Longtime snowshoe enthusiast Barbara Mortier has snowshoed most of the trails throughout the region. At seventy, she isn’t hanging up her snowshoes, skis or mountain bike anytime soon. “Snowshoeing can be a really good sport for anyone, especially those of us who are older,” said Mortier, who lives in the hills above Santa Fe. She can tackle even the steepest of routes laden with deep winter snow, but advises, “Most new to snowshoeing should start off on easy, flat trails, and — after mastering the basics — may want to venture off-piste [away from marked tracks] into deeper snow and harder climbs.”
Ginny Olcott, who spent ten years with Search and Rescue in Santa Fe, speaks with authority about snowshoeing. She says it’s a great wintertime activity, and those who do some basic research, perhaps take a class, and apply some common sense, can have fun in snowy Santa Fe.
Who Can Snowshoe?
The short answer: Anybody at almost any age. But as with most everything, that answer is too simple. Most snowshoeing in the Santa Fe area is at elevations above 8,500 feet, so beginners need to have at least a modest physical fitness level. Those visiting from lower elevations should take a few days to acclimate before setting out. While snowshoeing is a low-impact sport, it can quickly leave you huffing and puffing.
Snowshoeing is a wonderful family activity. Putting on snowshoes can be puzzling, so have children practice putting them on and taking them off. Teach them to step down flat with every step and to make U-turns instead of trying to back up. Let them first practice walking on soft, flat ground, such as a grassy area at a park. Since snowshoeing is typically done on loose, unpacked snow, train them to avoid stepping in ski tracks.
How Do I Get Started?
A common refrain among those who snowshoe is: “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” Not so fast. First-timers or visitors renting snowshoes should know their weight, where they intend to go and in what snow conditions. Answering those questions is critical. For a flat, easy hike, almost any rental snowshoe will do, but for more challenging routes or deeper snow, you need snowshoes that can handle the combined weight of your body, clothes and daypack. Snowshoes need to offer enough flotation to keep you from post-holing your way up and down trails. For most beginners on easy trails, narrow and light snowshoes are fine. Local rental outlets can offer sound advice.
What about Poles?
For most who snowshoe regularly, using poles is second nature. Poles enhance balance and help maintain rhythm and control, the reason they are essential when descending steep trails. The best choice is adjustable poles you can shorten when slogging up steep routes, but a set of old ski poles works fine, as long as they’re the right length. To check, turn the ski poles upside down and hold them underneath the basket. Your arms should be at a 90° angle. Being off an inch or two isn’t much of a problem. The same when 90° angle advice applies to holding the hand grips on adjustable poles.
What Should I Wear?
Blue skies can quickly turn gray, and cold wind is nearly constant in the wintery Sangre de Christo Mountains. It’s a timeworn admonition, but one worth repeating: Do not wear cotton in winter weather. While cotton is great for loungewear, it’s a killer when exercising in the cold. Sweat quickly turns it clammy and cold, sucking away body heat. Dress in layers of apparel made of thin wools or synthetic materials that wick away perspiration. (And yes, you will perspire.) The same is true for socks. If you must wear jeans, protect your lower legs and ankles with gaiters, coverings made from synthetic, water-resistant fabric. Two or three pairs of gloves make for happy hands. Use a thin pair to lace up your snowshoes. Once done, slip them off and put on another thin pair, followed by traditional ski gloves. If your hands get too warm, take off the ski gloves and snowshoe with the lighter pair. As for boots, consider how waterproof they may be. Leather boots can be easily waterproofed. Synthetic leather boots featuring a Gore-Tex liner are another option. Light hiking boots with wool socks, topped with gaiters, work fine on hard-packed trails with light snow. But pay attention to your feet: you need them to get back to the trailhead. Wear sunglasses, or if it’s snowing, goggles. Make sure your pack fits correctly, has padded shoulder straps and can be fastened securely at your waist.
Where Should I Snowshoe?
First, get a good map, such as Sky Terrain’s “Santa Fe, Bandelier, Los Alamos,” a color map with easy-to-see elevation contour lines. It’s an excellent guide to trails along Hyde Park Road, all the way to the ski basin. Aspen Vista is popular with those new to snowshoeing. A dirt road in the summer, it becomes a snowshoe highway in the winter. It offers a steady but gradual uphill with a modest downhill back to the trailhead. Black Canyon, just before Hyde Park’s ranger station, is another popular area, but the snow can be sketchy early in the season. Big Tesuque Campground, just before Aspen Vista, is a playground for kids, but offers some steep terrain for experienced enthusiasts. Pacheco Canyon Road, just above Big Tesuque Campground, is another go-to spot, but parking can be limited. The Winsor Trailhead at the ski area is great for those looking to test their skills. Other trailheads along Hyde Park Road include the Borrego Trail and the Chamisa Trail.
Where Can I Rent Equipment?
Santa Fe has three key rental outlets: REI, Alpine Sports and Ski Tech. REI rents MSR snowshoes, charging nonmembers $23 a day plus a $100 deposit, and members $15 a day with no deposit. Alpine Sport sells Yukon snowshoes and rents models from Atlas for $25 a day. Ski Tech rents Tubbs snowshoes with poles for $20 a day. MSR, Atlas and Tubbs make top-of-the-line products.
What about Instructional Videos?
There are dozens of how-to videos online. REI offers some good ones, including “Snowshoeing: A Beginner’s Guide” and “How to Put On Snowshoes.” You can also pick up helpful, commonsense safety tips online, such as taking adequate water with you and letting someone know your plans.
Marc Sani co-founded Bicycle Retailer & Industry News, a trade magazine for the bicycle industry, in Santa Fe in 1991. He remains with the magazine as a contributor. He has been involved in outdoor pursuits since childhood and is an avid skier, hiker and cyclist.