Spring Snowshoeing

By Debbie McKeown

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Residents of British Columbia's Lower Mainland have the exceptional possibility of experiencing multiple seasons in a single day. Skiing on Grouse Mountain in the morning and bike riding in Stanley Park that same afternoon is not unheard of due to the varying elevations of the landscape. Since moving to B.C. two years ago, I have grown to love the relatively long and warm days of April for snowshoeing at higher elevations, where winter can linger as late as May and June.

I have seen many references to snowshoeing as the fastest-growing winter sport in North America and, indeed, it is understandable that this accessible sport has gained enormous popularity recently in B.C. Snowshoeing is easy to learn and can be enjoyed at many ability levels. Reasonably affordable, it is an excellent full-body workout and, best of all, provides access to beautiful and otherwise inaccessible landscapes. The old adage is true: "If you can walk you can snowshoe."

My introduction to snowshoeing came several years ago on a winter hiking trip to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. As I gained elevation and the snow became deeper, I watched enviously as snowshoers strode easily past me. Soon, I was bogged down in knee-deep snow and had to turn back. The next day, I started to research my first snowshoe purchase.

Selecting a suitable snowshoe model can be confusing, but most of the major manufacturers have guidelines on their websites to help consumers make the right choice. Body weight and the type of snow are important factors. In general, for those who will snowshoe mainly on Vancouver's North Shore Mountains, a smaller snowshoe will work well as the snow tends to be densely packed and heavy with moisture. Farther inland, where snow is drier and more powdery, a larger shoe, which provides more flotation or distribution of weight, would be optimal. Lucky shoppers may even find a late-season bargain on snowshoes. For snowshoers new to the sport, a great approach is to rent snowshoes the first few times to discover what works best.

As for clothing, hikers or runners may find they already have most of the clothing and footwear they need for snowshoeing. Dressing in breathable synthetic layers is the best approach. Waterproof hiking boots are ideal, but I have also used non-waterproof boots with a waterproof sock. Gaiters are important to keep snow out of your boots, especially in powder conditions. Many snowshoers like to use trekking poles for balance and stability. My telescoping summer hiking poles work perfectly, if I make them a little longer and substitute larger snow baskets.

What you carry is as important as what you wear. The most crucial item is water. Drink more than you think you need, and take along some high-energy snacks. Otherwise, some extra warm clothing, a map, matches and the usual emergency preparedness items should set you up safely for a day on the snow. Before heading out, always check with local authorities for potential avalanche hazards and obey signage identifying danger areas. Better yet, sign up for an avalanche safety course with an accredited mountain school.

We are fortunate in British Columbia to have many pristine wilderness areas that are excellent for snowshoeing. Downhill and cross-country ski resorts are catching on to the snowshoe craze, often providing marked and groomed trails especially for snowshoers. Community recreation programs and outdoor stores are also great places to check for local outings.

For those in the Lower Mainland, the closest snowshoe destinations are on the North Shore. Grouse, Seymour and Cypress represent the holy trinity of Vancouver's North Shore Mountains. Proximity to the city makes after-work snowshoe hikes an appealing possibility. One of my favourite half-day excursions starts at the Mount Seymour parking area. Snowshoe a rolling forest trail to First Lake, continuing to Dog Mountain for jaw-dropping views of the city, Vancouver Island and beyond. Cap off a snowshoe hike on Grouse Mountain with panoramic views and lunch, a snack or hot chocolate in the chalet. Or, stop in North Vancouver for tea, a smoothie or something stronger.

For adventures farther afield, it is worthwhile to make the three-hour drive to Manning Provincial Park. The Nordic Centre staff at Manning Park Resort can provide maps and trail suggestions. On a recent trip, we opted to snowshoe the level Similkameen River trail. The falling snow almost, but not quite, muffled the sound of the fast-moving river. The trail is easy to follow and well trod. Although we ran out of time, the trail eventually branches uphill to a lookout and 1950s tower on Windy Joe Mountain. A full-day trek that we're told has stupendous views, we reluctantly decided to save it for another time. Another favourite hike in Manning Provincial Park follows the Lightning Lakes trails. The trailhead provides access to loops of varying distances. It's more open than the forested trails of Similkameen River, prompting frequent photo stops to capture the classic mountain scenery of frozen lakes backed by snowy peaks. Refreshments and accommodation can be found at Manning Park Resort. My preferred spot for re-living the day's adventures and catching a hockey game on the big screen is their casual Bear's Den Pub.

Perhaps my fondest B.C. snowshoe memories occurred in Monashee Provincial Park, midway between Vernon and Revelstoke. This remote location, accessible only by helicopter transfer, is ideal for spring snowshoeing. On a multi-day trip in April, it snowed every night, making each morning fresh, beautiful and pristine. I had access to a staggering array of snowshoeing options, from short romps on alpine meadows to longer treks that were more challenging. My favourite was a six-hour loop hike with Caribou Pass as our farthest destination. Our route followed rolling terrain, mainly sticking to a high bench. The views were immensely rewarding with a continual panorama of 9,000-foot (2743 m) snow-covered peaks and deep valleys. Sol Mountain Touring organizes helicopter transfers and operates a comfortable lodge with full amenities. Think gourmet meals, drinks beside a roaring fire and a wood-fired sauna. After a day of snowshoeing, I never tired of watching the evening glow of snow-covered trees outside my window, completely undiminished by streetlights or other signs of humanity.

I have been snowshoeing for several years and have grown to love the sport enough to stretch it as long as the season will allow. For me, few things can compare with the sheer exhilaration of snowshoeing on a warm April day. The crowds have often retreated to lower elevations by this time, leaving the snow to a few enthusiasts who can't quite bring themselves to put their snowshoes away for the season. So, go ahead and give snowshoeing a whirl. It's not too late. Make this the spring you fall in love with winter.


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