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  • Writer's pictureKyle McCrohan

Intro to Snowshoeing

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Fresh snow, frozen lakes, beautiful snow capped peaks - the mountains certainly take on a majestic beauty in the winter. While it might be raining all winter down in Seattle, snow can pile up in our local mountains. Snowshoeing can be a fun, accessible way to enjoy the mountains during the winter and spring months. This guide from the Cascade Backcountry Alliance provides an introduction into snowshoeing, from getting the gear to planning an adventure!


Authors: Kyle McCrohan, Cherlyn Eliza

📸 Cherlyn Eliza


Do I need snowshoes to hike in winter?

Not necessarily! Many of our low elevations hikes (Little Si for example) rarely get significant snow. Popular hikes like Lake 22 might get notable snow towards the top, but there is enough traffic to almost always ensure the snow is packed down on the trails. In these situations, the surface can become slick and microspikes (additional traction for your shoes) are helpful.


Snowshoes are useful in deep, unconsolidated snow. This is more likely to be encountered at higher elevations (above 3,000 feet or east of the Cascade Crest). On popular routes, there will often be a path from other snowshoers, but hiking in this path without snowshoes would result in post-holing, which means sinking deeply into the snow, which can quickly become exhausting. In most situations, snowshoes will not slow you down significantly, and often will turn an impossible hike into an enjoyable winter snowshoe!


Is snowshoeing for me?

If you love hiking and exploring the outdoors and are looking to get out more in the winter, then snowshoeing can be a good gateway to winter backcountry sports. At its most basic level, snowshoeing is just walking with extra flotation for deep snow. It does not require particularly unique skills or extensive gear. However, conditions can be much more variable than summer hiking (cold and wet), and distances covered far less. But Washington has many different options for snowshoe routes, including those for beginners to test the waters and ease into the sport.


Is snowshoeing dangerous?

Any activity in the mountains in the winter can be more risky due to cold, wet conditions. Additionally, avalanches are an important consideration any time one is traveling in snow-covered mountains. However, with some good planning, it is relatively easy to avoid avalanche terrain and choose good weather days so your experience will be enjoyable and risks kept to a minimum. We cover these subjects in more depth later.


Getting the Gear

Snowshoeing is great because it requires less specialized gear compared to many other winter sports. Here is a basic overview of the key pieces of gear.


Snowshoes

Snowshoes vary in size, purpose, and price. For beginners, any snowshoe will do. Here are a few considerations about which snowshoes you choose:

  • With our wet, heavy snow, longer snowshoes tend to be superfluous. Shorter ones will do just fine on popular trails in the PNW. Longer ones give more flotation when breaking trail in light, deep snow.

  • Some snowshoes have sharp teeth on the bottom. These are only necessary for steeper more advanced terrain.

  • Be sure to bring the boots you would wear with them if buying in person so you can make sure the attachment method works well for you.


Renting is a great way to try out snowshoeing before committing more money. Ascent Outdoors, Pro Ski Seattle, REI, Alpine Ascents, and Pro Ski North Bend all rent snowshoes.


You can even rent snowshoes at Hyak (Snoqualmie Pass) from REI! For $20, it includes parking at the rental location, so you do not need to buy a Sno-Park Pass if you are snowshoeing around Hyak. They can also give you route recommendations there.


If you want to buy snowshoes, the previously listed stores typically have options to select from. Additionally, used gear forums like Facebook Marketplace and second hand stores like Wonderland Gear Exchange offer great discounts.


Footwear

It is important to pair snowshoes with a sturdy hiking boot. PNW snow is often wet, so waterproof or water resistant boots will help keep your feet dry. Gaiters, which are garments that cover the lower leg, are great for keeping snow out of your boots in deeper snow. Regardless, bring multiple pairs of socks (wool or synthetic) in case one pair gets soaked.


Other Gear

Hiking poles with big, wide snow baskets are very helpful for balancing with snowshoes on.


Otherwise, you should bring the standard ten essentials just like summertime hiking. In addition, a prudent snowshoer will bring an extra set of dry clothes, a warm insulated jacket, waterproof gloves and jacket, and navigation equipment (more on that later). REI has a great snowshoeing gear list.


Getting the Skills

Snowshoeing is a relatively simple activity and accessible for people of all ability levels! Here are a few basic skills to consider.


Technique

Snowshoeing itself is relatively simple! You might feel awkward at first with such large, wide objects strapped to your feet, but you will get used to it! Poles definitely help for balance. REI has a nice guide to taking your first steps in snowshoes.


Fitness

Snowshoeing is hard work, especially if you are setting the track through fresh snow! That being said, there are plenty of entry level snowshoes that are accessible to a wide variety of fitness levels. When comparing snowshoe routes to regular summer hiking routes, consider that the same elevation gain and distance can take much longer because of the snowy conditions.


Navigation

If you are new to snowshoeing, we recommend that you stick to established routes where there will be a snowshoe path beaten down by others to follow. Nonetheless, it is still good to at least download maps on your phone using a backcountry navigation app like GAIA or AllTrails, and carry a map and compass. Remember that heavy snow can cover up tracks and cause travelers to get lost! When in doubt, be conservative before you have learned winter navigation skills.


Planning a Trip

With the necessary skills and gear, now you are ready to plan an actual trip! This is probably the most intimidating part of the entire process, but we are here to help explain thetrip planning process so you can ensure your first trip is a success!


Guided Options

If you feel more comfortable going on a guided snowshoe, it is a great way to enjoy the experience without worrying about all the logistics for your first few times.! Here are a few reputable options:


For more options, see the Washington Trails Association’s extensive list of snowshoe guides.


Where to Go

Now for the exciting part: where to go! There are literally infinite snowshoe routes, but we have chosen to highlight a few beginner friendly routes in a variety of areas. The information for these routes was selected from Cherlyn's excellent, extensive snowshoe guide.


Note that often summer trails are not safe or preferred winter routes because they can travel through large avalanche terrain.


Snoqualmie Pass / I-90

Gold Creek Pond


Kendall Peak Lakes


Franklin Falls

  • Description: 7 miles round trip, < 1000 ft gain, below tree line

  • Avalanche Risk: NWAC, minimal on trail, exercise caution approaching the falls, which is under avalanche terrain

  • Footwear: Microspikes, usually pretty packed down and icy

  • Drive: < 1 hr from Seattle to start of NF 5800, Highway I-90 conditions, parking at the road closure, which is just off the highway via paved/snowy road. Sno-Park Permit

  • Trip Reports: WTA, AllTrails


Hex Mountain


Mt. Baker

Artist Point

  • Description: 4 miles round trip, 1000 ft gain, above tree line, open slopes

  • Avalanche Risk: NWAC, risk increases due to open slopes and passes near a lot of avalanche terrain, minimized if you stay along the ridge and don’t venture under steep slopes

  • Footwear: Almost always snowshoes or skis, snow is deep here

  • Drive: 2.5-3 hr from Seattle to Bagley Lakes Loop Parking, Highway SR 542 conditions, paved road

  • Trip Reports: WTA, AllTrails


Mountain Loop Highway

Heather Lake

  • Description: 4 miles round trip, 1200 ft gain, below tree line

  • Avalanche Risk: NWAC, minimal if any – stay on trail and don’t loop around lake if risk is higher

  • Footwear: Microspikes, usually pretty packed down but can get icy

  • Drive: <1.5 hr from Seattle to Heather Lake Trail, Pilchuck Road #42, dirt road and potholes to trailhead

  • Trip Reports: WTA, AllTrails


Big Four Ice Caves

  • Description: 6 miles round trip, 600 ft gain, below tree line

  • Avalanche Risk: NWAC, low risk until near the ice caves, which is below avalanche terrain (keep a large amount of distance - stay on the far side of the clearing from the mountain!)

  • Footwear: Microspikes, low elevation and less snow on road walk, but snow shoes could be helpful on the actual trail

  • Drive: 1.5 hr from Seattle to Deer Creek Campground, paved road to the gated closure

  • Trip Reports: WTA and here, AllTrails


Stevens Pass / US2

Skyline Lake

  • Description: 2 miles round trip, 2500 ft gain, below/near tree line

  • Avalanche Risk: NWAC, minimal if any up to the lake – stay on trail and on ridge

  • Footwear: Microspikes/snowshoes, usually pretty packed down, but watch for skiers (heavy ski traffic)

  • Drive: 1.5 hr from Seattle to Skyline Lake Trail, Highway SR 2 conditions, snow in parking lot

  • Trip Reports: WTA or here, AllTrails


Nason Ridge


Mount Rainier National Park

Paradise


Reflection Lakes / Narada Falls


Mt. St. Helens

June Lake


Olympic Peninsula

Hurricane Ridge / Hurricane Hill

  • Description: 6 miles round trip, 1000 ft gain, near/above tree line

  • Avalanche Risk: NWAC, minimal if any – stay on trail

  • Footwear: Snowshoes, often deeper snow; but if packed firm snow, microspikes work

  • Drive: 3 hr from Seattle to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center; National Park Pass

  • Trip Reports: WTA, AllTrails


When to Go

Choosing a good day for snowshoeing will greatly improve your experience. Our mountains have a maritime climate, meaning winter weather is warm and wet. Although we get large quantities of snow, it often rains in the mountains in the winter. This variable weather makes some days more enjoyable than others.


Some important considerations for choosing when to go snowshoeing:

  • Winter weather is very unpredictable. Planning more than a few days out can be challenging, so keep that in mind if making long term plans.

  • The National Weather Service is a good weather source. Here is the forecast for Snoqualmie Pass.

  • Rain while snowshoeing is much colder than snow. Rain will soak your gear and create dangerous conditions within just a few hours. Even wet snow (close to 32 degrees) can have the same effect. Paradoxically, it is easier to stay warm in Washington’s mountains in the winter typically when it is colder because the snow is drier and does not melt on you.

  • If you must go out in adverse conditions, consider shortening your trip.

  • Weekends are obviously much more crowded than weekdays and thus parking can be a challenge. If going for a short trip on the weekend, consider going after lunch as other people are leaving.


Avalanches are a major concern for winter backcountry recreation. We always encourage you to check the avalanche forecast provided by the Northwest Avalanche Center. If you are unfamiliar with avalanche skills, we recommend that you stick to routes with no avalanche danger.


For more in depth information about winter weather and avalanches, see our posts on weather and snow and avalanche safety (insert link).


Getting There

With winter mountain activities, getting there can be quite an adventure in itself! Always check WSDOT for pass conditions and updates. If heading up in inclement weather with 2-wheel drive, make sure to have tire chains and most importantly, practice installing them before you get on a snowy road! Be prepared for extra driving time and always be cautious and respectful to other drivers.


When parking, please observe all “No Parking” signs. Park efficiently to give space for as many others. Never park another car in. Also never park in signed turnarounds, as larger vehicles like snowmobile trailers or plows need that space to turn around!


Winter parking passes can be confusing. The requirements depend on the specific spot. Some areas require a NW Forest Pass, others a Sno-Park Pass, and others are in a national park. We definitely encourage purchasing a Washington State Sno-Park Pass, which gives you access to dozens of parking spots around the state!


On the Trail

Now you are finally ready for the snowshoeing adventure! Here are a few considerations to keep in mind during your excursion:

  • Try to avoid excessive sweating - the moisture will leave you very cold once you stop!

  • If you encounter junctions or go “off-trail”, be sure to record your path so you can return safely to where you started.

  • Travel in the snow is slow and the winter days are short - be sure to give yourself enough time to get back safely before dark!


You will likely be sharing the snow with other user groups. Here are a few reminders to ensure that we can all enjoy the snow together:

  • If you are on a groomed nordic ski trail, please stay off to the right and do not step on the groomed nordic tracks. Setting these nordic tracks costs thousands of dollars and ruining the tracks threatens skier safety.

  • If there is a backcountry ski track (also called a “skin track”), please try to stay to the side on a separate snowshoer track. Stepping in backcountry ski tracks can make it very challenging for skiers to travel uphill because the surface becomes uneven and they rely on maximal surface contact to travel uphill.


REI has a longer post about winter trail etiquette. Thank you for being a respectful, friendly, conscientious member of the winter backcountry community!


Into the Snow

Excited for winter snowshoeing? We certainly are. Snowshoeing is a challenging, but rewarding way to experience our beautiful mountains in the winter. We hope that your first experience goes well and is the beginning of many more adventures!


The Cascade Backcountry Alliance is here for you! Got any questions? Feel free to ask a question below or contact us directly. Happy trails!

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