If you love hiking in the high country — viewing miles of breath-taking vistas, breathing in the clean mountain air and enjoying the quiet enchantment of the forest — don’t let the winter snow keep you indoors until the spring thaw.
Make this the year you try snowshoeing.
For thousands of years, people living in snow country have created platforms to strap to their feet, historically made of a hardwood frame with rawhide lattice work and straps.
With body weight distributed over a larger surface area, a condition called “floatation” allows people to make strides across the snow without sinking.
And like all sporting goods, snowshoes have evolved over time, becoming even more efficient, comfortable and easy to use.
Svein Berg remembers his first job restringing snowshoes at Berg’s Ski Shop. His grandfather, Al Berg, immigrated from Norway in 1928 and opened the Nordic shop in Eugene in 1955.
“First it was originally wood with cat-gut strung across; then they went to synthetics – to rubberized, plasticized webbings; and then they went to rubberized decking material, but (the frame) was still wood,” Berg says of the evolution of snowshoes.
“And so, to take that concept and go to a polyurethane decking with aluminum and a free-hinging binding was mind-blowing for most people,” he says of the revolutionary product breakthrough in the 1980s. “The best part was they found out, durability-wise, it was virtually indestructible.”
Berg’s Ski Shop offers both a wide range of snowshoes to purchase, and a top-quality rental fleet.
“We have always put really nice stuff in our rental fleet,” Berg says. “If you go out with a snowshoe that is really user-friendly and has all the goodies and bennies that make it comfortable and easy to use, you might go again.”
The shop keeps their rental costs low, making it affordable for patrons who want to try snowshoeing for the first time, or who only go out on occasion.
“The decking is rock solid, the aluminum is indestructible, the traction is wonderful with the stamp steel – you’re never going to lose any traction going uphill at all,” says Berg, who has witnessed a growing popularity in the sport. “The trend is up where people are forming little groups. Like there’s the Altair Ski Group here in town that does multiple snowshoe trips (each season).”
Various parks and recreation groups also offer snowshoeing excursions, which is especially nice for those who don’t want to drive in the snow.
During a ski boot fitting, Karen Levy of Corvallis shares her snowshoe enthusiasm. Her family always takes their snowshoes along when setting out for downhill ski resorts.
“You really only want to ski in certain snow conditions, when the snow is just right, but you can snowshoe in any conditions,” Levy says. “I mean, you can snowshoe on cruddy snow and it’s still fun. And it’s pretty low-commitment. You strap ‘em on – it’s like going for a hike... and I love snowshoeing because it’s just a way to get out in the woods where it’s quiet and peaceful.”
Years ago, Levy worked at Yosemite where her job included taking people from grade-school-age to those in their 80s on snowshoe excursions. She continued the activity later in life as a way to enjoy the great outdoors with her children.
“When they were too young to have a full day of skiing it was a great way to get them out in the snow,” she says. “We would go to the Lava Lake Sno-Park and they would feel like they’re on this great adventure, but we were really doing short little circles around. We’d team up and play hide and seek, throw snowballs, and it’s a fun experience.”
Levy views snowshoeing as an activity that almost anyone can try because of its low cost and because of the control a person has in choosing pace, terrain and distance.
However, both Levy and Berg agree that snowshoeing is an aerobic activity.
“It’s more exerting than walking but some of that depends on the snow conditions,” Levy says. “If there’s a lot of fresh snow and a lot of powder and you’re the first one on the trail, it’s a lot more work than if it’s a pretty-packed-down trail.”
It’s a lot like hiking, she says. “It is more exertion, but you don’t have to go far to enjoy it. You don’t have to go fast.”
Levy suggests including a small foam cushion in your backpack for more comfortable sitting or for kneeling in the snow when taking a break.
In addition to the low cost, Berg says you may not even need special clothing.
“People may think that in order to go out into the snow they need specific gear but it’s amazing how much stuff you have in your own house that will work just fine,” he says. “The big thing to remember is to avoid cotton. Polypropylene, nylons, wools are the best thing you can wear because they’ll move moisture; they won’t trap it next to your skin. So, look in your own closet. You’re probably going to have a pair of fleece pants you can throw on, you’re going to have fleece jacket, a waterproof jacket, you’re going to have this stuff around the house. You might need some gloves.”
For stability, Berg recommends grabbing a pair of extendable poles, “and you’ve got that extra stability,” he says. “You will get an aerobic exercise out of this whether you’re going slow, medium or fast. So, remember that your layers need to breathe. They need to move moisture. Don’t put on the plastic bag clothing because you’ll roast. Snowshoeing is a full-body activity and it’s a great workout, low-impact, and just make sure you’re planning on that.”
Both Levy and Berg say snowshoeing provides for a great social experience.
In addition to the group interaction provided by a parks and recreation outing, Berg’s offers its third annual Moonlight Tour at Gold Lake on Feb. 11, with a possible March 11 tour as well. The tour offers three levels of distance, with members of the Willamette Backcountry Ski Patrol accompanying each group. Call 541-683-1300 for more information.
“It’s amazing how beautiful it is, and how different it is, the white snow by moonlight,” Berg says of the excursion they plan around a full moon. “We always tell people to bring headlamps but it’s very rare that we use them. If the moon’s out and the skies are clear, there’s enough visibility off that snow that you really don’t need a headlamp. But, of course we want people to have them. It’s a fun adventure.”
Gold Lake, he says, is one of the best local places because it’s manned by the ski patrol. “They’ve got a nice little cabin; you can get a hot cocoa and just take a break. There’s nothing technical about the area. There’s some good climbs that you can do, but not technical in any way. You can go out to the lookout of Odell Lake which is absolutely gorgeous on the right day. It’s a good loop, about two miles, and it’s really enjoyable. You don’t have to go fast, take it at your own pace.”
Snowshoeing is a low-cost activity, with good company, amazing scenery and even transportation provided. So what’s holding you back?
“I’ve seen gals in their 80s going out, Berg says. “I love that. Anyone can do it. There’s no skill set required, just the willingness to go on an adventure.”