Katie above Les Houches on our Chamonix Snowshoe Weekend
What to Wear Snowshoeing?
Believe me, what to wear on the mountain causes a lot of consternation. More than a few glasses of wine/beer have been consumed debating this all important question as our guests contemplate their ‘mountain fashion statement’ for the next day. In Chamonix, France we joke about the ‘mountain fashion police’ removing you forcibly from the mountain for not sporting the correct attire.
Of course, it’s not really about cutting a dash on the hill, it is about being comfortable and safe. Safe in the sense that you could literally freeze bits of yourself if incorrectly dressed in bad weather. We don’t want any digits snapping off as you attempt to adjust your snowshoes! The simple answer to the question of what to wear snowshoeing is to dress for winter walking, not for downhill skiing, as believed by many, otherwise you will overheat very quickly. Alpine ski salopettes are not designed for walking. So a quick run down on clothing for snowshoeing...
The Very Top Half You know that most of our body heat is lost through the extremities, such as head and hands, so a warm hat is essential. Personally, I overheat easily so for me a headband/Buff is the way to go. In fact you can never have too many ‘Buffs’ in your rucksack. Handy for all sorts of things in my opinion. A neck warmer is also part of your standard kit, and, of course, sunglasses are vital.
Not only so you look cool, but essential to protect your eyes from the glare of the sun bouncing off the snow on all those blue sky days when you are snowshoeing this winter. While on the subject of extremities (yes, I know they are not strictly the Very Top Half) but your hands need protection, and two pairs of gloves do the trick. Thin ones for general use and lounging around in the sun at lunchtime, and thick ones for bad weather and for when your thin ones get wet.
The Top Half I generally wear a medium weight base layer of good wicking fabric, and to be honest the various pure wool options do a good job. These are however expensive and there are numerous other ‘mixed’ fabrics on offer with half wool/half synthetic providing a good alternative. Next, I have a waistcoat as I like to keep my ‘core’ warm, always a good idea anyway, and this will be windproof to stop the chill getting to me. On top of that I have a medium weight fleece and that, in reasonable weather, will be what I walk in.
I usually find this is enough as snowshoeing is an ‘active’ sport. In my rucksack, however, I will have a waterproof and windproof jacket and a ‘down’ jacket which I keep for lunch stops and very cold weather. Under all of this you will be wearing an avalanche transceiver. This is a device which emits a signal (don’t worry you can’t hear it so you wont be irritated) and should you go missing then we can search for you. We don’t intend using this particular piece of equipment in earnest!
The Bottom Half You will be walking when you snowshoe – just in case you are not clear that you will do some exercise when indulging in this wonderful activity, SO your legs need to be comfortable and have unrestricted movement. Wearing jeans is outlawed and I will in fact refuse to take you on the hill, as much from embarrassment as from practicality!
You ideally need windproof warm trousers, and better still if these are also ‘shower proof’ as often there might be snow crystals floating around and this helps you avoid the damp. In my rucksack I will also have lightweight waterproof trousers. These act as another layer when it’s really cold, and also of course when it’s snowing heavily. Warm socks are the order of the day, and I like knee length ones to keep my legs warm. Ooops, forgot to mention that certainly bring thermal leggings on the trip as these come in handy when it’s really nippy.
The Very Bottom Half Feet – easy answer, warm, waterproof footwear is required for snowshoeing. To be honest I often snowshoe wearing leather ‘summer’ walking boots which I find to be enough to keep me warm and dry. For snowshoeing you must have boots with ankle support for no other reason than the fact the ankle straps which attach your snowshoes need to be a snug fit and you will be sore if the snowshoe straps are against your legs rather than the boots. You do not need to have ‘stiff’ boots of the type that take a crampon.
Your snowshoes provide a rigid platform for your boots and that is sufficient. Gaiters are also a good idea to stop the powder dropping into your boots. These do not need to be knee high and a simple short gaiter ‘cuff’ which sits just over the top of your boot does the job. Most of the time I do not wear gaiters, but do bring them with you unless you want to chance it!
The Very Very Bottom Half Nearly forgot all about them! Snowshoes. NO they are not like ‘tennis racquets’, at least not any longer. Today snowshoes are high tech pieces of kit, and ideally adapted to walking in snow. They are to put it simply a device which you strap to your walking boots which allows you to walk in winter without sinking totally through the snow pack. We use TSL snowshoes which are made of composite plastic and come in a wonderful variety of colours and models.
They have six studs on the underside which means the snowshoes ‘grip’ on any icy sections, and they also have a ‘front claw’ which again grips on hard snow. Otherwise they stop you sinking too far when enjoying fresh powder snow. And, of course, with the snowshoes come walking poles which are handy for balance while frolicking in all that wonderful white fluffy stuff :-)
The Back Half On your back you need a ‘day’ sack of about 25 – 30 litres capacity. In this you will have all the above mentioned bits that you might not wear all day as you warm up. There will also be sunscreen, water, lip balm, lunch, and of course your safety gear such as shovel, and probe. A rucksack with the ability to attach your snowshoes is ideal. This is because on some occasions you may walk a little way with your snowshoes on your back till we reach the snowline. Most of the time we will, however, put the snowshoes on beside the car.
So there you have it. The perfectly dressed snowshoer, and I will expect you all to be suitably dressed and ready for action just like Julie our ‘model’ who with no help from myself can turn herself out rather nicely, though she does, occasionally, require pulling out of a snowdrift which means she has to spent a bit of time ‘dusting off’ the snow before she re-acquires her nonchalant mountain babe demeanour.