Snowshoes in Scotland - more than just a novelty
Requiring less skill than skiing, and making a big difference when progress on foot would be a nightmare, snowshoes have a clear niche in Scottish winter, reckons Alex Roddie. Having spent years insisting he could do without, Alex is now a firm believer. Here he explains the dark art of snowshoeing.
Let's hope there's still snow on the hills when travel restrictions are eased!
It had all sounded so easy the night before in the pub. 'Let's head to the West Face of Aonach Mor,' James had said. 'Plenty of mixed climbing that will be in nick despite the heavy dump of snow.' But we hadn't appreciated quite how much snow had fallen, or how buried the approach to the crag would be. Several hours later, up to our knees (sometimes waists) in snow and still nowhere near the start of our climb, we were forced to admit that there was no chance of completing our route and catching the gondola back down.
'Cheerio, lads!' came a jaunty shout from a pair of skiers who swooshed past. 'Should've packed snowshoes, eh? Lovely day for a swim!'
Unlike skis, the learning curve is relatively easy to get used to
Back then, as a skint twenty-something barman carrying a patchwork assemblage of hand-me-down gear into the hills, I recoiled from the expense of snowshoes and decided to carry on making do (or not, depending on conditions). But experience has changed my opinion. I'm now a convert.
Here's why you might want to consider adding snowshoes to your arsenal of winter gear, and what to look for in a snowshoe for Scottish use.
What are snowshoes?
Snowshoes are flotation devices that attach to your boots and help you to avoid sinking into deep, soft snow.
They are available in a wide variety of designs, reflecting their intended use. Most have adjustable strap bindings and can be adapted to fit any footwear. The weight per pair varies; ultralight models with a small surface area may weigh as little as 8-900g, whereas larger snowshoes made from more durable materials can tip the scales up to 3kg.
Conditions where snowshoes can be helpful
Unlike ice axe and crampons, snowshoes are best thought of as niche kit that you won't want to carry on every winter hill or climbing day. They are most helpful in deep, semi-unconsolidated snow on gentle to moderate slopes. In such conditions the unaided walker will end up postholing – an exhausting struggle that saps energy and slows progress.
Although snowshoes can help in the softest powder, in such conditions skis are usually a better plan (or staying at home until things settle). Here in the UK, the Cairngorms and Monadhliath are two obvious places where snowshoes often come into their own – particularly on multi-day bothy tours or backpacking trips over the summits, when they can save you hours of effort per day. They can also be useful for winter climbers on the approach to routes. In exceptional winters they can find a niche in other mountain areas too. I've even used mine in Lincolnshire.
On the steeper, rockier peaks of the West Highlands, with their lower chance of reliable deep snow cover, you might find them less useful. Snowshoes can be unsafe to use on very steep and rocky ground, too – and they are a swine to carry when you aren't using them. My rule of thumb is that if I'm unlikely to want them for more than a couple of hours a day then I leave them at home.
Trekkers who venture abroad in the winter months will also find snowshoes worth carrying in places such as the Alps, Pyrenees, and Scandinavia.
Why not skis?
In deep, uniform snow cover, ski touring often makes more sense. Travel by ski is usually faster, and they usually require less physical effort to use, especially downhill. However, there's a much bigger skills learning curve to overcome before you can strap on skis and whiz off into the distance overtaking hapless walkers. The equipment is expensive too, and in less uniform snow cover with rocky or icy patches – very common in the Scottish hills – skis can be less versatile than snowshoes, which can cope with rockier and more uneven ground.
Choosing a snowshoe for Scotland
Although any snowshoe will do for occasional use on easy ground, it's worth thinking about safety on steep mountain terrain as well as long-term durability.
I bought my first pair of snowshoes in 2015. They were the cheapest ones I could find: big red plastic ones intended for flat forest walking. I pushed them to their limits on steep ground and ended up wearing them out in only a few trips.
- At the basic end of the market, you'll find snowshoes designed for occasional walking mainly on level terrain and well-packed snowy trails. They are often mainly made of moulded plastic, and they may or may not have any form of articulation or underfoot traction. Expect to pay £50-£100.
- Mid-range snowshoes are made from more durable materials – often aluminium – and feature more aggressive traction underfoot, usually including small crampons near the toe of the boot. Most are articulated. They are designed for steeper trails, softer snow, and more regular use. Prices range from roughly £100-£250.
- Top-end snowshoes, designed for mountaineering, prioritise durability and underfoot grip. They're more suitable for the very steep and uneven ground you'll encounter in the mountains, and will stand up to regular robust use. They're usually field-maintainable, and some can be adjusted by adding or removing tail sections. Expect to pay up to £300.
No matter your budget, there are some basics to take into account:
Most snowshoes come in a variety of sizes – not footwear size but the surface area in contact with the snow. The larger the surface area the better you'll find them in deep, soft snow, but they will also be heavier, more cumbersome both to carry and to wear, less nimble on tricky ground, and probably more expensive.
It's also important to think about expected load. Heavier users carrying heavier packs will need a bigger snowshoe.
Small snowshoes tend to be about 51-56cm in length, and are usually suitable for loads up to roughly 80kg. They will be less good in soft snow and are better suited to well-packed trails.
Medium snowshoes add a few centimetres to the length and can cater for loads up to around 100kg, depending on brand. If traction underfoot is up to scratch, they are more suitable for off-trail use.
The largest snowshoes can be up to 81 or 82cm in length and are intended for deep snow and heavy loads (often up to or over 113kg).
If in doubt, look for a mid-sized snowshoe that can be extended with an additional flotation tail. This gives you options.
In the Scottish mountains you will need aggressive traction to cope with variable snow quality, rocky ground, and steeper slopes. Look for spikes or serrations on the edges of the snowshoe deck and also underfoot, plus an articulating metal toe crampon. The best snowshoes for mountain use often feature serrations around the entire circumference of the deck.
When climbing uphill, if your snowshoe does not articulate (or pivot) at the ball of the foot you'll find things quickly becoming uncomfortable or unsafe. The best snowshoes feature a robust hinge mechanism that can either be set to articulate freely or be locked down into the horizontal position for use on the flat. Some can also be locked in a semi-articulated position for sustained use on steep uphill terrain, but this is less useful.
Most snowshoes attach to your boots with a thermoplastic or rubber cradle plus one or more straps. Check how easy it is to attach your boots with gloves on – fiddly bindings can be a pain on the hill. Make sure you adjust the snowshoes to fit your boots before heading out.
Materials and weight
Most plastic snowshoes are basic models unsuitable for heavy mountain use, but some innovative plastic designs on the market are capable of taking on the big hills. In general, though, mountain-oriented snowshoes have aluminium frames (often serrated) and decks of synthetic fabric or plastic.
It's a fact of life that most decent snowshoes will add at least 1.5kg to your pack weight – potentially up to double that if you need more surface area.
Snowshoes intended for heavy or long-term use are made to be repaired by the user (ideally while in the field). Elements that can commonly be replaced include boot bindings and decking.
The decision-making process on the hill
It's worth pointing out that no snowshoe can work miracles. They can help make life easier, sometimes considerably, but in certain conditions they'll make little difference – or may actively hinder progress. Only experience will help you make the three necessary judgement calls:
- While planning: based on the expected conditions, should I carry snowshoes?
- On the hill, while carrying snowshoes on the pack: based on what I have observed of conditions underfoot and what I expect to encounter in the near future, should I put them on? How will wearing them affect my safety, energy levels, and/or comfort?
- On the hill, while wearing snowshoes: am I still getting any benefit from wearing them, or should I take them off? In certain conditions wearing them may actually reduce your safety.
Getting used to snowshoes
Unlike skis, the learning curve is relatively easy to get used to. Trekking poles are worth using to aid balance. Once you're accustomed to the required gait, placing each step deliberately and with feet well apart, it's mostly a case of keeping a good rhythm going and watching out for potential hazards such as rocks, holes, steep ground, and icy slopes. Any of these can cause a trip if you aren't careful, and a fall when wearing snowshoes could be serious.
Even mountaineering snowshoes have limited capabilities on technical terrain. The underfoot crampons will cope well with moderate slopes, but if you need an ice axe for safety instead of poles then you should probably be wearing mountaineering crampons (or boots alone, kicking steps). Snowshoes are also less secure on hard, icy slopes and very rocky ground.
If in doubt, or if you begin to feel insecure, take off your snowshoes and proceed in boots, with or without crampons as your judgement dictates. As with all aspects of winter mountaineering, you should constantly be thinking ahead to anticipate conditions on the next bit of your journey. Don't wait until you're halfway up a steep and exposed slope to try taking your snowshoes off!
Carrying them on your pack also takes some getting used to, and the best method will depend on your pack. I find it best to use the side compression straps and wand pockets to hold each snowshoe upright and flat against the pack sides. Take care to avoid damage from contact with serrations.
Case study: the Cairngorms in winter
In March 2020, just before the first national lockdown, I headed to the Cairngorms for a high-level multi-day traverse over the plateau. Conditions were excellent, with snow down to well below Loch Morlich, and a good covering up high – but based on reported conditions in the SAIS blog I knew that much of the snow would be unconsolidated. In order to complete my planned route in the time I had available I decided to carry snowshoes.
My snowshoes are MSR Lightning Ascents (25in), and they added a lot of weight and bulk to my pack as I walked up through the forest and began the first part of Bynack More's ascent. Joining me was Cairngorms resident and snowshoeing expert Chris Townsend. Despite being a proficient ski tourer, at home in the Cairngorms he often prefers snowshoes due to their greater versatility on mixed ground. When we reached the flatter part of the ascent at about 800m we judged that the snow was deep and soft enough to warrant wearing snowshoes for a bit. I knew that the final ascent to Bynack More's summit was considerably steeper, so I anticipated having to swap them for crampons before too long.
We made excellent progress over the flat, easy terrain, floating over deep drifts and patches of tussocky heather poking out through scoured areas. Both of us used trekking poles to aid stability. When the ground grew steeper, we proceeded in snowshoes at first but soon decided that avalanche risk was looking iffy on this side of the ridge, so we retreated a little way and I decided to have a look at the other side. Due to the much steeper terrain ahead, I decided to remove my snowshoes and put crampons on. Chris, meanwhile, had decided to head home by a different route over the plateau, and I said farewell to him before continuing with ice axe in hand.
The steep and rocky summit ridge of Bynack More was easier and safer with ice axe and crampons. I kept them on for another couple of hundred metres as I continued south towards the Loch Avon Basin, but soon the terrain levelled off again and, faced with the prospect of a vast sweep of unbroken deep snow cover that extended over a mini plateau for about a kilometre before another steeper descent, I decided to put snowshoes back on again. It proved a wise decision: with crampons on I'd have been postholing, using considerably more energy and making far slower progress.
By the time I reached the head of Loch Avon's frozen expanse I was back using crampons again due to the steeper, more varied ground I'd have to climb ahead on my way up to Beinn Mheadhoin. I kept crampons on for the rest of the day until I made my camp near the summit.
On day two, the weather was cloudier and windier, transporting snow and hiding any trace of previous footprints on the steady climb up past Loch Etchachan to Ben Macdui. The snow was incredibly deep and soft here, and even with snowshoes progress was painstaking, but I decided to keep them on – without them I'd have been even slower. I kept my snowshoes on over Ben Macdui's summit and beyond, only taking them off on the final descent to the ski centre.
What a trip! I'm very glad I packed my snowshoes; without them I might not have completed my planned route as quickly or efficiently, and I'd certainly have worn myself out postholing in the deep snow up on the plateau.