Here’s the scenario. You’re tucked inside your cozy cabin, a fire blazing in the hearth. Outside, it’s a winter wonderland. What’s the best way to get some fresh air today? Well, that really depends on what kind of snow is blanketing your cabin landscape.
The size and shape of the snow crystals depend on how cold it was when they formed and how much water is in each. Snow crystals, or snowflakes, form the basis of the snowpack. Temperature greatly affects how snowflakes bond. In the coldest temps, snow will stay fluffy. When temperatures dip below and rise above freezing, snowflakes can melt into ice. With the right gear, you can enjoy any snowpack.
FOR DEEP, FLUFFY SNOW
When you’re headed to hike in deep, fluffy snow, skip the boots-only hiking and go straight for snowshoeing. Snowshoes help you stay afloat in deep snow, and prevent you from wasting a lot of energy postholing, or sinking into the snow, as you wander through the winter wilds or just around the backyard.
Pick a pair based on your weight, dressed with whatever pack you’ll be carrying, and make sure they have traction to match the terrain. If you’re scaling a mountain, doing a prolonged traverse or climbing steeply uphill, pick a snowshoe with aggressive traction – large underfoot claws that will really dig into the terrain. For steep slopes, also choose shoes with a heel lift, a metal bar that flips up to give your calves a break.
Add trekking poles with broad snow baskets to the ensemble – they’ll give you the best balance in any conditions, but soft, deep snow can be the toughest to walk in.
Pair your snowshoes with high-top boots, or wear gaiters over lower boots to keep the snow from working its way over the cuffs and into your boots where it will melt and get your socks wet. Check the thermometer before you go, and be sure to pick boots with enough insulation and waterproofing to keep your feet warm – a tip that’s critical for any winter outing.
If you’d rather glide than hike, you’ll need Nordic ski gear. The same set of Nordic boots and poles will likely work in all snow conditions, but you may want a few pairs of skis in your quiver for best results.
In deep snow, the most important feature is float, unless you’re skiing at a groomed area. So choose a rugged touring ski (metal edges optional) that’s around 60 mm or larger in the shovel, the front part of the ski. A wider shovel, and a ski that’s wider underfoot, will keep you from sticking like a dart into the nearest drift. As with snowshoes, pair gaiters with your ski boots to keep the snow out, whether the gaiters are built into your ski pants or worn over them.
The term “hardpack” covers a wide range of conditions, ranging from vaguely consolidated snow to very compacted snow. If snow has a high moisture content when it falls, it can become hardpack pretty quickly. Slight melting also causes it.
Hardpack is the most user-friendly for winter recreation. In hardpack, you don’t need to worry about staying afloat – your primary concern is traction.
Postholing is also less of a problem. You don’t need winter hiking boots specifically, but they will likely be most comfortable, because, unlike your trusty warm-weather hiking boots, winter hiking boots will typically be insulated and waterproof. They may also have slip-resistant soles. It’s still a good idea to “chain” your feet, too (see section on “The Icy Stuff,” below).
As with hiking or snowshoeing in deep powder, you want to make sure that your footwear has adequate insulation, but you don’t need to worry as much about your boots filling with snow. If your pants have built-in gaiters or your boots are mid-cut or higher, you should be able to keep the snow at bay.
Depending on just how hard the snow is, when you’re headed out to go snowshoeing in hardpack, you won’t need snowshoes with quite as much float. In hardpack, traction and float are equally important. Snowshoes will provide traction when you hit slick sections of trail and keep you from punching through in deep snow that may have a hard crust on top. Hardpack snow is great for snowshoe running in a sleeker snowshoe, with weatherproof sneakers of course.
Some Nordic skiers like a metal edge for hardpack, and some don’t. In hardpack snow, you won’t need as wide a ski as you do in deep powder. Choose your ski based on how interested you are in carving turns in the woods (a more shapely ski equals better carving), and whether you’ll be using the same ski for groomed and natural trails (for groomed, relatively narrow is best; for the woods, a wider shovel is optimal).
Waxless skis can be exceptional performers on hardpack, especially if you’ll be spending most of your time in the woods or in fields. Only on a groomed trail does a waxed ski provide you noticeable performance advantages.
THE ICY STUFF
Some of the greatest advances in winter footwear in the past few years have been in winter-boot soles that don’t slip on ice. If you’re hiking in low snow, icy snow or straight up ice, buy boots with soles that get stickier as the weather gets colder, or get boot soles that have traction compound built in them.
In icy conditions, skip the snowshoes – they’re not the best tool. Instead, opt for a slip-on underfoot traction device, kind of like chains for your boots that will prevent you from ending up on your butt. There are numerous styles of winter traction available: walking crampons, spikes embedded in a rubber sole, wire-wrapped stretchy rubber. Most stretch over the body of your boot – no special boot heel or toe is required.
For Nordic skiing in icy conditions, get a ski with a half-length- or full-metal edge. Width doesn’t matter – your ability to stop does.
Winter is a wonderful time to explore your region. Leave your cabin with the right tools for it, and you will set yourself up for a safe and enjoyable adventure.
Berne Broudy is a Vermont-based writer, photographer, adventurer, skier and snowshoer.
SMART WINTER ATTIRE
The best way to be prepared for all winter weather is to dress in layers. Layers of clothing trap warm air. And as you heat up, you can peel layers to maintain a comfortable temperature. The harder you’re working, the hotter you’ll be, and, inversely, when you stop for a mountaintop lunch, you’ll be sure to cool off quickly.
Pair wicking undergarments made from wool or technical synthetic fabrics, like polypropylene, with breathable fleece and softshell mid layers, then add windproof and weatherproof outer layers.
Always wear synthetic or wool socks (in winter, cotton could be a safety issue – once it’s wet it stays wet) and have extra gloves, a neck gaiter, a hat, some food and water, and an emergency blanket in your pack to keep yourself out of trouble.