If, like me, your first exposure to snowshoeing was decades ago in high school gym class, you may have unpleasant memories of trudging through a snowy field donning cumbersome, ill-fitting snowshoes that resembled oversized tennis racquets. Back then, my classmates and I considered snowshoeing very uncool and boring. We thought snowshoeing was only to be done out of necessity by indigenous peoples hunting in northern Canada.
Fast-forward almost 40 years. We’ve come a long way, baby. Our increased awareness of health and fitness may be one reason snowshoeing has been steadily increasing in popularity as a recreational winter activity. Snowshoeing contributes to cardiovascular fitness and fat loss. Estimates of calories burned per hour range from 400 to 1,000 (about 45 per cent more than walking or running at the same speed), depending on factors such as how much effort you exert and your body size. In this technological age, where we spend so much time indoors sitting and staring at a screen, snowshoeing is a fun and convenient way to get back to nature and improve our mental health, too. In our cold Canadian climate, we tend to spend more time indoors during the winter months. The lack of sunlight coupled with a reduction in physical activity can lead to seasonal depression. It’s easier to embrace winter when you find an activity you enjoy.
You can snowshoe just about anywhere, anytime. If you can walk, you can snowshoe – no special skills or lessons required, unless you plan on participating in competitive snowshoe races. Snowshoeing is more affordable than some other winter sports. You don’t need lift tickets. You don’t need to travel to special locations where there are hills or trails. If time is limited, you can snowshoe in a nearby field or on an unplowed sidewalk.
Unlike the wooden snowshoes with rawhide bindings of the past, today’s high-tech snowshoes are made of lightweight metal with synthetic bindings and have upward-tilted front ends to maximize manoeuvrability. While the purists may prefer tradition, I find it much quicker and easier to put on and move around in modern snowshoes.
Wear comfortable, flat-soled winter boots and simply attach the snowshoes with the adjustable straps. Basic snowshoes cost around $100 and up for beginners. There are other styles geared for snowshoe running and snowshoeing in the backwoods in deep snow and on hilly terrain. I wear basic snowshoes designed for women – they’re more tapered so you’re less prone to getting sore hips compared to wearing men’s wider snowshoes.
One day in mid-January, I was contemplating snowshoeing for the first time this season. I was relaxing at home listening to the wind howl. Having recently returned from my beach getaway where I enjoyed glorious 29-degree Celsius weather, I wasn’t feeling very motivated to venture outdoors for exercise, even though, as the day progressed, it had “warmed up” to -12. With the wind chill, it felt like -22 and there was a frostbite warning.
Should I stay put or should I go? I was perusing Twitter and came across a tweet by one of my role models – Ottawa’s renowned extreme runner, Ray Zahab. In anticipation of his upcoming adventure, he tweeted, “On the first leg of the Arctic2Atacame expedition temps could dip below -50!!!” That was the inspiration I needed. Who was I to complain about -22? My motto is: When you least feel like doing something, that’s when your body needs it most. So I got up from the couch, gathered my snowshoes, bundled up and drove to my neighbourhood park.
The virgin snow on the large field was gleaming. I strapped on my snowshoes, pulled my neck warmer over my nose and set out. Within a couple of minutes, I literally began to feel emotionally uplifted. I was in nature – albeit an urban-nature setting – and there was no one around. I became acutely aware of the sound of my snowshoes breaking through the thin crusty layer of the snow with each step. I quickly forgot about the freezing wind and blowing snow as I made my way around the field. My mind cleared of deadlines, appointments and chores. I looked up at the overcast sky as the sun peaked out from behind a cloud. I felt wonderful!
If you struggle with the psychological challenges of winter and would like to get involved in a physical activity that is safe, energizing and calming, snowshoeing may be just what the doctor ordered.