Last week I wrote about how to dress for outdoor activities in the winter, in this post I am going to discuss what we can put on our feet to move about more freely, safely, or faster.
Let’s start with snowshoes. Living down here in Manchester, where we do not often get deep snow, I get a kick out of people in the park walking about with snowshoes when there are only a few inches of snow on the ground. Snowshoes have been around for 4000-6000 years and probably originated in central Asia where they get lots of snow and, contrary to the thoughts of my weekend warriors at the local park, snowshoes were not created to walk about on a few inches of snow, but instead were developed to spread ones weight across a much larger area than ones footprint thus allowing them to move across deep, unconsolidated, snow. The larger or heavier the hiker, the larger the snowshoe must be.
In choosing snowshoes, one needs to look at the means by which they attach to the boot (the bindings), as well as the durability of the construction and the materials. Consider how easily you can adjust the snowshoe while wearing mittens. How easily can this mechanism get clogged or broken by accumulating snow or ice around the foot? If you take the snowshoes off for a bit after using them for a while, how easily will you be able to put them back on when the time comes? If something breaks on the binding system, how easy will it be to fix it on the fly? It is also important to get the right size snow shoe; a 105 pound woman with a 25 pound winter pack, will need a much smaller snowshoe than a 190 pound guy with a 40 pound pack.
Some snowshoes come with lifters that fold up and down in the heel area to make it easier to climb hills. These work well if the ascent is continuous, but if it is at all rolling, you may find yourself pointed at the ground where the slope levels out or descends. If you go for one of these models, use the same criteria as above when evaluating how easy it will be to use and how dependable these mechanisms might be. Some snowshoes have tails that can be added for deep snow or heavier packs. Consider this an adjustment that must be done at home before the trip because trying to add them while on the trail is not fair to your hiking partners no matter how patient they may be.
Microspikes are metal chains with bent steel points, attached to a rubber harness that stretches around your foot and holds the chains in place under you sole. They are great for added traction on packed snow and some ice. They can be taken on and off easily, weigh little, and come with their own little cloth bag for storing in your pack. These are great for spring hikes when one starts to encounter a lot of monorail on the trail, and can be handy to have with you while trail running in the winter or when you do not expect to be traveling over a large amount of ice. When you do encounter a piece of icy ledge and all you have with you are the microspikes, it is best to stomp each step you take to be sure the metal points cut into the ice.
Microspikes come in different sizes and it is important to get the size that corresponds to your boot size. If there is a downside to using microspikes, it is that sometimes, on steep slopes or slabs, the rubber part of the harnessing system is not strong enough to hold the foot inside and they can slip off. Such failures are rare and proper sizing and fit helps to minimize this concern.
What microspikes are not good for is climbing sheer icefalls or thick steep ice over ledge and rock. In these situations you need to wear crampons. Crampons are steel plates that clamp onto the bottom of your boots. They have 10-12 one inch triangular teeth around the perimeter of the plate, the front two of which point forward, which cut into snow or ice and provide secure footing. There are two types of crampons: mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons. Ice climbing crampons are usually sharper, have more teeth and the front facing spikes are generally less acute and may have serrated edges. These two types have different purposes and one needs to be sure they are using the right type for the task at hand; hiking with ice climbing crampons is less than ideal.
Crampons will give the hiker superior traction on almost any terrain. They come in styles that clip onto mountaineering boots and those that are held on with straps. Unless you have mountaineering boots, which have a rigid sole, you will have to use the strap-on version of crampons. Both styles are excellent for hiking, but should you need to climb sheer ice, the front pointing capabilities of the clip on style will be more bullet-proof. Strap-on crampons can be used for front pointing, but the user should to be careful to make sure that the straps are tight and the crampons are secure on the boot to minimize the possibility of the crampon coming loose while mid climb. In these situations, often the failure point in climbing sheer ice with this style of crampon comes not from the crampon, but from the lack of rigidity of the boot sole; the sole flexes and the crampon comes loose. That said, ice falls that a hiker might encounter in the Whites are few and far between as well as short in duration, and one can certainly make do with the strap-on variety if they do not have mountaineering boots, but if the hiker is traveling to other areas, they would do well to invest in boots that can accommodate clip on crampons and then get a set.
Because of their front facing spikes, walking in crampons takes a little getting used to and one’s pants cuffs may get a little cut up after wearing them for a day. This can be minimized by wearing a thick pair of gaiters (which double as a good way to keep the snow from slipping inside your boots). Also be aware that in wet sticky snow, like that which is encountered in the spring sometimes, accumulations of snow and ice can happen on the soles of the crampon which reduces the effectiveness of the teeth. These clumps of snow and ice can be knocked away with hiking poles periodically or the hiker can buy plastic pieces called anti-bot devices that will minimize the accumulation. One can also make their own anti-bot devices at home from a plastic milk jug and perhaps I will show my readers how to do such in a future post.
Cross country skis
Sometimes hiking through the woods is just what one needs, other times, one wants to move quickly over flat terrain. For instance, I sometimes like to hike trails where the trailhead is off a service road that is closed in the winter. In this case, my hike is not about the service road per se, but I must somehow traverse this road to reach the part of the hike that is most important to me. The fastest way to cover large, mostly-flat trails by foot is with cross country skis. Not all cross country skis are the same. Some cross country skis, called track skis or touring skis, are made for moving along on groomed trails and in tracks. These skis are longer and narrower than the other kind of cross country skis, (backcountry skis), and they used with different boots. Track skis are much faster than backcountry skis, but because they are so narrow that they cannot be used on anything but a firmly packed trail.
When hikers talk about skiing in to a trailhead, or just going out for a cross country ski, they are most often talking about backcountry skis. Here too, clarification needs to be made; do not confuse backcountry cross country skis with backcountry downhill skis. All backcountry cross country skis have scales or overlapping shingle like ridges on the bottom to help you move forward while skiing, downhill skis do not have these, and are much wider and heavier. Downhill skis are also much more expensive.
Backcountry skis should be about as long as you are tall. You can use skis up to five inches longer or shorter, but keep in mind your intended use. The longer the ski, the more difficult it will be to turn and negotiate between trees, but it will also be faster than a shorter ski. If you are thinking you will primarily be skiing across frozen lakes and on logging roads, then go for the longer ski. If you are planning to be more on trails that wind through the woods, lean towards the shorter ski. In general, I find one’s height minus five inches is best for the beginner.
There are two choices for bindings on backcountry skis, both of which, unlike their downhill cousins, are comparatively inexpensive. There is a three pin (NN) system that gives better performance if the skier will be doing a bit of downhill telemark type skiing with the skis, and an NNN BC system that has a bar across the toe of the boot that pops into a bracket. The pins on the NN bindings can get fussy and difficult to work with when snow has packed into the binding and I find that almost all hikers use the NNN BC system.
Backcountry ski boots are robust. They look very much like hiking boots, except they have the bar required for the NNN BC bindings built right into the front of them. They should be insulated, warm and comfortable to wear. Cross country skiing will flex your ankles forward and back over and over, so make sure the boot is comfortable while going through these motions.
Cross country skis are good for mostly level terrain, but when you want to go up, you need to move to Alpine Touring or Randonee equipment. Randonee skis look like downhill skis and perform in a very similar fashion. The idea behind randonee skiing is that one advances over terrain by means of looping a climbing skin over the toe of the ski and clipping it onto the back of the ski.
The skin allows for sliding in one direction only and grips in the opposite direction much like the scales on the bottom of the cross country skis. With the toe of the randonee ski boot clipped into the front of the binding and with skins on the bottom of the skis, one can climb a significant grade in a back and forth, kick and glide, fashion, similar to cross country skiing. Once one reaches the top of the trail, the skins are removed, the binding is changed so that the boots are now attached at both the front and the back of the binding, and the skis now act like regular downhill skis to go down the slope.
A Randonee setup requires skis, boots, bindings and skins- all of which together will run over a thousand dollars, even for a beginner package. Randonee skiing is great exercise and a lot of fun, but here on the east coast, my suggestion, for those that want to try it, would be to rent equipment. Out west, and in Europe, skiing your way across the high peaks is a great way to get outdoors and explore the winter, but here in the East, there are unfortunately few places you can utilize that expensive equipment.
Mix and Match
So there you have it. Other than skating across a frozen pond on ice skates, or just plain old bare boot hiking where the trails are packed and the snow is firm underfoot, those are the ways you can get around the wilderness in the winter. Keep in mind, if your winter adventure takes you through different alpine environments, a good day out may require you to start with one type of traction, switch to another, then switch back again later in the day. It would be a mistake to judge the trail conditions for the day by what you encounter in the first 50 yards. Be prepared for things to change by having the right equipment with you. It is better to carry a little extra weight and have equipment you might not need, than to save the few pounds but be stuck out on the trail without having the right thing for your feet.
Now that you know how to get around, get out there and explore the Whites. What are you waiting for?