Perfect time of year to shoe shop

New models great for a walk in snow

Email|Print| Text size + By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2008

If your idea of snowshoes resembles those clumsy, wood-and-leather contraptions displayed next to moose heads above fireplaces in rustic ski chalets, you'd better get with the program.

Or, better yet, get outdoors and trek through the woods on a pair of contemporary, ultralight snowshoes.

The difference in performance is remarkable, enough so that this once-obscure winter pastime is rapidly gaining in popularity as an alternative to winter sports that require steep investments of time and money.

With a decent pair of entry-level snowshoes available for $150 to $200, the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA) estimates sales increasing at roughly 20 percent annually.

Retailers are fond of promoting the mantra that "anyone who can walk can snowshoe." Although the learning curve isn't quite that easy, anyone who can withstand a brisk hike is likely to get a feel for snowshoeing in the first excursion.

"How do you do it? We tell people to step forward with your left foot, then your right foot, and repeat," said Thom Perkins, executive director for the Jackson (N.H.) Ski Touring Foundation. "The hardest part of snowshoeing is putting the snowshoes on."

Like many winter activities we now embrace for fun, snowshoeing was initially used for survival. According to the USSSA, modified slabs of wood were used to provide flotation atop snow in Asia 6,000 years ago, and this tool eventually migrated west with Inuit and Native American tribes. Over centuries, the preferred materials became ash (to make a rigid frame that distributes a person's weight evenly) and rawhide (in an open-hatched pattern to prevent snow accumulation).

In the 19th century, these cumbersome "woodies" were adopted with regional variations throughout North America, from fur trappers in the north to Indians on buffalo hunts across the Plains. But the drawbacks were universal: Woodies were unwieldy, requiring a wide and uncomfortable gait that soon grew tiresome. Early snowshoes were difficult to keep bound to the feet, and traction was a problem on climbs and descents.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, and many of those problems were solved by modern materials and designs. Rigid, lighter aluminum replaced wood. Synthetic deckings - Neoprene first, then Polypropylene - were less susceptible to breakage.

The cut of the shoes (shorter and narrower), crampons (affixed to the bottom), and a binding system (toes secured, heel free) all contributed to a newfound ease of use.

Then, about 10 years ago, for reasons no one seems to be able to pinpoint, recreational snowshoeing just took off, especially in New England.

"It's been pretty much a steady growth," said Bob Dion, who owns and manufactures Dion Snowshoes in Readsboro, Vt.

"It's almost like snowboarding when it first came along out of nowhere."

Although some newcomers might be abandoning Alpine or Nordic skiing, Dion and Perkins agree that the sport fills a niche that hadn't existed before.

"No. 1, it's athletes, runners and bikers, people who want to train in the winter without having to battle the slushy roads," said Dion. "For other people, it's pure recreation. You can go to a 5-kilometer race and 80 percent of the people aren't racing. They're walking, and no one cares, and everyone enjoys the social aspect afterward, the camaraderie and the hot chocolate."

At the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, Perkins said 5.6 percent of his day-pass users are snowshoers, and the nonprofit organization has even built separate trails for them (the cardinal snowshoeing rule is not to tromp on cross-country ski tracks).

Newcomers have requested lessons, but Perkins said instruction isn't really necessary. Rather than charge his customers for something they don't need, the foundation instead offers guided nature and social treks, so an experienced snowshoer is along for the hike if beginners have trouble.

Choosing snowshoes comes down to intended use and body weight.

Racing/running models are the lightest, but won't be as versatile in deep snow. Mountaineering shoes are a must for backcountry hikers, but their superior flotation comes as a tradeoff for weight and maneuverability. Recreational shoes, which fall somewhere in the middle, are the basic all-around choice for beginners. The bigger the user, the larger the surface area of the decking, and most models are rated to fit the user's weight.

One of the appeals of snowshoeing is that it requires hardly any cash outlay for extra equipment. Any type of hiking or winter boot is sufficient. Telescoping poles (roughly $60) can be used for balance in deep powder, but are not really necessary for ordinary use. A pair of gaiters (to keep snow out of pants cuffs and boot tops) is a worthwhile investment for about $30.

A recreational snowshoer in New England can cut expenses further by taking advantage of the region's numerous free trails and state parks. If you absolutely need a groomed surface, or feel more comfortable on a closed trail system, there is no shortage of cross-country ski areas or golf courses willing to sell you a pass. But if you prefer the unbeaten path, snowshoeing opens up an array of perspectives: Impenetrable wetlands suddenly become accessible when frozen; coastal salt marshes resemble windswept moonscapes.

"Snowshoes offer a very basic entry into wintertime activity outdoors," said Perkins. "That's our goal, to be able to get people outdoors and experience winter while getting some physical benefit."

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