Snowshoeing is a mellow activity, right? The sort of thing you do with grandma and all the little tykes on Christmas Eve.
Tell that to the guy who tumbled down three 10-metre cliffs near Vancouver, B.C., earlier this month. Afterwards, the battered snowshoer got up and staggered into the treacherous Tony Baker Gully – named after the first person who died there.
Don’t worry: rescuers were able to haul the guy’s half-frozen butt out of the trench. Eventually.
Snowshoeing has a reputation as a gentle activity, reserved for dates nights and Disney-inspired family outings. There’s even a popular YouTube video that pokes fun at the “extreme” aspect of the sport.
And yet every year, the same news reports keeping popping up: folks having to be rescued from steep river valleys or getting lost in backcountry terrain they simply weren’t prepared for. Obviously, people are underestimating just how challenging snowshoeing can be.
For the careless, trudging blindly into a snowy wilderness spells certain doom. But for prepared hikers looking for a unique trek, slapping on a pair of snowshoes can make those old summer routes new again.
There’s also the added bonus of fewer people being on the trails and the fun of tackling new technical challenges along the way. Especially if, like me, you’re more accustomed to rain and mud than snow and ice.
Snowshoeing is slowly shedding its G-rated reputation, says Ryan Alford, owner/founder of Snowshoe Magazine. More serious athletes are embracing the sport while more trekkers are eyeing routes that just aren’t the same when the mercury rises.
Beyond hot chocolate and moonlight tours
Snowshoeing will always be a favorite among the very young and the very old. It’s a low-impact sport and has traditionally been viewed as a more “refined approach” to spending time in the snow, says Alford.
“If you look at some of the activities that are combined with snowshoeing, you’ll understand why: moonlight snowshoe tours, progressive dinners, wine tasting, fondue, hot chocolate by a campfire.”
But that’s just one side of the story. Alford says the demand for more “extreme” snowshoe treks is growing, with more people planning winter expeditions deep into the backcountry. And even if you’re not keen on a pitching a tent in the snow, there are a number of hut-to-hut trail systems throughout North America that can help make a multi-day winter trek more feasible.
Many athletes are combining snowshoeing with other winter sports as well. Skiers and snowboarders will sometimes pack snowshoes with them to access more remote areas. There’s even an inflatable snowshoe for just these type of situations.
But the fastest-growing aspect of the sport is snowshoe racing, says Alford. These often gruelling five and 10-kilometre competitions were far less popular a decade ago – another example of how modern snowshoeing goes far beyond hot chocolate and moonlight tours.
Sick of that trail? Wait until it snows
For hikers more accustomed to exploring during the fairer seasons, snowshoeing adds a whole new dynamic to well-worn trails. No need to over-think where to tread.
“If you know of a trail that’s challenging during the summer for regular hikes, then it’s probably ideal for a good snowshoeing trek,” said Alford.
He uses Yellowstone National Park as an example. This wilderness playground is closed to vehicles during the winter – only snowshoers (and the odd the snowmobile) can get in.
“You can snowshoe into Yellowstone and see the park during a time of undisturbed peace – no tourists, just wilderness and other hardcore enthusiasts.”
Although great snowshoe treks aren’t hard to find, here’s a list of three punishing winter routes that prove how challenging this sport can be. I kept all the treks to my neck of the woods: southern British Columbia, Canada.
Wedgemont Lake Trail, Whistler
With an elevation gain of 1,220 metres in just seven kilometres, this trail is brutal even in the summer months. Add snowshoes, and you have a true challenge. At the top you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of a snowy valley. Whistlerhiatus.com offers some good information on the trek.
Needle Peak, Hope
A tough 13-kilometre route that rises up 850 metres. Reach the summit and admire the snow-layered coastal mountains that unfold across the horizon. This trek involves some scrambling and takes about 6-8 hours roundtrip.
Elk River Trail, Vancouver Island
Even for the most experienced, avalanche-savvy explorers, trekking this route all the way to the base of the Golden Hinde mountain is a feat worth bragging about. It takes at least six days to pull it off, assuming the weather is OK. You can do a less-treacherous day trek to Mount Alberta Edward along this route as well.
What’s the most challenging or unique snowshoe trek that you’ve tackled? Tell us about it in the comments below.