If bad knees have forced you to hang up your skis, or you want an easy way for the whole family to get outdoor exercise this winter, just strap on some snowshoes and start walking. Snowshoeing is booming because it doesn't require a lot of skill, says Nate Goldberg, product manager of the Nordic Center at Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center in Vail, Colo. Plus, snowshoe manufacturers are producing cool gear that takes advantage of the latest technology to add traction, stability, and comfort.
New models are constructed of lightweight aluminum and molded plastic, and, unlike the old versions, which look like tennis racquets, modern showshoes offer traction. Stainless-steel front and rear grips, known as crampons, help you navigate steep, slippery ascents and descents. High-end models also feature ergonomically designed suspension systems so you can walk through the snow with minimal effort. Atlas' spring-loaded snowshoes ($249 and up) let your feet move from side to side while keeping your heels in place. Weighing about four pounds per pair, they don't feel like heavy saucers as you climb uphill.
Snowshoes are tailored for backcountry expeditions, hiking, or racing. To find the right model, consider your terrain. If you'll be trekking around a local park or golf course, try the Tubbs Altitude 30 Snowshoes ($225), which are designed for day hiking. If you plan to snowshoe at a ski resort or Nordic center, an all-terrain version such as the Atlas 10 Series ($249 for women, $259 for men) will help you traverse the varied snow levels of steep hills and allow for natural footing on uneven terrain. "They are really easy for just about anyone to use," says Nancy Cooke, marketing director at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Mont., which offers Atlas snowshoes to guests. You can put kids in snowshoes as soon as they can walk, but usually they don't have the stamina to enjoy the sport for extended periods until age five, Cooke says.
Test a pair before you buy. At sporting goods store REI, rentals cost $25 for the first day and $5 for each additional day. (REI offers snowshoeing workshops, too.) Ski resorts also offer rentals.
Experts suggest using poles to prevent sliding and gliding on ice-packed snow. Poles also give you an upper-body workout. Beaver Creek's Goldberg likes Leki's, which adjust to your height. A set of Leki Ultralite Ti Air Ergos retails for $150. Be sure to put those plastic disks called baskets (about $6 a pair) a few inches from the tips of the poles to keep them from sinking too far into the snow. Look for a comfortable grip, and avoid downhill and cross-country poles, which are too long for snowshoers.
To keep your toes toasty, you'll need good winter boots or a pair of lightweight, waterproof hiking boots lined with Thinsulate. Leki marketing manager Lindy Spiezer, who leads snowshoe tours in the Buffalo (N.Y.) area, recommends Vasque boots. "I've had dozens of people try them, and they tend to fit everyone well," Spiezer says. The $100 Vasque Spindrift model is a good choice.
What else do you need? Bruce Carey, a defense lawyer in Eagle County, Colo., and a snowshoe guide at Beaver Creek, is a fan of dressing in layers: He wears glove liners with heavy mittens and favors shirts made of SmartWool, which is less itchy than regular wool. He tops those off with a sweater and a waterproof shell jacket. "You shed clothing depending on your need," Carey says. Studies show that snowshoeing burns 420 to 1,000 calories per hour, so you'll shed pounds, too.
By Lauren Young