snowshoeing

How to Dress When Snowshoeing

January 04, 2018

DIRO Outdoors takes a lot of individuals and groups snowshoeing during our Minnesota winter months.  It's such a great way to burn a lot of calories and enjoy the landscape through a different lens than in the warmer months.  The absence of foliage, the brilliant blue skies, and beauty of snow and ice can transform your everyday hike into something magical.  

Most of the people who venture out with us are new to snowshoeing and often have questions on how to dress properly.  Many have concerns around how to stay warm especially when the temperatures drop into the single digits.  In reality, what we find is the vast majority of people don't complaint about being cold.  Their biggest complaint is around being too hot!  It's no wonder when you consider that snowshoeing in hilly terrain in loose powder snow can burn upwards of 1000 calories per hour.  

Since we want you to enjoy your next snowshoeing adventure to the fullest and be as comfortable as possible, here's some advice on what to wear with a few tips sprinkled in for good measure.

The Basics

Regardless of what cold weather activity you're doing the principles remain the same.  When it comes to staying warm, it's all about layering.  Wearing multiple layers of clothing will help maintain your core body temperature, keep you dry, and protect you from the freezing outside elements.  We've all heard this before, but let's break it down further so you can get a solid grasp on how to pull it off.

There are three basic layers:

  • Base/Inner Layer - The layer of clothing that is next to your skin.  This layer should be fairly thin, made of a natural or synthetic fabric that wicks moisture (AKA sweat) away from your skin.  The importance of this layer cannot be understated.  Having wet clothes = being cold.  The better your base letter wicks moisture from your skin the warmer you will potentially be.  I say "potentially" because this layer doesn't act alone.  What you wear for the other layers also has a direct impact on how wet you'll be.  It's also important to remember that your bra and underwear should also be of wicking material  Wool, silk, or various synthetic material are great for this. DO NOT WEAR COTTON!  I prefer merino wool because it's soft, keeps me warm even when damp, and doesn't hold onto the funky smell that often comes along with synthetic clothing.
  • Middle (Mid) Layer - The layer(s) of clothing that you wear between your base layer and your outer layer.  It is meant to trap air which is what keeps you warm.  The more air they trap the warmer you'll be.  Choose natural or synthetic materials designed for this purpose and that are breathable.  Once again...DO NOT WEAR COTTON!  Mid-layers should also allow the transfer of the moisture that was wicked through the base layer to continue it's journey away from the body.  Typical materials are goose down, fleece, wool.  Rather than wearing one really thick layer on really cold days, I would recommend wearing several thinner layers so you can better manage your core temperature to minimize excess sweating.  Remember...wet clothes = being cold.  If your mid layer is so warm that your layers cannot transfer your sweat away from your body fast enough, you'll get wet and then the chill sets in.  By wearing multiple layers you can add or remove layers as your activity varies throughout the day.
  • Outer Layer - The outermost layer of clothing designed to protect you from the elements.  This layer is your armor from the wind, rain, snow, branches, ....  It should be durable and breathable.  This can be as simple as a breathable wind breaker or rain jacket.  Other options include winter jackets designed as "outer shells" which tend to be more durable.  The outer shell typically isn't very think or warm on it's own as that job is left to the mid layers.  This layer should also be at a minimum water resistant.  If you plan spending several hours outside when it's raining or snowing, it should be waterproof.  Fabrics like Gortex are perfect for this layer. Waterproof, breathable clothing is expensive so if you don't need it to be completely waterproof, you don't need to spend a ton on it.   Just make sure they allow all that moisture the other layers are transferring to be able to escape.

I recommend, when possible, purchasing layers that can be interchangeable for all your activities.  I use the same base and mid layers for snowshoeing as I do for hiking, running, biking, and winter camping.  I often will use the same outer layer for these endeavors as well.  This is typically my Gortex jacket and pants that are marketed as backpacking rain gear but work great for just about anything where you need breathable, windproof, durable protection.  If it's not expected to snow or sleet (most of the time), I'll sometimes skip the Gortex and use something even more breathable as I generate a lot of heat while snowshoeing and there are certainly more breathable, less expensive fabrics than Gortex.

Hands

If you're snowshoeing in fresh snow, the likelihood you'll have cold hands is low. Many people find their hands are the first area to overheat.  If you don't prevent your hands from getting all sweaty, there is a good chance they will get cold if you take a break.  I typically bring two pairs of gloves.  I start out with a warmer pair that I use to get ready and put on my snowshoes and then begin my hike.  Once my hands start to feel just a little sweaty, I switch to my thinner gloves for the rest of the trip.  Sometimes I will wear an even thinner pair of running gloves under my other gloves when it's really cold or use them solo when I have to help others get their snowshoe bindings tightened and I want to protect my hands from the cold wind and icy snowshoes.

Feet

Modern snowshoes have various styles of bindings that attach your foot to the snowshoe itself.  The style of binding will dictate your footwear options but most styles can accommodate a wide range of styles and sizes.  The most common problem we see is with large bulky winter boots that are really wide and just don't fit into the binding.  Therefore, a winter hiking or snow boot work the best. If you have access to or can afford to get a waterproof pair, that is ideal.  An additional nice feature to have is a heel ridge or hook on the back of the boot to help keep the heel strap of the snowshoe binding from slipping down.

keen winter bootsnowshoe

Pair your footwear with a warm pair of breathable socks and make sure your boots are not too tight as this will limit blood flow and cause cold feet.  Wearing an additional pair of socks works for some but I've seen more times than not where this causes cold feet due to restricted circulation.  

TIP:  When adjusting your snowshoe bindings make sure you don't pull them too tight as this will also limit blood flow and result in cold piggies.

Head

You'll want to wear a thin hat when snowshoeing unless it's really cold.  Ideally, this hat will be wind resistant and cover your ears and forehead.  I typically wear a really thin hat and bring an extra, thicker one just in case I have to stop or if the thin one isn't cutting it.  

Face

On cold days you'll want to cover some or all of your face.  There are many different options from face masks to balaclavas.  I prefer balaclavas (think ninja mask) as they function as my thin hat, protect my face, and keep my neck warm.  If you wear prescription eyewear or sunglasses (recommended), you'll need to use some anti-fogging stuff on them if you pull the mask over your mouth.

Another solution for keeping your face warm is to use something like WarmSkin on your skin to help protect it from the cold.  I've found it works really well and helps fight off that uncomfortable feeling you get when an icy cold wind blows on your face and forehead.  In the past, we used to coat our faces with petroleum jelly on super cold days but looking like a glazed donut leaves much to be desired.  WarmSkin works equally well and looks better too!

warm skin

Finally, Some folks wear ski goggles if it's snowing or really cold.  I personally haven't found a need for them but some swear by them if it's sleeting out and you wear glasses.  If you do want to purchase a pair and wear glasses, make sure you get one that is built to wear over them.

Gaiters

If you're going to be bushwhacking (hiking through ungroomed deep snow), wearing a pair of gaiters is a good idea.  They keep the snow out of your boots and keep your lower legs warmer and dryer.  Most winter gaiters have a strap that goes under your foot, a hook that attached to your boot laces, and velcro up the side.  I personally recommend the Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters which are available at quality shops and online.

Venting

By now you should have a good idea of what to wear.  However, none of the above matters if you don't learn how to regulate your temperature.  The reason why you wear layers is so you can put them on or take off them if you're too hot or too cold.  If you get sweaty, you will eventually get cold.  Therefore, if you feel yourself starting to sweat, stop and open up your jacket, remove a layer, or take a break to prevent yourself from overheating.  It only takes a few minutes to do this and will be time well spent to avoid being wet.

Other Tips

  • Your water will freeze on cold days so make sure you put your water bottle in an insulated carrier or use an insulated drinking tube on your water bladder.
  • Bring a daypack to carry extra clothes and those you remove as you heat up.

Summary

Snowshoeing is a great winter activity that everyone should try.  You'll want to dress appropriately to make it a positive and safe experience.  For occasional or short hikes you'll probably already have what you need in your closet.  For more frequent or longer hikes you may want to opt for more specialized clothing.  Use the handy chart as a quick reference and get out there!

  Basic Advanced
Head Thin hat Thin hat, Warm hat
Face Face mask
Balaclava
Face mask
Balaclava
WarmSkin
Torso Base:  Thin wool or synthetic long sleeve 
Mid:  Medium weight fleece jacket or thicker wool or synthetic long sleeve
Outer:  Breathable windbreaker
Base:  Thin wool or synthetic long sleeve
Mid:  Medium weight fleece jacket or thicker wool or synthetic long sleeve
Outer:  Breathable cold weather hiking or running jacket
Legs

Tights or long underwear
Water resistant pants

Tights or long underwear
Wind and waterproof breathable pants

Hands Medium gloves or mittens
Chemical hand warmers
Thin running gloves, medium gloves, warm mittens
Feet Wool or synthetic socks
Hiking or winter boots

Wool or synthetic socks
Waterproof low-profile winter boots with heel hook

 

If you're interested in buying a pair of snowshoes, read this blog first.

Have any questions or tips to share?  We encourage you to post them below to help others learn even more.



Leave a comment