Strap on a pair of snowshoes, and you’ll be stomping in the tracks of history. Evidence of snowshoe-shod explorers dates back more than 6,000 years, and the idea of improving flotation over deep snow by expanding the size of the footprint was perfected by Native Americans several centuries ago. Modern technology has made snowshoes lighter, stronger, and easier to use, but the essential premise remains unchanged.

Whether you’re bagging road shots or hiking deep into the backcountry, a pair of snowshoes will let you blaze your own trail. Understand that you’ll still sink into the snow, but instead of post-holing every step, you’ll shuffle along, ankle- to shin-deep in fresh powder. Even on packed snow, you’ll enjoy better traction and stability when wearing snowshoes. They can also help get you out of the woods when you can’t ride out due to a broken binding, a defunct snowmobile, or when the only way home is flat or uphill.

Snowshoes are described by their width and length-nine inches by 30 inches, for example. To pick the best size, consider your “pack weight” (your body weight plus the weight of gear you typically carry) and prevailing snow conditions where you ride; you’ll need more flotation in super-light Wasatch fluff than in the wetter snow of the Cascades. Most manufacturers have a chart to help you zero in on a shoe size. Buy the smallest, lightest shoe that will work for you in most conditions, not a bigger pair that may work slightly better once or twice a year. Remember the old backpacker’s axiom: a pound on the feet equals five pounds on the back. I’ve been happy with eight-inch by 25-inch shoes in a variety of conditions.

Make sure your snowboard boots fit in the snowshoe bindings. Bindings designed for hiking boots may be too narrow for size-twelve Airwalks. Several manufacturers now offer bindings with ratcheting plastic straps-they are easier to use with big boots in deep snow than laces or nylon straps. If you use a step-in snowboard-binding system, certain manufacturers offer a compatible snowshoe.

Collapsible poles are a good snowshoe accessory for longer hikes. They propel you forward and work like outriggers for stability on uneven terrain or when the wind turns your backpack-mounted board into a sail. When it’s time to ride, strap the poles to your pack with the pointy-end down and away from the back of your head.

Walk 50 yards, and you’ll have mastered 90 percent of snowshoeing technique. On flat ground, it’s a “one foot in front of the other” proposition. Traversing, or sidehilling, demands that you lean into the hill and weight the uphill half of each snowshoe. When hiking with a group, walk single file, and take turns “breaking trail” in fresh snow-the lead dog does a lot more work. To preserve the peace, stay off the tracks made by tele-skiers, who may be plenty pissed if you muck up their trail. As the trail gets steeper, kick the shoe into the slope to create a step and set the metal toe-cleat firmly in the snow. On descents, bend your knees so you can roll your foot down and dig in with the toe cleat. If you lean back, the shoes may suddenly slide out from under you.

Snowboard boots don’t always make good hiking boots. I had trouble snowshoeing in a pair of snowboard boots that are just big enough when riding, but painfully jammed my toes on even a gradual descent while hiking. If your toes start to hurt, try kicking your feet firmly into the heel cup and then cinching down the binding straps to hold them in place. For easier walking in stiff boots designed for step-in snowboard bindings, loosen any forward-lean adjustment and undo the “power straps” around the ankles.

Snowshoes can be an affordable ticket into the backcountry, but make sure you have the other tools and knowledge you need to make the trip safely. Never travel alone, know how to avoid avalanche danger, and leave a trip plan with someone at home.FOR INFORMATION:

Atlas Snow-Shoe Company: 1-800-645-SHOE; www.attlasworld.com
C3 Verts: 1-800-281-1331; www.verts.com
Crescent Moon: 1-800-587-7655; www.crescentmoonsnowshoes.com
Faber & Co.: (418) 842-8476; www.faberco1@resonet.com
K2 Snowboards: 1-800-972-4038; www.k2sports.com
MSR: 1-800-245-2992; www.msrcorp.com
Northern Lites: 1-800-360-LITE; www.northernlites.com
Powerwings: 1-800-453-1192; www.ladders.com
Redfeather: 1-888-669-SNOW; www.redfeather.com
TSL Snowshoes: 1-888-782-2228
Sherpa: 1-800-621-2277; www.sherpasnowshoes.com
Tubbs Snowshoes: 1-800-882-2748; www.tubbssnowshoes.com
YubaShoes: 1-800-598-YUBA; www.yubashoes.com

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