Snowshoeing, Tool of the Ancients and Sport of the Nineties

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 6, December 1995; Oui, October 1996; Fitness Plus, January 1997.

Snowshoeing has been around parts of the Northern Hemisphere for six millennia, but today it's finally coming of age as fitness enthusiasts and backcountry explorers alike are igniting a shoeing renaissance. In fact, some of us would argue that snowshoeing is rapidly ascending to the top spot as the BIG sport of the Nineties. Credit the development of light, fast, and maneuverable snowshoes, a growing snowshoe racing circuit, the mainstreaming of back-country adventuring, and shoeing's mystical qualities for the sport's explosive growth.

Hi-tech, but Doable

Unlike many other sports, snowshoeing is not technique, equipment, or cash intensive. This makes it more accessible for outdoor athletes of diverse backgrounds and more immediately gratifying for all who give it a try. While marketing hype is carefully programmed to convince the marketplace otherwise, the average person appreciates simplicity and a fast trip up the learning curve. Snowshoeing offers both and a whole lot more.

This ease of graceful movement and performance thrill was achieved with the advent of the modern snowshoe. Forget whatever you've heard or seen of snowshoes before: you won't find too many enthusiasts today strapping on the wood and gut "tennis racquets" that most people imagine. In other words, this ain't "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon."

Modern shoes like those from Atlas Snowshoe Company of San Francisco, CA, sell for $175 to $250, and weigh less than three pounds per pair. Frames are made of aircraft quality aluminum, the best even TIG-welded into a contiguous unit for longevity. Rather than a cross-hatch lacing of gut inside the frame, modern shoes have a nearly impenetrable Hypalon decking to provide maximum flotation over the snow. (Flotation is the reason for wearing snowshoes, after all). Talons or cleats on the bottom of the shoes provide unbelievable traction in steep and unsteady terrain. Atlas shoes even feature a heel cleat to help when traversing a slope sideways or heading downhill. Bindings are adjustable so that anything from a running shoe to backcountry boot can be accommodated by the same pair of snowshoes. For the truly hi-tech crowd, Atlas even makes a super racing version with magnesium tubing, titanium cleats, and a direct mount, strapless binding for your running shoes. The net result of all this technology and cad/cam design is a piece of hi-tech performance artwork that allows a natural stride, great comfort, and unbelievable maneuverability in challenging terrain.

Train and Race

So what do with these newfangled snowshoes? A wintertime stroll, speed hiking, or performance training, you can do it all on snowshoes. Just about anything one would do on foot can be done on shoes, for that matter. There are even snowshoe volleyball and snowshoe softball leagues. But for a maximal CV burn, just about nothing beats speedwork training on snowshoes. For example, Wholistic Fitness instructor Steve Ilg advises fartlek training between the riblet towers on ski slopes: sprint, then walk, then sprint again and repeat between towers all the way to the top, or until you pass out. Top competitive athletes like triathlete Ray Browning, Race Across America competitors Muffy Ritz and Steve Born, and mountain bike racer Tinker Juarez consider snowshoes integral to their winter training. Even the Olympic Training Center, usually in the dark ages when it comes to training methodology, has aspiring Olympians out shoeing on occasion.

Snowshoeing is also a competitive sport. Snowshoe events include 100 yard dashes, 1 mile hill climbs, marathons (the world record is 3:06, set at 30 below), even a 100 miler across the Alaskan wilderness known as Iditasport. Winter multi-sport events often combine snowshoeing with ice skating, skiing, and other sports. For the competitive athlete, then, snowshoes provide not only a world-class cardiovascular workout, but the opportunity for competition during what many used to call the "off-season." In the sports performance world, that's the ultimate path for fitness expression.


Snowshoes take their users into serenely beautiful winter wonderlands amongst the flora and fauna that comes into its own with the fall of snow and the accompanying decrease in human traffic. And while the snowy outback may seem forbidding to the unequipped and uninitiated, shoers gleefully use their snowshoes to enter domains that are otherwise largely inaccessible. In effect, snowshoes allow their users to become explorers and adventurers, to take the paths less traveled, or even untraveled by others. Some shoers carry snowboards or skis up and into the outback, then speed their way back on the return. Others mountain bike up past the snowline, then shoulder their ATBs and finish their summiting effort on snowshoes. Soon, heli-shoeing will no doubt become all the rage amongst the extreme sports enthusiasts.

Mystic Shoeing

An intrinsic reason that shoeing is so special is the fact that it involves water (in this case, snow). Interactions with water are uniquely satisfying because they remind us subconsciously of our own primordial origins beneath the waves as well as our prenatal, intrauterine formative era. So when we shoe, we commune with the universe in an unusually multi-dimensional manner, providing beautiful insights into the grand pageantry of life. Each step is an opportunity to return to the present moment, to notice our breath, to regain our posture, to stake a claim yet again for an elegant and lightly treading lifestyle. Then in so doing we learn to appreciate our surroundings, to be caught up in the rapture that every moment of life can bring, and we are catapulted into a transcendent, transformative, and transpersonal state of being. With this snowshoeing-assisted enlightenment, barriers fall away naturally, hurdles are overcome, and our higher potential is realized. And all because we strapped a six thousand year old idea onto our feet and headed out to where the pavement turns to snow, to a personal and intimate communion with nature. The ancients were wiser than we'll ever know; just go shoeing and you'll see why.