Snowshoeing is, all things considered, an extremely safe winter activity when undertaken with proper preparation and common-sense caution. It’s an activity open to an amazingly wide swath of ages and physical abilities, and one that can proceed at whatever kind of pace you want to set. Really all you need is weather appropriate clothing/outerwear and a pair of foam snowshoes to have a great time.
That “proper preparation and common-sense caution” are the focus of this post, which’ll cover some snowshoeing safety fundamentals that are always worth keeping in mind!
In any outdoor activity, you’re safer doing it in the company of others. Snowshoeing in a party means you’ve got more eyes and ears for assessing potentially dangerous weather or snowpack conditions and noticing symptoms of fatigue, dehydration, or hypothermia among others in the group. It also means immediate assistance on hand if you injure yourself, and the ability to put heads together and get reoriented if you realize you’ve gone astray.
Now, having said that, let’s acknowledge the special joy of solo snowshoeing. Many outdoorspeople love pursuing a bit of solitude now and again, enjoying the chance for quiet and reflection and relishing the sense of self-reliance and independence. As long as you keep in mind that snowshoeing by yourself is inherently a bit riskier than going with others, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it—just practice the other safety measures we cover here!
Share Your Plans Before You Snowshoe
Whether your snowshoeing alone or with others, it’s always smart to share your plans with others back home. Let them know where you’re snowshoeing, your planned route, and when you expect to be return. If anything should happen out there—dealing with an injury, getting lost, being stranded by bad weather—the folks you informed can notify and direct any search-and-rescue personnel, whose job—surprise, surprise—is made much easier if they know your general whereabouts.
Snowshoe Safety: Pack Essentials
It’s easy to be complacent about what you’re bringing along snowshoeing if you’re just going for a short jaunt or a daytrip in a well-developed, ”front-country” area. You may not think you need anything other than water and a few snacks, for instance. But it’s just as easy for best-laid plans to go awry: a seemingly simple-to-follow trail vanishing, a bad tumble or cut, an out-of-nowhere snowstorm making travel super-sketchy.
That’s why it’s important to always bring along wilderness essentials, no matter how long you intend to be out or where you’re snowshoeing. Those essentials include extra food and water (and/or the ability to purify water from natural sources), a topographic map and compass, tools and materials for lighting an emergency fire, an emergency shelter such as a tarp, a cell phone and other communication and signaling devices, and a first-aid kit. Snowshoers in mountainous countries should bring avalanche-safety equipment: a shovel, probe, and beacon. A shovel in general is also a handy tool for constructing a snow shelter if you’re caught out in a backcountry setting by bad winter weather and need to hunker down.
Many of those wilderness essentials don’t do very much good if you don’t know how to properly use them, so make sure you’re proficient in basic outdoor navigation and first aid, and know how to erect or build an emergency shelter.
Layer Up for Snowshoe Safety
Dressing properly for snowshoeing goes a long way toward keeping you comfortable—and safe—out in the snowdrifts. Bringing along base layers, mid layers, and outer shells help you manage perspiration, protect yourself from the elements, and respond to the changing conditions that often define winter recreation. Even if it’s a sunny, balmy winter or early-spring day, bring along a warm hat, gloves, and mittens.
The layering approach is important not only for staying warm but avoiding overheating: If you’re over-layered while actively ‘shoeing, you may become soaked with sweat, which’ll then chill you—maybe dangerously—when you stop moving or when temperatures drop. Dress on the lighter side while trudging along, and have an outer layer ready to put on when you take a snack or water break.
Snowshoe Safety: Read the Weather
Pay close attention to the weather forecast and carry a portable weather radio when snowshoeing. Even if you’ve managed to schedule your adventure in a fair-weather stretch, keep an eye to the skies and pay attention to such signs of impending weather changes as increasing high- and mid-level clouds and saucer-like lenticular clouds forming over mountaintops.
In mountain landscapes, consider how weather conditions may be affecting the stability of the snowpack and potentially increasing or decreasing the avalanche risk.
Snowshoe Safety: Read the Terrain
Speaking of avalanches, they’re a major risk to snowshoers as well as any other outdoor recreationists. Always check the up-to-date avalanche forecast for your area and heed any warnings; it’s just not worth it to go snowshoeing when avalanches are very likely, which may happen after heavy and rapid snowfall, unseasonably warm spells, rain-on-snow events, and the like.
Avalanches are most likely on slopes between about 35 and 45 degrees, though gentler and steeper slopes can definitely avalanche; a clinometer, which gauges slope angle, is a helpful tool to bring snowshoeing. Learn how to conduct snow-stability field tests so you can recognize dangerously unstable conditions on-the-go. If you’re forced to cross avalanche-vulnerable slopes in a group, do so one by one, and have the next snowshoer follow in the tracks of the previous one.
Snowshoe/trekking poles, which are essential aids for keeping your balance while snowshoeing, can also help you test the snowpack. If you’re traversing an avalanche-prone slope, though, keep your hands out of the handle loops: You want your hands free if you’re caught in a snow slide so you can bring them close to your face to make a breathing hole under the snow. For more safety tips, here is a blog with the top 5 safety tips for snowshoeing.