Aspen, Snowmass and Sunlight aren’t open quite yet — so what’s there to do with that new dumping of snow? Don’t just sit indoors and look at it. Strap some snowshoes to your feet and get outside.
Snowshoeing is a great way to get your powder fix when skiing isn’t an option. It’s an inexpensive sport (no lift passes) that’s low-impact and heart-healthy. Since snow provides resistance, snowshoeing burns 45 percent more calories than walking or running at the same speed — up to 600 calories per hour, depending on your body weight, according to studies by the Snowsports Industries America. And you’ll definitely feel it in your glutes the next day. Snowshoeing works the hip flexors more intensely than running or hiking alone.
Basically, it’s hiking with some assistance. Wide snowshoes with lots of surface area help you float on top of the snow, so you can explore the backcountry without postholing every couple of feet. Some people like to use hiking or skiing poles to stay upright in really deep snow, but they’re not necessary.
What to look for in a snowshoe
There are three basic types of snowshoes: recreational hiking, fitness or “running,” and backpacking or backcountry hiking snowshoes.
Recreational hiking snowshoes are the most simple. They’re a good option for first-timers. Usually, this type of snowshoe works on easy terrain without a lot of steep climbing or descents. They’re wide enough to keep a person on top of the snow, but not beefy enough for extreme backcountry use.
Fitness snowshoes tend to be small and narrow, so you can run or walk quickly. They’re sleek and teardrop-shaped so users can avoid toe overlap.
A backcountry snowshoe is the widest, toughest type. Usually they have a big, durable frame with tougher crampons and a heel riser for long climbs. This is the type of snowshoe you’d want for off-trail meandering or backpacking in the snow.
Most snowshoes range from $100 to $300 in price, depending on the manufacturer. Some popular brands are Atlas, Tubbs and Crescent Moon, a company from Boulder known for its simple, one-strap binding system and teardrop-shaped design.
To get started, it’s a good idea to rent a pair before buying — several local sports stores rent out snowshoes for a day, and they have a variety of styles to choose from. That way, you can figure out if you like it enough to make snowshoeing part of your winter activity repertoire.
What to wear
Dress like you would for any winter workout, in lightweight, breathable layers that you can take off easily if you get too hot. On your feet, waterproof hiking boots usually do the job. Don’t wear cotton socks, because they hold on to sweat and can make your toes cold. Opt for wool or technical fabric. If you’re in deep snow or ungroomed trails, a pair of high hiking gaiters will keep your pants from getting soaked.
If you’re planning on a long hike, it’s a good idea to carry a small backpack with room for water, snacks and extra clothes. Remember: Hydration is important, even in the winter. Although you might not be sweating profusely, your body is still using and losing water all the time. With the extra weight of layers of clothes and your snowshoes, you’re probably working harder than you think. Make sure you plan accordingly and bring enough water and food to replenish your body from its efforts.
Winter activity safety
Winter is an awesome time to be outside — the air is crisp and fresh, and the snow makes the Colorado mountains especially picturesque. But it’s important to understand the risks of doing any winter activity in the great outdoors.
Hypothermia: This condition is caused by prolonged exposure to the cold. It’s aggravated by wet, wind, exhaustion and dehydration. Warning signs include shivering, numbness in your fingers and toes, lethargy and shallow, fast breathing. If you notice any of these signs, make sure you cut your hike short and take steps to get warmer before the condition becomes critical.
To protect yourself, wear layers so you can shed a few pieces when you start sweating, then bundle up again if you get cold. Consider a windproof layer to ward off wind chill, and pack a Mylar emergency blanket just in case.
Frostbite: This is a condition in which skin tissue freezes. Implications can be severe and long-term. Frostbite can set in fast, especially if it’s windy, and sometimes the person affected might not even realize.
Usually, the fingers, toes or exposed parts of the face are affected. Patches of skin start to appear white and waxy. If you think you or your hiking partner are getting frostbite, don’t rub the affected area. That could damage the skin further. Instead, get the person into a warm place so the skin can come back to normal gently (don’t plunge it into hot water).
Also, use some common sense. Always hike with a buddy, don’t walk on frozen lakes or creeks, make sure you plan a route that’s doable and bring a map so you don’t get lost.
Where to go snowshoeing
Sunlight Mountain Resort has a great network of winter trails in the Babbish Gulch area. If you loop around enough, you can get up to 18 miles of hiking on beginner to advanced trails through a high valley flanked by Sunlight Mountain and Williams Peak.
If you’re looking to get a great cardio workout, Sunlight holds the 8-kilometer Day of Infamy Snowshoe Race every year on the Sunday closest to Dec. 7. The race was created in 1991 to honor servicemen who lost their lives at the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It’s a popular community event for families and snowshoe athletes with their canine friends — funds go to support animal shelters in Garfield and Pitkin counties.
Basalt Mountain is another terrific place to test out your snowshoes. The road to the trailhead is closed in the winter, so you can walk up a couple of snowy miles to get to the trails and take in the sweeping views of the valley.
If you’re looking for a long day trip, Maroon Creek Road is also closed to vehicles in the winter. Budget enough time for the 12-mile round trip, and make sure you pack some snacks. The views are definitely worth the climb.
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