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‘Float on top of the snow:’ Snowshoeing offers options for getting active outside in winter

Janet Barlow, executive director of Hike Nova Scotia, says snowshoeing is an easy-to-learn hobby that allows people to get outside during winter. -Brian Mrkonjic
Janet Barlow, executive director of Hike Nova Scotia, says snowshoeing is an easy-to-learn hobby that allows people to get outside during winter. -Brian Mrkonjic - Contributed

By Heidi Tattrie Rushton

When the snow falls, many people hunker down and say the weather limits access to their favourite activities. 

More and more people, however, see it as an opportunity to explore places they can’t normally access by strapping on a pair of snowshoes and getting outside.

Janet Barlow, of Halifax, N.S. is one of those people. She is a lifelong hiker and the executive director of Hike Nova Scotia and, when it starts to snow, she doesn’t stop hiking, she just adds snowshoes.

“Snowshoes allow you to pretty much float on top of the snow,” she says. 

Snowshoes have been around for thousands of years. First Nations people used wooden versions to get around in deep snow and snowshoes have continued to evolve over time to the modern, lightweight aluminum versions most often used now.

The design of snowshoes allows users to strap them on their winter boots and walk across deep snow without sinking into it. They’ve grown in popularity over the last several years as they are suitable for users of all ages and physical activity levels.

“IF YOU CAN WALK, YOU CAN SNOWSHOE”

When Barlow received a pair of snowshoes from her mother for Christmas several years ago, she was keen to try it out.
“I was already a hiker, but I hadn’t tried snowshoes yet. It’s not terribly difficult to learn, there are a few techniques you can try but, really, if you can walk, you can snowshoe,” she says. 

“It’s a bit more of a workout than plain hiking on solid ground but it’s not so strenuous that most people couldn’t do it.”

Shirley Smith, of Chezzetcook, N.S., also received her snowshoes as a Christmas gift about 12 years ago and was delighted with how easy it became to walk on snow, although she says she had a bit of a learning curve.

“I started the first time without poles and that was challenging,” she says. “I then got a set of poles that helps you stay on top of the snow, like a walking stick. For people who might have balance issues, you can snowshoe everywhere like this and prevent falls.”

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

One unexpected benefit to snowshoeing was the peace Barlow finds on the snow-covered trails.

“The really wonderful thing about the winter woods, when there’s snow on the ground, is the silence. It really is a different kind of silence than you’d experience in other places,” she says. 

“When you go into the woods at other times of the year, there is the wind and the leaves and almost always this background sound, but in the winter woods, there’s more of a silence, and I find that really quite beautiful and calming. The backdrop of the trees with their skeleton outlined in the sky, it’s really a beautiful place and snowshoeing helps you get out there.”

Smith also enjoys the calm she feels when snowshoeing, as well as being able to explore new places.

“I like being outdoors, the quietness, being able to walk across the snow, being able to investigate places other people have never been that snow can take you to,” she says.

After a hurricane years ago, a heavily forested area behind her house suffered a lot of damage and many trees had to be cleared. When the first snow fell later that year, she headed out into the new clearing. 

“With all the trees gone there was this feeling of, wow, I’ll bet no one has ever walked here but me. I’m the first person walking here,” she said. “Snowshoes gave me the freedom to be able to do that.”

There are a variety of types of snowshoes available. -Fran Wyman
There are a variety of types of snowshoes available. -Fran Wyman

SOCIAL SNOWSHOEING

Snowshoeing can be a fun group activity as well. Smith has a group of friends that meet weekly year-round to do some physical activity and, in the winter, they often choose to snowshoe together. She encourages others to get outside and enjoy their favourite places in the snow with friends.

“In Nova Scotia, we have so many wonderful places to go, like provincial parks and the connector trails,” she says.

Barlow agrees that a group snowshoe hike is a wonderful way to try out the activity and the social aspect can be a great motivator. The Hike NS websites lists more than 90 snowshoeing hikes around the province. 

“A lot of people think in wintertime that they can’t hike or go outside as much anymore, but when there’s snow down, snowshoes let you access the winter woods,” she says. “Snowshoeing can get you out there, get your physical activity and get in touch with nature.”

HOW TO GET STARTED

1. Go online to www.hikenovascotia.ca and check out their list of the 60-plus locations across the province that rent or loan snowshoes and pick up a pair. Typically, there is a rating on the snowshoes based on weight, so it’s easy to find a pair that is the right size. Try out a few different styles to see what feels most comfortable. Add some poles to help with balance.

2. Get good outdoor gear and look for boots and snow pants that are waterproof.

3. Consider using gators on your pants - they are like sleeves that go over the bottom of pants and the top of boots to keep water and snow out.

4. Join one of the many guided snowshoe hikes across the province through the winter offered by Hike NS. Hike leaders can help novice snowshoers and it’s a great way to make new friends.

5. Start out slowly and choose a flatter terrain, such as a Rail Trail. Take it easy the first time out in terms of distance and time.

6. Be aware that you might be a little sore the next day: “Snowshoeing uses your legs in a different way and you have a wider stance with a bit more weight on your feet so you need to lift your legs up higher and you get a bit more of a workout,” says Barlow. “You might have some minorly sore muscles after the first time you go snowshoeing but it’s so much fun that it’s definitely worth it.”

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