This has been an interesting winter for weather, with massive snowfalls in December followed by a January thaw that went on for weeks, followed by some gorgeous powder in February. Snowmobilers and skiers have had some frustrating times with icy slopes and closed trails for much of January. But no matter what kind of snow we have, there’s one winter activity that doesn’t disappoint: snowshoeing.
If you want to get some exercise and fresh air in the winter, a set of snowshoes is your reliable friend. Whether it’s deep, fluffy powder or sloppy wet granules, these simple tools will help you get out and enjoy the season.
When choosing snowshoes, it’s best to set aside any romantic images of old-fashioned wood and webbing. The classic snowshoes still work as well as they have for centuries, they’re surprisingly light and they look gorgeous. But they do take a bit of maintenance, with a fresh coat of varnish on the webbing every year or so to keep it tight and waterproof. When starting out, you’re better off with the modern aluminum snowshoes.
There are a wide range of shapes and binding types available, but in general snowshoes fall into three groups: recreational hiking, trail running, or back country.
Recreational hiking snowshoes are a good place to start. They won’t give you quite as much flotation in deep powder as a bigger set of back country snowshoes will, but they’re just a bit easier to handle and less likely to get tangled up when you’re getting started.
Trail running snowshoes are smaller and very durable, but they’re really intended for use on trails that are already groomed. If your goal is to venture through the woods and explore, they might not give you enough support.
Apart from the snowshoes, the only other equipment you might want is a pair of poles. These are purely optional, but some people find they help you keep your balance a bit more when you’re just getting started.
As for clothing, dress in layers, just as you would for any strenuous outdoor activity. Any comfortable boots will be good. If you’re not wearing snowpants, you may want to look for a set of gaiters, sleeves that slip over the tops of your boots to prevent snow from falling in.
Your first snowshoe excursion will be easier if you go out on a dedicated trail. Breaking your own trail through the woods is fun, but it’s just a little easier to snowshoe on a path that’s already been packed down. The Bracebridge Resource Management Centre, located on Hwy 17 just north of Bracebridge, has a snowshoe trail that’s well maintained, and is a great place to get used to the sport. (Just don’t snowshoe on the cross country ski trails, as that will ruin the grooming for the skiers.) There are also snowshoe trails at Arrowhead Provincial Park near Huntsville, at Limberlost Forest between Huntsville and Dwight, and at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh near Bala. Many of the area resorts have snowshoe trails as well, some of which are open for day use.
Once you’re comfortable with snowshoes, you can really get out and explore Muskoka. After all, they’re designed to let you walk wherever you want in deep snow, including spots you can’t reach in summer because they’re too marshy or the vegetation is too thick. Just remember to use caution around lakes, ponds and rivers – snowshoes will help on ice, but they don’t make you invincible.
The biggest challenge when breaking your own trail comes when you need to go up or down a steep slope. Going up is fairly simple – just remember that your grip comes from your toes, where there are usually some sharp cleats on the bottom of the snowshoe. So lean into the hill. And go straight up: going sideways along a slope reduces your grip..
Going down may take a bit more practice. The natural tendency is to lean backward, but that can lift your cleats up and away from the ground so that all your weight is sitting on the back of the snowshoe. Since there are no cleats back there, you can find yourself suddenly skiing downhill rather than walking. That’s fine if you want to ride that way, but you’ll have better control if you lean forward slightly when going downhill.
If you’re heading out in Muskoka this weekend, you may find that you need to lift your feet a little higher than usual – there’s a hard crust under the fluffy layer on top of the snow, so you’ll want to make sure the toe of your snowshoe doesn’t catch underneath the crust.
With a bit of practice, it won’t be long before you’re walking through the bush as comfortably and quickly in winter as you do in the summer.