So you’re considering a new winter past time? Snowshoeing is an excellent choice for several reasons. First of all, you don’t have to stick to a trail – winter’s snowfall opens up the mountain to areas you can not reach without the snow on the ground. Secondly, it’s widely said, “If you know how to walk, you can snowshoe.” Although it certainly takes more energy than your casual walk, it’s most likely the easiest of the winter snowsports. Not to mention you can view incredible winter landscapes, it’s a great group activity, it’s relatively inexpensive…I could go on and on. Now with that said, there certainly are techniques and advice that can help to ensure a safe, successful and fun-filled wintry day at the mountain.

Have the right equipment.

If you’ve visited the park during the winter, you may have noticed snowshoers trudging or climbing uphill on steep, snowy slopes with shovels strapped to their pack. While you won’t need a snow shovel on an easy snowshoe trip such as the guided day trips offered by Mount Rainier National Park, it’s a good idea for a member of your party to carry a snow shovel on a snowshoe outing. Shovels can be used to dig an emergency shelter or help dig someone out in the event of an avalanche.

If you don’t have snowshoes you can rent them (see additional information). You will also need trekking poles (or an ice axe). Most beginning snowshoers are fine using trekking poles on easy terrain and ice axes can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use them.

Choose a suitable route.

Okay, we don’t mean to scare you. You are unlikely to put yourself into a dangerous situation if you start out with a guided group or with an outdoor organization like The Mountaineers. As for knowing where to go, guidebooks and online resources such as our website, can help you find destinations based on your skills and desires. You will soon discover Mount Rainier National Park as an area full of enticing places to explore on snowshoes. Remember, many snowshoers are just hikers who wear snowshoes so they can still get around and stay outdoors during the winter.

Once sufficient snow has accumulated, head up to Paradise – if the road to Paradise is closed at Longmire (due to heavy snowfall or storms) there are lower-elevation routes where you can snowshoe, including from Longmire, the West Side Road or the Carbon River Road. You can also refer to the snowshoeing section on this website for other suggestions.

At Mt. Rainier – don’t forget your chains.

Be sure to throw chains in the car before you head to the park – they are required inside the after November 1st– snow or no snow (remember, conditions can change quickly). Also, be sure to get a current weather forecast and an early start as days grow short during the winter months.

Dress appropriately.

To help ensure an enjoyable and safe experience, be sure to dress appropriately. You will need to wear polypropylene underwear (tops and bottoms – no cotton), wool shirt or fleece jacket and consider a down vest for insulation. Gore-tex raingear is recommended (it also acts as a wind shell), and be sure to wear a wool hat and carry several sets of gloves/mittens (carry one entire set of dry clothing in case you need to bivouac). Gaiters will keep snow out of your boots and don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen. Carry hand and toe chemical warmers (carry several; they are lightweight and easy to use). which can be stuffed inside pockets, gloves or boots as needed and last for several hours.

Carry a sufficient supply of food and water.

Don’t skimp on food and water – carry extra. Each participant in the party should carry enough extra food/clothing with them to survive overnight inside an emergency shelter whether it be a tent, a snow-cave (include a space blanket or pad to sit on inside the shelter), a trench or an igloo.

Technique.

Learning how to put the snowshoes on the first time can be daunting and/or hilarious. If this is your first snowshoe trip we advise trying it first at home or snowshoeing with a friend who can show you how to put them on. Snowshoeing is pretty much like walking when you’re on level ground. Once you are on steeper terrain a little bit of expertise comes into play.

Some techniques can be practiced for negotiating hills. On steep snow it’s most effective to go straight up rather than switchback (zigzag). It’s easier than it sounds: kick up (through the toe hole) at the same time you plunge your ice axe (or trekking pole) alongside your boot to secure a good foothold.

Going downhill on snowshoes can be more challenging than climbing. In order to keep your snowshoes from behaving like skis, on steep snow flex your knees and bend at the waist (as if you were skiing) and keep your weight over the balls of your feet; this enables the snowshoe crampon to grip the snow preventing sliding.

We learned how to navigate steep snow with an ice axe rather than poles (using an ice axe properly takes practice!). Today most beginners use trekking poles – they are fine for easy to moderate terrain. If using trekking poles (when going downhill) reach out in front with the poles and extend them for a good reach as you head downhill. Adjustable poles also help when crossing (or traversing) a steep hillside. To do so: shorten your uphill pole, lengthen the downhill pole – this makes it easier to balance. However if you are using an ice axe, plant your ice axe on the uphill side of the track, not the downhill side (this puts you into a good position for an ice axe arrest).

Very important –never snowshoe alone – always tell someone where you are going and when you are expected to return. Do not rely on cell phones in the mountains.

Before you venture out, contact the Northwest Avalanche Center for snow/weather/avalanche conditions. Call 206-526-6677 or visit their website at www.nwac.us. If you plan to snowshoe at Mount Rainier National Park get current conditions at Mount Rainier National Park by calling 360-569-6575 or visit their website at www.nps.gov/mora/.

About The Author

Karen Sykes

Karen (1943-2014) was a Washington native, born in Shelton and lived in Washington most of her life. She started to hike in 1979 and joined The Mountaineers the following year. By the 1980s she was leading hikes for the Seattle branch of The Mountaineers. Around the same time, she began writing articles for Signpost Magazine (Pack and Paddle) and contributed to so many hiking reports that her name became familiar to other hikers. She was contacted by The Seattle Post Intelligencer to write the “Hike of the Week” which turned into years of writing this weekly column, until The Seattle Post Intelligencer stopped their printing presses in 2009.

Two of Karen’s books have been published by Mountaineer Books – Hidden Hikes (out of print) and Best Wildflower Hikes with Al Kruckeberg and Craig Romano. Karen was as passionate about photography as she was about hiking and both The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post Intelligencer have published her photographs.