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Easy Jet (Snow Shoeing)
The most essential aspect of snowshoeing is being able to come up with a range of witty responses to the inevitable quips about wearing tennis racquets on your feet. Indeed, the French term for snowshoes is actuallyraquettes de neige.
Despite the jokes, snowshoes have been an essential means of locomotion in the snowbound regions of the world for thousands of years. Native Americans utilised them long before the arrival of Europeans on their continent, with each tribe having their own particular design made from a hardwood frame connected by a leather lattice network, and rawhide lacings to attach them to their feet.
French and British settlers in North America were quick to take to snowshoes, developing their own specific designs (for instance trackers would use massive objects almost two metres long, whilst lumberjacks used smaller snowshoes around a metre in length which were less unwieldy in tree-packed forests) and snowshoes of one type or another have continued in use in snowy climates ever since.
The idea behind them is simple – the large surface area that snowshoes create beneath your feet allows you to ‘float’ when walking across deep snow that you would otherwise sink into. And in recent years that there’s been a huge boom in their use recreationally, along with massive improvements in design. Forget intricate leather works and fiddly straps and buckles – my own snowshoes, for instance, have lightweight aircraft-grade aluminium frames and quick-release bindings for ease of use with gloved hands.
And easy to use they are. It takes a matter of seconds to fasten the bindings, and then all you have to do is walk – there’s not really any special technique for using snowshoes on easy trails other than lifting your feet slightly higher than normal so the inside edges of the frames don’t catch against each other (this is preferable to and much more comfortable than waddling around bow legged).
You can wear your regular hiking boots with most snowshoes along with the clothes you’d wear for skiing or a winter walk in the mountains. Other than that the only other accessory you need is a pair of walking or ski poles to aid your balance on slopes, and you’re away.
So where should you go on your raquettes de neige? Well, in theory anywhere that gets a reasonable amount of snow each winter, although not surprisingly ski resorts are the best bet – especially when you’re starting out – since they often offer hire facilities, guides and marked trails.
A great option is the Tarentaise Valley in the French Alps, easily accessed from Lyon or Geneva and the location of numerous world class ski resorts such as Les Arcs, Val d’Isere and La Rosiere, all of which have snowshoe trails. But if you want to get more of a feel for the isolated frozen northern latitudes that are so often associated with snowshoeing, try Sweden or Finland where gently rounded whaleback hills, vast forests and the Northern Lights offer a true wilderness experience – Easy Jet’s new services to Stockholm and Helsinki will help you answer your own personal call of the wild.
But let’s say you’re heading off on one of the snowshoe trails from La Rosiere – what’s in store for you? Well, you’ll very soon enter a world far removed from the buzz and hum of the nearby pistes. It’ll take just a couple of minutes to get the hang of your new super-size footwear, and then you’re away, trudging behind your guide into what would be knee deep snow were you not wearing your snowshoes.
Don’t be under the impression that this is just going to be tedious plod through deep snow for an hour or two though. If you’re breaking trail that’s fun in itself – who doesn’t like leaving fresh tracks in deep, smooth powder? And there will be hills to negotiate too. Climbing up them involves kicking the small, crampon like underside of the bindings into the snow – these will bite into the snow and, with your ski poles to help, they make even the steepest of slopes negotiable.
Coming down is way more fun though – just leap up in the air, land on your bum and slide down the snow slope like you did when you were eight years old, using the snowshoes as brakes. When you get a little more confident you can glissade, which involves sliding downhill whilst standing upright on your snowshoes – a little like skiing.
All this allows you to get way off the beaten track and discover a world that few recreational skiers are ever likely to see. The silence of deep winter forests can almost be felt – according to Florence Page Jaques, author of the book Snowshoe Country, “It is a stillness you can rest your whole weight against …” and New York Times reporter James Prosek has even gone so far as to describe snowshoeing as a “transcendent experience”.
The utter silence will occasionally be broken by a soft “whump” as a pillow of snow slips from a tree branch, or the gentle tick of snowflakes landing on your shoulders, but despite this almost eerie lack of noise there is still plenty of life out here. Look out for the tracks of squirrels, rabbits and deer and see if you can figure out their direction of travel (not as obvious as it may seem), and listen for the occasional tweet of the few small birds tough enough to survive winter in the mountains.
Emerging from the forest you can enjoy superb mountain panoramas (perhaps even more so in the Nordic countries where the high mountains are more plateau-like than in the Alps and thus provide more expansive vistas); take a picnic along and eat out in the snowbound wilderness; or stop off en-route for a gluwhein as many trails will have a small lodge along the way which will provide basic refreshments.
And at the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like heading back to civilisation, icy dusk descending and a well earned cold drink and hot bath awaiting. Pity those poor squirrels who are out there all night though…
There are three types of snowshoe and three basic types of snowshoeing.
- Aerobic – these are small, lightweight models around 65cms long in which you can actually run along packed trails and get a good workout
- Recreational – larger snowshoes designed for longer walks – say half day expeditions into the hills
- Mountaineering – still larger, high tech models up to 75cm in length, designed for long distance backcountry trips and steep hill climbing
WHERE TO DO IT
Tracks and Trails take guided snowshoes treks in both the French and Swiss Alps - www.tracks-and-trails.com
Exodus has snowshoe trips in various parts of Finland - www.exodus.co.uk
Ensure your boots are comfortable and well broken in – blisters will ruin your day out
Start off on easy, short, flat trails
Consider a guided trip – not only will the guide give you tips on techniques, he/she will also know heaps about the terrain and wildlife you’ll see along the way
Take a daypack containing spare clothes, water and energy bars
Don’t go off trail unless you’re sure you can find your way back and there’s no avalanche danger. In theory you can simply retrace your tracks but if it’s snowing heavily these may become buried by fresh snowfall