The Return of Snoeshoes

To a snowboarder, a bowl of virgin powder is the ultimate find. But how to get there? Untouched areas are next to impossible to find just off the side of a road. It takes a little searching, a little hiking. But of course that isn't too easy in a pair of boots - chances are you'll sink to your waist. So strap on a pair of snowshoes and head off into the wilderness. Once you find that perfect spot, throw them into a carrier, put 'em on your back, strap on your board and you're set to attack. The first snowshoes were used more than 6,000 years ago, but it's only recently that they have enjoyed a transformation from tools for hunting and trapping into popular winter recreational accouterments. The reasons for snowshoeing's increasing popularity stem largely from its accessibility to people of all ages and fitness levels. While an excellent form of exercise, snowshoeing doesn't tend to be as taxing as nordic skiing or as dangerous as alpine skiing, says Mountain Gear's Greg Miller. "It's a great alternative for people who don't want to risk bodily harm." And the investment is significantly less than other winter sports. "There's no continued cost," says REI's Steve York. "Once you get the basic equipment, all you need is a little snow and motivation." York adds that snowshoe sales have skyrocketed over the past couple of years, and high adventure outfits, like Peak Adventures, are now tailoring trips specifically to snowshoers. Technology has also made snowshoes easier to use. "There are couple of things that differentiate old snowshoes from the new," says York. "Rather than wood and rawhide, manufacturers now use aluminum and synthetic decking material. The other thing that has made a huge difference is the design, which is more compact. Now snowshoes are more sure-footed because of the claw-bindings. They're also lighter." Heather Twist of Atlas Snowshoe Company in San Francisco says the market has exploded over the past two years. "The biggest expanding market has been people using them for recreational use," says Twist. "It doesn't require lessons, other equipment, and it's a one-time cost because you don't have to buy a lift ticket." Snowshoes vary in price, from $80 for wooden kids' shoes to $300 for high-tech models - still a far cry from the typical alpine investment. Dave Steele, a salesman at the Montana Snowshoe Company, says prices have dropped dramatically over the past year, and most snowshoe manufacturers carry at least one low-priced model. Steele's product is unique in the snowshoe industry because the shoes are made from recycled tires and are firmly attached to the entire foot (other snow shoes aren't attached at the heel). "An old trapper told me that he couldn't afford to buy snowshoes and that he found old tires and cut them up and wore them," says inventor Forrest Tillman. Tillman has had so much success with the snowshoes that the Army, Navy SEALS and Marines are all using them. The Army has been using them on the sand, where they are working as well as they do on snow. "These are absolutely a kick," says Steele. "If you use a pair of ski poles, you can do jump turns with them, go out on glaciers," he adds. "Stainless steel rivets on the bottom provide grip - they act like studs on a snow tire." Most modern snow shoes have some kind of cleat to provide traction on ice, an important factor to consider when choosing a model. Experts recommend buying the smallest snowshoe possible to satisfy your needs. Pay attention to how much flotation they provide and the comfort and durability of the harness and binding. Poles can be helpful when navigating slopes. Clothing needs are similar to those for nordic skiing. Because of the aerobic activity involved, your body will heat up while snowshoeing, but cool down quickly while you rest. Wearing layers is the wisest choice. Sturdy snow or hiking boots are sufficient footgear. If snowshoes are still too expensive for the kids, there's always the old standby, two tennis rackets and some old shoelaces.

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