The fresh, cold air invigorates me. My heart rate accelerates and my quads work harder as the trail turns upward. On snowshoes--two-foot long, thick rectangles with curved front ends and "claws" under the forefeet that grip the snow--I feel like a bobcat, lithe and buoyant.
I'm in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, with Nicky Pizzo, a naturalist from the Appalachian Mountain Club and my guide through this winter wonderland. On snowshoes, we float above deep snow, exploring areas far off the trail. Snowshoes don't glide like cross-country skis, so the experience is similar to hiking (although in shoes, I'd be thigh deep in powder). As we head uphill, I rely more on my poles to gain power. Our walk through the woods has morphed into a workout.
Turns out, snowshoeing is a perfect way to cross-train for running. If you use poles, it works every major muscle group in your body and burns 45 percent more calories than running at the same pace, according to the Snow Sports Industries America.
Top ultramarathoner Nikki Kimball and adventure racer Syl Corbett trade their running shoes for snowshoes in the winter for good reason: Tests by the Human Performance Lab at the University of Vermont show that runners who mixed snowshoeing into their routines had greater improvement in their VO2 max (maximum lung capacity) than those who only ran. In addition, the low-impact nature of the sport gives joints a needed break and reduces the chance of overuse injuries.
And while you can compete in snowshoe races--running in super lightweight gear on a groomed track--you can also go for a casual walk in the woods, a hike up a mountain or an adventurous winter camping trip.
Snowshoes come in a variety of lengths, from small and light for racing to "backcountry" versions for deep snow. Try Tubbs Venture 21W Snowshoes. The new Fit-step frame anatomically aligns your muscles, joints and spine. $180, tubbssnowshoes.com
Ski poles not only help strengthen your upper body, but also aid your balance and give you extra power. Standing on flat terrain, your elbows should bend 90 degrees when you grip the poles. Try LEKI Elegance Vario S poles. Made from lightweight aluminum, these poles adjust in length with a quick twist. $120, leki.com
Boots should be insulated, weather-resistant and breathable. You can use your favorite pair of hiking boots, as long as they fit snugly and resist moisture. Or try LOWA Trident GTX LS. Insulation keeps your toes toasty and a Gore-Tex liner defends against water. $175, lowaboots.com
Places to Play
You can snowshoe outside your door if there's six inches of the white stuff. For somewhere more scenic and for expert instruction, head to one of these winter destinations:
Appalachian Mountain Club, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire
The Appalachian Mountain Club offers free snowshoe lessons and day trips into New Hampshire's White Mountains. Stay at the new Highland Center at Crawford Notch. Rates for non-members start at $43 per night. For more info, call (603) 278- 4453 or visit outdoors.org.
Lone Mountain Ranch, Big Sky, Montana
Take lessons at Lone Mountain Ranch, and then explore self-guided snowshoeing trails on the property or in nearby Yellowstone National Park. A seven-night package with lodging, all meals, a trail pass, transportation from the Bozeman airport, evening programs and a sleigh ride starts at $1,915, per person/double occupancy. For info, call (800) 514-4644 or visit lmranch.com.
Northstar at Tahoe, Truckee, California
Trek to a lunch spot with a view of sapphire blue Lake Tahoe, or participate in the resort's "Snowshoeing for Serious Runners," a series of 5k and 10k races held throughout the winter. Improve your skills at a clinic taught by a world-class snowshoeing athlete. Call (800) 466-6784 for packages and pricing or visit northstarattahoe.com.
Don't Get Snowed (Follow these tips.)
If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Better still, you can become competent quickly. Sonja Wieck, an avid-runner-turned-snowshoer from Greenwood Village, Colorado, began racing two years ago and is now a member of the U.S. National Snowshoe Team. She offers this advice to first-timers.
- Walk wide. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart to prevent the sides of your snowshoes from overlapping.
- Go slow. You may run a six-minute mile, but walk casually at first to prevent tripping over your snowshoes. Gradually pick up the pace as you become more confident.
- Use your poles to stand up. If you fall, align your snowshoes sideways, with the claws away from you and downhill if you are on an incline. Plant your poles in the snow on either side of your snowshoes, and then use your poles to lever yourself back to a standing position.
A freelance writer and photographer from Hanover, New Hampshire, Lisa Densmore is a three-time winner of the Harold S. Hirsch Award for excellence in snow sports journalism. She'll take any opportunity to follow a trail into the backcountry. For more info, visit densmoredesigns.com.