only for your weight, but your legs and back as well. The backpack can rub on your shoulders, neck, etc. leaving you sore when you didn’t have to be. If you’re carrying a camera, especially during a snowstorm, theres a couple options you can do. Bring a cover (plastic bag or any other makeshift type), leave it in your backpack until you find a place to take photos, or you can tuck it into your jacket like I did. This keeps your camera protected from snow, rain, wind, cold, and whatever else the sky wants to do that day. I liked it tucked into my jacket for easy access and it saved time.
Lucky for me, only the beginning half mile of the hike was in open terrain where we felt like penguins walking through the arctic. Then once you enter the forest trails, the winds die down, the snow is softer, and its dead silent. On occasion, you can hear the elk mewing and barking in the valley below, even if you can’t see them because of all the trees. At about 1.5 miles you reach an open meadow (pictured below), where I stopped to eat lunch, and with only 0.8 miles to go until Lake Agnes. Although it sounds like a short distance, the total hike lasts a few hours. Make sure to bring enough water and don’t drink more than half of it on the way up.
Coming downhill on snowshoes is a bit of a change from going up, you have to lean back slightly and use your poles more for balance and guidance than going up. Its a quick hike back down the mountain, but that last half mile again is battling all the elements at once. When I made it back to the car, I was ready to warm up and sleep. Everyone was dreaming of hot showers and a date with Netflix tonight, I was one of them.
The one thing I can tell you to expect the first time you go snowshoeing–you kind of have to figure it out for yourself. Its like riding a bike, you can see it and watch it and prepare for it, but you won’t actually know until you try. Snowshoeing feels different than you might expect, but its an amazing experience and workout overall. I definitely think its something I will do in my future for winter hiking, and the Lake Agnes trail was absolutely beautiful.
Stay safe and happy hiking!