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by Diane Spicer
Women know how to buy shoes, that's a fact.
But what about how to buy snowshoes?
You need the best possible strategy for this new winter hiking gear.
These shoes are made for accessing cold, snowy terrain, not for accentuating your legs.
So throw away all of the things you think you know about how to make a good decision (your shoe size and foot width, for instance) when you size up a pair of snowshoes for the first time.
Answer these questions before you go shopping for a pair of these shoes:
Snowshoes are designed to keep you on top of the snow as much as possible.
If the snow is wet and heavy, you don't need long tails for additional flotation.
And the shorter the snowshoe, the better.
If the snow is dry and powdery (lucky you!), you might need the flotation tails to stay above it.
Always add in your full pack weight when reading the tag attached to the shoes:
You'll see numbers referring to the length of the snow shoe.
Smaller numbers will support less weight above the snow.
You don't want to be sinking in with every step, because it's exhausting.
And don't worry!
The tag doesn't nail you on your exact weight. It's divided into wide ranges so that you'll have no trouble picking the right one for you.
Some gear manufacturers make a series of snowshoes, targeting different usage possibilities, ranging from flat to rolling terrain to steep mountainous areas.
Keep that in mind as you consider the following important features.
You want to easily attach these specialized shoes to your boots, without exposing your hands to snow and ice.
Then you want these marvelous contraptions to stay on your boots as you travel over hill and dale.
And you definitely want them to release quickly from your boots when you're ready, without having to alligator wrestle them off your feet.
I'm not a technical designer of bindings, but I have many, many winters of experience fiddling with them under all sorts of wintery conditions.
So here's my advice on how to go about deciding what to purchase.
Buy your winter boots first.
Then, go to a physical location selling winter gear, bringing along your boots.
I know it's convenient to order online, but do it after you actually handle multiple pairs of snowshoes.
Strap one boot into one shoe - neither of them are on your foot yet. You want to examine:
The fewer hand and finger movement required to get the boot and snowshoe to play nicely together, the better.
Once the boot is firmly seated in the binding, hold the whole set-up in one hand and play with the boot - bend it through all of its positions, watching what happens to the bottom of the snowshoe as well as the binding itself.
This will give you an idea of how much work it will be to get a good toehold on icy slopes, to "tiptoe" across frozen streams with protruding rocks, and to hold your balance while sidestepping over an obstacle.
Now it's time to actually put on your boots and strap yourself in.
Don't let a helpful sales person do this for you, YOU do it (although they can throw in a few helpful words if you need it).
Here's your learning curve: if you build up a sweat putting on and taking off the snowshoes, they're probably not right for you.
And beware of under-built equipment. A quick step-in flimsy binding is great for beginners, but you will quickly outgrow them if you go on more than just a few outings.
I've used Tubbs, MSR, and Atlas brands, and if you'd like to hear my experiences with them, shoot me an email using the box at the bottom of this page.
I'm not being paid for my opinions, I'm just interested in getting women out into the great wintery playground!
Snowshoe decking is built to distribute your weight across the snow so you won't sink.
More importantly, the cleats and crampons give you a good grip on whatever you're walking across, up, or down.
Inspect each pair you're considering for the amount of surface area devoted to cleats.
Losing your balance could trap you in a tree well, send you into a long and dangerous slide, or could give you a face full of coldness that lowers your body temperature.
So make peace with the fact that you need to spend lots of time comparing the undersides.
Don't be lured or dazzled by the colors of the decking, the logos, or any hyped features - just concentrate on visualizing yourself on an unexpected icy patch of slope and needing to maintain your grip.
You want the proper number of aggressive looking cleats - just a few, or lots of metal teeth! - to match the conditions you'll be in.
As a veteran of men's ill fitting hiking equipment, I was thrilled when snowshoeing became popular again because it forced manufacturers to pay attention to a woman's stride.
And smaller boots.
Back in the old days (pre-1990's or so), there was no such thing as gender-specific shoes.
But today, don't believe it when you hear that anyone can wear any pair.
Technically, that is true - they are designed to accept anyone's boots. But WALKING IN THEM mile after mile is a different story!
Women's hips are angled differently than a man's, which is Nature's smart design for child bearing.
Put on a pair of men's snowshoes and walk 3 miles, then walk back in women's, and your hip muscles will know the difference.
And they won't be shy about telling you, either.
Look for tapered designs, and if you are on the petite or short side, shorter ones (recall numbers indicating length). You don't want to force your legs to walk any further apart than they have to, or your hips and knees will be sore the next day.
One last little thing to watch for: heel lifts.
There's really no good way to give you solid advice without being right there with you when you try on the equipment, or better yet while you're using it on a winter outing.
Instead, I recommend that you borrow or rent different brands before making a final selection. You won't get a feel for them just by trying them on in a store, so don't deprive yourself of the fun of experimenting.
Local sports stores may offer low priced rentals - a great way to get your friends, kids and spouse hooked on snowshoeing, too.
Discount gear stores always run "end of season" and pre-season sales, so bookmark a few of these stores and keep your eyes open.
Another option: sports clubs may have gear swaps or used equipment for sale.
And ask around: friends of a friend may have what you need.
The gear I use can serve as an example of what to look for:
|Atlas Elektra Access 23 Snowshoes - Women's | REI Co-op||
I also like these Atlas Elektras, as you can see from the photo with the Helen Hayes quote above!
Gaiters are also a great idea to keep snow out of your boots and off your pants legs (warmer, drier, more comfortable).
For lots more snowshoeing gear tips, read this.
Did you realize that this simple but elegant technology has a long history of getting humans into the back country during winter?
Yet the evolution away from wood into light weight and durable aluminum frames is relatively recent, making this sport even easier to learn.
Walking on top of the snow under your own power, peaceful and quiet, is a fantastic way to spend a winter day.
Snowshoes and solitude, that'll be the tune you're singing.
Try it soon!
And be safe in your winter playground.
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