Washington Guide to Snowshoes and Winter Hiking
Backpackers snowshoe to camp near Mount Washington in the Olympics. Photograph by Nate Brown. Snowshoe product photos by Carlton Canary.
We’re living in the snowshoe capital of America. Surprised? You were probably picturing, what, northern Wisconsin? Sure, crunching through snowdrifts while clad in a pair of plastic boats evokes more frigid climes. But a 2019 study found the sport is more popular in the Pacific region than in any other part of the country, and three of the biggest snowshoe makers in the U.S. are based right here.
Footwear for floating on soft snow has been around forever; the U.S. Snowshoe Association estimates that they existed in Asia as far back as 4,000 BCE, and they appear in just about every culture with sufficient snowfall, from the Caucasus Range to the Rocky Mountains. Primitive versions, made of bent wood and rawhide laces, were the purview of fur trappers more than fun-seekers. But a late twentieth century boom popularized the recreational snowshoe outing, thanks in part to an Ellensburg brother duo that experimented with aluminum and invented the modern snowshoe in the 1970s under the brand name Sherpa (it has since shuttered). These days the devices can be equipped with metal crampons underneath, step-in bindings, even a heel riser to make uphill easier.
As complicated as they’ve become, the beauty of the snowshoe is that, unlike crampons or skis, it requires little instruction on the first foray into powder. Kids can do it. It’s the rare snow sport practiced by near-equal numbers of women and men. Everyone looks ridiculous in a snowshoe stride, and the things are as suited to strolling as they are to Shackleton-level expeditions.
Even Seattle, a city that only gets a dusting of the white stuff, can sense the enduring appeal of the silly snowshoe. “There seems to be some part of one’s soul that responds to the snowy woods and mountains,” mused Gene Prater, one of the Ellensburg brothers that revolutionized the gear at Sherpa, in a 1974 Mountaineers guidebook. “Perhaps each of us silently longs for a place that is timeless, that is lovely, to which we can return and touch and know it will be there, although everything else in our cities, jobs, and complicated society is changing.” It’s almost as if he saw the winter of 2020–21 coming from a half century away.
Footwear from Here
Born as a gear-review newsletter written by an inventor (the Seattle Times called him “a high-altitude Ralph Nader”), Mountain Safety Research has pure local bona fides. Founder Larry Penberthy began his quest to build safe gear as a Mountaineers club activity, and he sold his business to REI more than a decade later. MSR, known especially for stoves and water filtration, has since passed to another company but is still based locally, its snowshoes made in a SoDo factory. The Lightning Ascents ($320), the top of the company’s dozen or so models, feature a new Paragon mesh webbing binding meant to be easier and more stable than the old multistrap version.
Tubbs, along with Atlas, wasn’t exactly born and raised in the Pacific Northwest; it’s a local brand now after it was acquired by Seattle ski maker K2. But it’s way older than most snow sport outfitters—founded in 1906 when the company made its wares from bendable ash wood. Old but not a fogey, Tubbs has a progressive bent, claiming to be the first to make women’s snowshoes. This year they add another kid-specific model to their collection, the wee yet well-equipped (tiny, grippy teeth underneath!) Snowball ($50).
Atlas has a familiar personality for a Northwest newcomer: tech-forward and prone to tinkering. Launched when a Stanford engineering graduate student built snowshoes as his thesis and racked up patents, it moved to Seattle with a sale to K2. This year’s new Helium Trail line ($140) rocks a lightweight composite material and bottom-side teeth meant for mellow trips.
You’ll likely need something on your feet during the Northwest’s slippery winter season, but not necessarily snowshoes.
Great for: Flotation on newly fallen snow and mixed terrain and climbing serious snowdrifts.
Trouble when: Trails harden into trenches with little room for big footwear.
Great for: Iced-over trails that have been compressed into a midwinter slip-and-slide. Picture supersized golf spikes.
Trouble when: You want to rise above the powder, not stick to it.
Great for: Frozen driveways, neighborhood strolls. Despite the brand name, the rubber and wire shoe add-ons are utterly dissimilar to yak hooves.
Trouble when: You need enough traction for uphill movement.
Great for: Steep ice, especially found on glaciers or at high elevations, that demands serious foot claws.
Trouble when: Sharp hooks tear loose pant legs.
Learn the lingo for frozen adventure.
Avalanche The Risk
Much of winter recreation is based around avoiding the dreaded slide of accumulated snow; what appears as puffy as a cloud when it’s on a hillside can instantly solidify into a concrete-hard layer when it comes down. The single best way to survive an avalanche: Learn where they happen and go somewhere else.
Avalanche Forecast The Info
The Northwest Avalanche Center, or NWAC, is one of the country’s three biggest groups of its kind, and its daily forecasts about the likelihood of avalanches are historically read by more people than any other such dispatch. Reports are free, but membership supports the work.
La Niña The Weather
A term coined by Spanish-speaking fishermen in the Pacific, the phenomenon—predicted by meteorologists using ocean temp patterns—foretells a cold, wet winter in the Northwest. That could mean lots of mountain snow for play purposes, but also a dreary season in the city.
Avalanche Education The Knowledge
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) standardizes classes on how to spot and avoid avalanches, or dig someone out if caught in one. While free awareness classes kick-start the learning process (NWAC is going virtual this year), the three-day AIARE 1 course is advised before any travel into hazardous terrain, by snowshoe or ski.
Rescue Equipment The Gear
Think of it as winter’s holy trinity. Where an avalanche is possible, recreationalists carry:
1. A beacon that transmits their location when buried.
2. A long, stick-like probe that zeroes in on a buried body.
3. A collapsible shovel to dig them out.
Survival is a matter of minutes.
Sno-Park Pass The Toll
Washington’s more than 120 Sno-Parks—many of which are great jumping-off points for snowshoe hikes or sledding—require a parking fee ($20–42). Few lots offer in-person sales, so purchase in advance online; proceeds cover trail grooming and road plowing.