How to Get a Workout From Snowshoeing

One of the hottest up-and-coming winter sports is not only more beginner-friendly than skiing or snowboarding, but it’s also an excellent workout. And it allows you to easily stay socially distanced, even if you go in a group. 

We’re talking about snowshoeing. According to news reports, snowshoe sales increased 250 percent from August through October. At first glance, snowshoeing may not seem like that big of a deal. And while it’s not backcountry skiing, it’s no walk in the park. Working at a moderate effort, snowshoeing burns 360 calories per hour for a 150-pound person. If that same person works at a vigorous level, they burn 680 calories. That’s comparable to downhill skiing at the same efforts.

Plus, snowshoeing technology these days means that rather than using heavy, burdensome shoes that resemble big wooden tennis rackets, you’re more likely to use ones made from lightweight aluminum, plastic, or even EVA foam. This means you can make your snowshoe workout as hard or as easy as you’d like, says Erik Skarvan, owner and instructor at Sun Dog Athletics, an adventure sports school in Aspen. 

Here’s everything you need to know.

Why Snowshoeing Is a Great Workout

Snowshoeing is a low-impact cardio activity. Naturally, it works your lower body as you lift those one-pound (or heavier) shoes with each step. And if you use poles (read more below on why you should), you also engage your upper-body muscles. With or without poles, you’ll use your core the entire time and call upon smaller stabilizing muscles in order to help you maintain your balance on the uneven surface of the snow.

As the incline or the depth of the snow increases, so too does the amount of effort you have to put in. “I call it the great outdoor stair master,” says Skarvan, because snowshoeing can be such a lower-body toner. A three-mile snowshoe hike is comparable to a regular six-mile hike because it’s twice the exertion level, he adds.

Lastly, you get the stress-busting benefits of being in nature—and to a greater degree than taking a run in the park because you rarely see others, says Skarvan, who has 35 years of local snowshoeing and racing experience. 

Snowshoeing Tips

Although anyone who can walk can snowshoe, it helps to have some form tips to guide you.

Use poles. “Poles are crucial when snowshoeing because of the uneven surface. They help you keep yourself balanced,” says Sean Kristl, an expert voice in the backcountry world with Alpenglow Expeditions, which offers avalanche training and backcountry education in addition to giving guided tours around North Lake Tahoe, including those via snowshoe. They also help you push yourself up inclines.

Choose adjustable poles. That way you can lengthen them in deeper snow or going downhill, shorten them for going uphill, and have each pole the best length if you’re on a sidehill (where one side of your body is higher than the other). “Using them is like hiking or skiing with poles,” Kristl says. “As you naturally move, your body will figure out the cadence.”

Get sized. A guide can help you choose the right size snowshoes based on your weight (heavier people need more surface area than smaller people), how much gear you’re carrying (which adds more weight), and the conditions you’ll be in. 

Bigger shoes weigh more than smaller ones, so if you’re expecting a lot of inclines, you may want smaller snowshoes. “Every pound on your foot is similar to five pounds in a backpack,” Kristl says. Women’s snowshoes also tend to be narrower than men’s. 

Adjust your stride. When you’re out there, if you’re on packed snow, just take a normal stride, Skarvan says. You may have to spread your feet wider, though, depending on how big your shoes are. 

Once you get past more than one inch of powder, “lead with the tail of the shoe, keeping the tips up higher,” he advises. (Picture an aircraft landing—the rear of the plane hits the ground before the front does.) “If you bury the tips, you could face-plant,” Skarvan explains.

Kristl recommends taking shorter, choppy strides rather than long, gliding steps, especially on inclines. “It helps maintain balance and demands less from your musculature, so you’re saving energy,” he says.

Be prepared for the weather. Wear layers and pack thicker layers in your backpack, as the temperature in the backcountry can swing 20 to 30 degrees, according to Skarvan. 

Add in your body temperature changes as you work up a sweat climbing uphill and then cool off when you stop to rest or descend or the wind picks up, and you can see why it’s key to be able to add or take off pieces of clothing. And don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses. 

Pace yourself. If you would normally hike five miles in the summer, Kristl recommends starting with about a one- to two-mile snowshoeing trek because it’s that much harder. 

Also, think about snowshoeing like any workout, Skarvan says: You have to warm up first. “If you go too hard, you will be toast in half an hour,” he adds.

Consider going with a guide. “Guides can help you pick the best trail for you,” Skarvan says. They also are aware of avalanche dangers, will set a reasonable pace so you don’t burn out too quickly, and can help you learn more in less time. “If you spend two to three hours with a professional guide, you will get two to three years ahead of where you would using trial and error or tips from friends on your own,” Skarvan says. 

How to Get a Workout From Snowshoeing

You could strap on snowshoes and take a gentle walk on flat terrain. That’s great to get used to wearing snowshoes. But you want a workout, right? 

It’s easy to crank up the intensity with snowshoeing. “Adding in rolling hills is a great way to start,” Kristl says. Once those feel good, you can consider:

  1. Adding inclines. As with most activities, going uphill is harder than staying flat.
  2. Breaking your own trail. “It’s the fresh snow where everything changes,” Kristl says. It’s a much harder workout compared to “riding on top” of a base layer of compact snow.

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