It’s a bone-chilling-cold morning at the Humber Arboretum, a 250-acre nature reserve in northwest Toronto. A dozen of my friends and I strap on snowshoes for the first time, thinking a jaunt in a snow-topped forest will help us shake the winter doldrums, embrace the long Canadian winter — and get a great workout to boot.
Our fancy new footwear suspends us atop a pristine blanket of snow as we wind across a meadow and into a forest of pines and century-old maples. “Don’t walk like a robot, lift your knees,” shouts our instructor over her shoulder as we huff and puff and tramp into deeper snow. This will be the only tip she needs to offer all morning, and it quickly becomes clear that snowshoeing is exceptionally easy to get the hang of. Within 10 minutes, the 13 of us have mastered the simple technique (lift, step, lift, step, lift, step) and are marching confidently, happily crunching our way across the snow.
My friends and I aren’t the only ones trying the sport out this winter. It’s becoming increasingly popular across the country. Sales by Faber and Co., a Quebec City snowshoe manufacturer, have jumped an average of 13 per cent each year for the past five years. And at Bigfoot Snowshoes in Waterloo, Ont., snowshoe sales more than doubled last year, says co-owner Barry Triller, who credits the rise to convenience. “Any park, field or wooded area with fresh snow is a great place for snowshoeing,” he says.
Snowshoeing’s an impressive exercise that burns about 500 calories an hour. That’s up to twice as many calories as walking, and about the same number as swimming laps or using an elliptical machine. “Snowshoeing is a fabulous workout for your legs and glutes,” says Lois Tomlinson, who leads two-hour snowshoe outings, two-day excursions and evening events (she supplies the headlamps and chocolate fondue) through her Vancouver company, Natural Trekking Tours. “Snowshoes weigh about two pounds each, so walking in fresh snow or powder or on hilly terrain can really get your heart pumping.”
Want to take it up another notch?
Add walking sticks or ski poles to involve your upper body, and you can zap up to 40 per cent more calories, says Tomlinson. Unlike the old wooden tennis-racquet-style pairs seen crossed above cottage fireplaces, the new snowshoes are stylish and novice-friendly. Forget waddling like a duck — these narrower and lighter versions let you keep your natural stride. You’re much less likely to trip or bang your ankles in them, says Fraser Johnson, a product team leader at Mountain Equipment Co-op. And while less experienced trekkers once found themselves sliding backwards down a hill, now crampons — metal teeth on the bottom of the shoes — offer extra traction.
To get started, you can rent from a ski resort or outdoor store such as Mountain Equipment Co-op for $12 to $15 a day (with a $40 trail pass). There’s no need to invest in specific clothing, but wear ski clothes, since some snowshoes kick up a rooster tail of snow behind you, says Tomlinson. And sunscreen and sunglasses are a must to protect you from the sun reflecting off the snow.
If you’re heading out so often that you want your own pair, expect to pay $150 to $200 for entry-level recreational snowshoes with good bindings. “At the end of your walk, when your boots and bindings are covered in ice and snow, you want bindings that release easily,” says Johnson. “You don’t want to have to take your gloves off to undo them.” If you’re going to try backcountry trekking or mountaineering, you’ll need longer snowshoes with durable frames and more crampons. Snow-trail running and racing are becoming more popular; they require shoes that are shorter, extra light and extra narrow. Any good pair requires little or no maintenance and, as long as you don’t walk on gravel or pavement in them, will last for years.