Snowshoeing is about as accessible, easy, and beginner-friendly a winter sport as can be. As the saying goes, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. It also, generally speaking, is very safe. If you’re just getting into the activity, or if you have young children you’d like to take (gently) adventuring with you out in the winter-scape, you can stick to level, marked, maintained snowshoe trails in the front-country—from state parks and forests to ski resorts and recreation centers.
In such settings, and even in many more remote or challenging ones, snowshoeing is not particularly dangerous if you’re prepared and staying aware of the weather and the terrain. Here’s a quick overview of the potential hazards of snowshoeing and how to minimize your risk! Crescent Moon foam snowshoes are great for any snowshoe adventure!
Snowshoe Danger: The Weather
A basic danger in snowshoeing—and any other outdoor activity, especially wintertime ones—is the weather. Exposure to snow and cold, which can be dramatically enhanced by wind, can cause serious medical issues such as hypothermia and frostbite. Needless to say, it’s essential to dress properly when snowshoeing to ward off those conditions: wearing layers that wick away moisture from your body and protect you from low temperatures and the elements.
Understanding the early signs of hypothermia, including shivering and slurred speech, is critical, especially because hypothermic victims themselves are often unaware they’re exhibiting them.
Pay close attention to weather forecasts when planning snowshoeing adventures, and depending on where you’re hoping to go be prepared to scuttle the trip if significant weather—major storms, brutal cold snaps, etc.—is predicted.
Especially if you plan on doing wilderness snowshoeing, you should learn how to construct a snow shelter, which literally can be a lifesaver if you’re caught out and about by an unexpected blizzard. Many outfitters and outdoor centers offer clinics in the building of snow shelters—highly recommended!
Even if you’re just going for a short snowshoe, you should bring along winter outdoor emergency essentials, including topo map and compass, fire-making materials, extra food and layers, and communication/signaling tools.
Snowshoe Danger: Avalanches
In mountainous terrain, avalanches are one of the greatest dangers snowshoers face. These snow slides are absolutely nothing to play around with: They can barrage their way downhill (and surprisingly far out onto flats below, to) at speeds far faster than you can run—even if you weren’t strapped into snowshoes—and wield immense power: as in, tree-shredding, building-demolishing power.
Although avalanches are most likely on slopes of roughly 35 to 45 degrees, they can also spark on shallow and steep mountainsides. Weather plays a huge role in increasing or decreasing the chance of an avalanche in particular terrain, with such meteorological events as repeated freeze-thaw cycles, rain-on-snow precipitation, or simply big-time snowstorms with a rapid rate of accumulation often majorly boosting avalanche risk.
We don’t have the room to go into the details of avalanche safety in this post: That’s a subject that deserves its own article! We do cover some elements in our “Snowshoe Safety Tips” writeup, and also urge any and all winter recreationists to study the excellent info offered up at Avalanche.org.
Snowshoe Danger: Getting Lost
Another danger posed to snowshoers, just like any other outdoors people, is much less dramatic than a howling blizzard or a thunderous avalanche: Simply getting turned around out in the wilds, especially in winter cold, can put your life at risk. Losing your bearings isn’t difficult in the snowy blankness of winter: You’d be surprised how easy it is to go off-course even on a trail you’re familiar with when everything’s buried in drifts. Many snowshoers like to go cross-country, too, which increases the potential for getting lost.
This points to the importance of knowing your way around a map and a compass—not just a GPS unit or smartphone mapping app, both of which are great but not technologies to completely rely on. Besides basic proficiency with wilderness navigation, snowshoeing in a group lessens the chance of getting dangerously lost, and meantime sharing your route information with others back home makes it much more likely you’ll be found if you do happen to go astray.
Staying Safe on Snowshoes
As we said at the outset, snowshoeing is, on the whole, a very safe outdoor activity, and one open to people of a wide range of physical abilities and outdoor savvy. Don’t forget to check out our “Snowshoe Safety Tips” post for more detailed advice on actionable steps you can take to stay safe out there—oh, and to have a blast while you’re doing so!