Buyer’s Guide: Snowshoes for Mountaineering

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Snowshoeing can be a pleasurable pastime when the powder isn’t that deep or you’re following an established track. (Which, ironically, often means flotation isn’t even necessary.) When snowshoes are actually needed, it would be difficult to describe one’s relationship with the four-pound torture devices as anything less than abusive.

Breaking trail in untracked snow is about as enjoyable as slamming your hand in a car door, except you repeat it a few thousand times over a multi-hour outing. It’s tiring. It’s awkward. Your hip flexors hate you. You look like a big nerd. If you want to venture anywhere other than the most popular trails in winter, however, mountaineering snowshoes are a necessary evil.

Luckily for us, gear designers seem to understand how much snowshoeing sucks. Manufacturers in recent years have made incredible advancements in flotation technology. Nowadays, it’s more like just crushing your pinky instead of your entire hand. The negative effect is that the market has become saturated with dozens of different offerings, and it’s difficult for the uninitiated to understand what to purchase.

For the purposes of this guide, I’ve refrained from mentioning other less conniption-inducing flotation options. I doubt you’ll find anyone arguing that a backcountry ski setup isn’t worlds better than even the most advanced snowshoes, but skis require additional skill and at least six times the entry-level investment. Mountaineering snowshoes are also more versatile on steep, rocky alpine terrain. If you have $200, a pair of sturdy legs and an ample supply of self-loathing, they’ll take you anywhere you want to go.

Here are the factors to consider if you’re in the market for a new pair of mountaineering snowshoes:

Cost

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t skimp on price. Sure, you can get a great deal at Costco or Walmart or wherever, but those models will break at the first opportunity and provide a maximum misery factor: insecure bindings, poor traction, heavy weight. Plan to spend $200-300 for a pair from an established name brand. Not only will you appreciate the enhanced features, they’ll also last a decade or more.

Traction

Buy a pair with steel crampons, for durability and traction on both snow and ice. They should also have teeth running along the side edges for stability on uneven terrain. This is perhaps the most crucial feature of a mountaineering snowshoe. If your footing slips even a little, especially on steep slopes, you’re going to have a bad time. An added bonus is that snowshoes with aggressive traction can be used fluidly on slopes up to about 30 degrees, without the hassle of stopping to swap into traditional crampons or MICROspikes.

Length

This will depend entirely on your stature. If you’re a heavier person, you’ll need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat. That said, for longer days and vertical ascents, gear weight is at a premium. The MSR Evo line is fantastic in that you can get a shorter snowshoe — 22-25 inches — with removable 6-inch tails for deep powder days. I’m a 6’0” and 185-pound adult male, and I’ve never once regretted owning 22-inch snowshoes. Consider also that these loathful beasts will spend a significant amount of time riding on your back as you’re traversing dry, wind-swept or hard-packed terrain. The 30+ inch varieties might as well be five-pound windsails, if they fit on your pack at all.

Heel Lift

Snowshoeing is hard. Snowshoeing on high-angle terrain is harder. The idea behind a heel lift is to remove some of the awkward strain on your calves, and it’s far from just a novelty. Used appropriately, a heel lift can turn a steep straight-up sufferfest into a relative pleasure cruise. It basically cuts the required work of snowshoeing uphill in half. Plenty of great snowshoes exist without heel lifts, but if you plan to regularly do more than 1,000 feet of vertical, spring for a pair with this amazing and underrated feature.

Bindings

The snowshoes, obviously, have to stay on your feet. You should be able to comfortably wear them for hours without any slippage, including on steep and uneven ground. You’ll also be putting them on and taking them off all the freakin’ time, so make sure you can easily manipulate the straps. You should be able secure or remove a pair in 30-60 seconds, while wearing gloves. Each company has a different take on bindings. Play around with what works for you and your winter boots. Flexible straps that lay flat are a nice bonus for when you have to carry your snowshoes on your pack.

Durability

You can’t go wrong with higher-end models from any the major brands carried at dedicated gear shops. Look for an aluminum or plastic frame to ensure the snowshoes don’t shatter the first time you fall through trap-door snow and make friends with a rock. I’ve spent eight years abusing my MSR Evo Tours, which are pictured above and sadly discontinued. They’re showing no signs of wearing out despite frequent encounters with rocks, dirt and pavement.

The Winter 14ers “Game”: 2018-19 Kickoff

It happens every week during the shoulder seasons on 14ers-related websites and social media groups. Some poor, unsuspecting soul will ask for beta on a winter 14er climb coming up in November or share a glory shot from their claimed winter 14er summit in April. They barely have a chance to refresh their page before the legions of frosty veterans are vying to see who can scream “BUT IT’S NOT REALLY WINTER” the loudest.

With calendar winter beginning today, Friday, Dec. 21, it’s the perfect time to give a brief rundown of what exactly counts as a winter 14er, strictly speaking, and why anyone even cares.

First, the basics. The window used by most mountaineers who pursue winter 14er summits begins on the winter solstice in mid-December and ends on the spring equinox in mid-March. The exact day and time of these events varies from year to year. For 2018-2019, calendar winter will run from 3:23 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21 until 3:58 p.m. Wednesday, March 20.

If you want to check that little box on your 14ers.com peak list that says Calendar Winter Ascent, you shouldn’t leave your vehicle for a hike until one minute after the winter solstice, and you should return to your vehicle at least one minute before the spring equinox. If you climb Mt. Elbert on March 20, but get back to your car at 4 p.m., some would argue it doesn’t count. You can also only drive as far as your on-highway vehicle will take you. The winter trailhead for many peaks is a moving target, depending on road closures due to snowfall and other factors such as mining operations. Get as close to the summer trailhead as your lifted Toyota Tacoma legally allows, but ATVs and snowmobiles are considered cheating.

Why? Because the first couple guys who summited all the 14ers in winter said so.

Though Carl Blaurock and Bill Ervin became the world’s first 14er finishers way back in 1923, it wasn’t until 1992 that Tom Mereness accomplished the same feat within the confines of calendar winter. His contemporary Jim Bock followed in 1997, and together they laid the groundwork for the winter 14er list. Obviously anyone is free to climb in whatever style they choose — peakbagging is an intensely personal pursuit — but the parameters they set are widely accepted in the Colorado hiking community.

Aron Ralston (yes, that Aron Ralston, of 127 Hours fame) upped the ante in 2005, when he completed the original list of 58 winter 14ers and added North Massive as a 59th summit. Ralston also climbed every peak solo, an almost incomprehensible feat of stamina. The decision behind counting North Massive, and why the answer to “how many 14ers are there in Colorado?” can range from 53 to 72, is a discussion for another day. The important factor here is that subsequent winter climbers have generally followed Ralston’s precedent, and the most common winter 14er list now includes 59 peaks.

No rules exist against “trench poaching,” which refers to the act of targeting peaks that were recently attempted by other climbers. Utilizing an existing snowshoe trench or ski track requires only a fraction of the effort of breaking your own trail. Making a habit of trench poaching, however, is a surefire way to earn a reputation within the small faction of dedicated winter mountaineers.

In recent years, that fringe community is growing precipitously. This is due to several factors: Colorado’s population growth, an increasing nationwide interest in outdoor recreation, a trend of dry winters, and information sharing on websites and social media. (This includes jerks like me with blogs like this.) The 2011(ish) addition of a 14ers.com tracking tool for Calendar Winter Ascents, known colloquially as “snowflakes” because of the badge that displays on your user profile, also coincided with the well-publicized journey of the fourth winter 14er finisher, Steve Gladbach. (If you haven’t read Steve’s canon of trip reports and forum posts, set aside half a day over the upcoming holiday weekend and treat yourself. He is sorely missed.)

The result is that, as of the end of the 2017-18 season, approximately 14 men and one woman have completed the winter 14er list. This includes Andrew Hamilton, who became the first to summit all 59 in a single season last year. (He included North Massive as an homage to those who came before, but stated his public belief that the list of 58 is best.) Another four people are within striking distance of finishing this year, and at least eight others are more than halfway done.

That’s it. Those are the guidelines. Do you have to follow them? No, not really. Some people use meteorological winter instead of calendar winter as their window, which is December 1 through March 1. Others count anything that has winter conditions (read: snow, cold and wind) as a winter summit, regardless of date. Many of the rules laid out above are hotly debated. It’s up to each individual to define their own goals and ethics. But, the fact stands that if you want to join the exclusive club established by Mereness, Bock, Ralston and Gladbach, you have to play by their rules.

Source 1 (Steve Gladbach)

Source 2 (Steve Gladbach)

Source 3 (14ers.com/Andrew Hamilton)

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5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

8 Tips for Winter Hiking with Your Dog

Dogs are descendants of wolves, and wolves are synonymous with snow. It’s hard to imagine canis lupus stalking prey without a backdrop of silent winter white.

While some domestic dogs still share many traits with the mighty timberwolf, others are less equipped to handle the elements. I doubt a Bichon Frise finding much enjoyment in getting dumped out of its luxurious leather purse into a pile of powder snow.

Fortunately, in this Golden Age of Adventure Dogs, many companies make products that help even the most domestic of breeds romp around in the cold. Here are some tips to keep your best friend safe and comfortable this winter, whether you’re summiting mountains, snowshoeing through a meadow or walking around the city block.

Protect Those Paws

The toughness of dog footpads varies wildly. Many pups can traverse sharp talus for hours without issue, while others would be bleeding and sore on the same terrain. The same is true of snow and ice, but even sled dogs need vigilant monitoring and occasional paw protection.

Dog booties are almost required gear in winter. Even if your pup doesn’t normally need them, they’re essential for extra-cold days or in an emergency. Get your dog comfortable wearing them at home before hitting the trail, or you might not make it very far. Also remember to check them regularly for proper fit and to ensure snow isn’t sneaking in and freezing around the top opening.

I’m lucky to have a dog that doesn’t need booties too often. I do, however, lather her paws with musher’s wax. When applied thoroughly and liberally, it keeps ice from accumulating on a dog’s fur or between their toes. Balled, clinging snow is a major source of discomfort. Musher’s wax is a strong deterrent to this problem. Two bonus tips: coat the lower legs up the joint as well as between the toes, and don’t apply it right before getting into the car. (Unless waxy pawprints all over your upholstery is your idea of a good time.)

Even with booties and wax, make a habit of regularly checking your dog’s paws, clearing them of ice buildup and observing for any signs of pain or discomfort.

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Have a Plan B

Forecasting winter weather and snow conditions is an inexact science, especially in the mountains. Countless times, I’ve driven two hours to a trailhead in Colorado’s high country only to find temperatures 15 degrees colder or winds three times as strong as predicted.

Dogs are living, breathing beings, prone to good days and bad days. One weekend they might plow through snowdrifts for hours with nary a shiver, and the next they might be picking up their paws and whining before you even get out of the parking lot.

Play it safe. Especially if you’re traveling an hour or more from the car, there’s simply too much that can go wrong in the relentless winter elements to justify pushing your luck. Mistakes in the summer can be a mild inconvenience. Mistakes in the winter can result in major injury, or even death.

Have a backup plan — something shorter, lower, drier, more protected. Sometimes this means scrapping an adventure altogether. Cuddling on the couch and crying into a mug of hot chocolate while watching All Dogs Go to Heaven is preferable to visiting the vet to treat frostbitten paws. Know your dog, observe them carefully and always be willing to turn around if it’s in their best interest.

Keep the Liquid Flowing

No matter how much fun it looks like your dog is having doing it, eating snow isn’t an adequate method of hydration. Snow is mostly air, and getting the necessary liquid would require consuming many mouthfuls. The effort a body has to go through to melt snow saps too much energy and warmth for it to be an effective source of fluids.

Natural streams and lakes are likely solid ice through the winter, as water has the unfortunate habit of freezing when exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Carry plenty of extra water for your dog, as well as yourself, inside your pack and wrapped in an insulating sleeve or your extra clothing layers.

Buy a Go-To Dog Jacket

Dozens and dozens of options exist from many different brands. For winter use, look for a jacket with a shell outer layer or synthetic insulation. (Or, preferably, both.) Hard or soft shell material repels moisture, and synthetic insulation stays warm even when it gets wet. This is important for when your dog is creating World War I-style trenches through neck-deep snow at breakneck speed. Dog jackets are great for warmth, obviously, but they also cut the wind and protect a pup’s belly from clinging snow. With the exception of dogs explicitly bred for frigid conditions, they’re a pretty necessary piece of winter equipment. My border collie, even with her thick undercoat, sports a Ruffwear Powderhound on nearly every snow excursion.

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Choose Treats Carefully

As with human food, some dog treats can become so hard in cold weather that they’re extremely difficult to eat. This might require a bit of trial and error depending on your preferred brands, but identify treats that stay soft and easy to chew even as the temperature dips well below freezing. SuperFood Blend, Power Bones and PureNZ Cords, all from Zuke’s, do the trick for me.

Another tip is to carry your dog’s treat pouch on your person, instead of in a backpack. By storing it in one of your jacket or pants pockets, your body heat keeps the treats from becoming too rigid to chew. This is highly recommended for most human food, as well, unless you enjoy chipping a tooth on your Snickers bar.

Carry an Insulated Pad, Bed or Blanket

No one wants to sit on cold snow for too long. Humans have the luxury of squatting on their backpack or tree stumps or whatever else is convenient for avoiding direct contact with the ground, but dogs don’t usually have such options. Bring along a blanket or foam pad for your pooch to rest on during breaks. Several companies even make lightweight, packable, insulated dog beds. You want your pup to have a warm, comfortable spot to rest, or they might be an icicle before you getting moving again.

Train Them to Ignore Skiers and Snowboarders

Like with mountain bikes in the summer, dogs should be trained to ignore and stay out of the way of riders. Something about skis sets off the herding instinct in many breeds. It’s a scary, fast, foreign method of travel to which many dogs aren’t accustomed, and a frightened pooch can get loud and defensive. I’ve witnessed quite a few wipe outs as a skier rounds a corner only to meet a startled, barking dog. Ski edges are also sharp and moving fast, and they can cause a nasty laceration to an onrushing pup. Use treats and conditioning to ensure your dog is comfortable with skiers and snowboarders, or keep them on a leash in areas popular with those pursuits.

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Be Wary of Lakes, Streams and Avalanche Terrain

Dogs don’t understand hazards in the same was as humans. A partially frozen lake, to them, is just more ground to romp on. Keep a vigilant mental account of your surroundings at all times and have your dog on a leash or under strict voice control in areas that could potentially be dangerous. Don’t let them on a frozen surface unless you’re 100 percent sure it’s safe. Even then, it’s probably best to avoid the ice if at all possible.

The difference between being in the clear and in an avalanche runout zone can be as little as a few meters. Many off-leash dogs wander. Take an avalanche course, know how to travel safely in wintery mountain terrain and keep your pup close when warranted.

Hiking in the snow, with dogs that love it and humans that are prepared, can be exponentially more rewarding than summer trails. If you’re lucky enough to have a powderhound, I hope these tips help you enjoy the backcountry with more comfort and peace of mind.