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ON THE MOVE | BRION O’CONNOR

How to float on the white stuff: snowshoes

A family tries some snowshoeing on a wintry day. (Photo/Trustees of Reservations)

By Brion O’Connor Globe Correspondent 

Is there anything as awe-inspiring in winter as a fresh blanket of snow? Yet we sometimes need a little extra nudge to get outside, especially after a blizzard. The solution? Snowshoes.

“Indoor training is certainly better than nothing, but there is no comparison to being outside,” said Groveland’s Phil Bailey, senior instructor with REI’s New England Outdoor Schools. “Aside from the easier travel that showshoes provide, just being out in the cold and wind, and in nature in general, is its own reward and cannot be duplicated in a gym or health club.”

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Ask any child. Romping around in deep powder can be a blast, provided you’re not “post-holing,” the quaint term for sinking several feet with every step. That can be exhausting, while snowshoes, with their super-sized footprint, allow you to float on top of the snow.

“Because [snowshoes] help conserve energy, you can stay out longer and go farther, and maybe explore places you wouldn’t otherwise,” said Bailey. “They’re also very quiet, which is nice, especially in the deep woods.”

John Hubbard of the Natick Outdoor Store said snowshoes provide an uncomplicated entry to the wonders of nature, at a moment’s notice.

“You rarely see a fisher cat or a group of [whitetail deer] from the indoor exercise machine,” said Hubbard. “Snowshoes go in the back of the car, and can be a quick, spontaneous activity that gets the heart rate up.”

Today’s snowshoes are dramatically different from the wood, leather, and gut relics of Jack London novels. Most modern models feature aluminum or composite frames, with synthetic decking, steel “crampons” to provide necessary grip, and binding systems that allow a more natural stride.

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“It’s as easy as walking,” said Les Scontas, manager of the Eastern Mountain Sports store in Acton. “And it’s free.”

Snowshoes themselves are relatively inexpensive. You can find a quality pair for under $200, making the activity even more accessible.

“Most Eastern Mountain Sports locations rent snowshoes,” said Scontas. “It’s a good way to try it out before investing in a pair or two.”

The rental fee, said Scontas, is $20 per day, and he recommends calling ahead to check on availability. Likewise, the Trustees of Reservations rent snowshoes at the Chickering Cabin Visitors’ Center at their Rocky Woods property in Medfield on weekends and holidays. The cost is $9 for members; $15 for non-members.

Snowshoes aren’t a “one size fits all” piece of equipment. They come in different sizes, and should be properly fitted based on your height and weight. More importantly, there are different styles designed for specific uses.

The three distinct categories are mountaineering, recreational, and running. According to the experts, mountaineering snowshoes feature a more aggressive crampon as well as a heel rest, for steep trails. Recreational snowshoes are typically lighter, with easy-on, easy-off binding systems, while running snowshoes tend to be featherweight and more narrow.

“Larger snowshoes offer more float over powdery or deep snow, and are good if you’re carrying a large pack,” said Bailey. “The more you weigh, with or without a pack, the more float or surface area you generally need. However, large shoes are heavier, both on your feet or strapped to your pack when you’re not using them.

“Smaller, more streamlined designs are better for moving faster over packed snow, but are not as good for heavier weight or deeper, more powdery snow,” he said. “The type of binding and crampons, if any, are also considerations. Technical, mountainous approaches will require more aggressive snowshoes than open fields or groomed courses.”

While snowshoes can be used virtually anywhere there’s snow, including golf courses and conservation areas, they really need at least 6 to 8 inches to be effective. Hubbard, who lives in northeast Connecticut, has access to hundreds of federally preserved acres along the Quinebaug River out his backdoor. The Trustees offer dozens of ideal snowshoeing properties in eastern Massachusetts, from the coastline (Crane Beach in Ipswich and World’s End Reservation in Hingham) to inland (Noanet Woodlands in Dover and the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard).

REI hosts several snowshoeing classes in January at the Trustees’ Appleton Farms in Hamilton/Ipswich, and another Jan. 22 at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, N.H.

There are also numerous state-managed parcels where you can frolic in the fluff, including Harold Parker State Forest (Andover, North Andover, North Reading, and Middleton), Odiorne State Park (Portsmouth, N.H.), Leominster State Forest (Westminster, Princeton, Leominster, Fitchburg, and Sterling), Myles Standish State Forest (Plymouth and Carver), Freetown-Fall River State Forest (Assonet), F. Gilbert Hills State Forest (Foxborough and Wrentham), Wrentham State Forest (Wrentham and Plainville), and Upton State Forest.

“Snowshoeing is probably a little more difficult at first than most people might think,” said Bailey. “There is a certain learning curve with the coordination of large swinging things on your feet, as well getting used to the depth at which the shoes sink in various types of snow.

“It’s about how to walk efficiently rather than fighting the snow pack,” he said. “But it’s pretty intuitive, and easier to become proficient at than Nordic skiing.”

For more information on these and other state-owned parcels, visit mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks.
If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at brionoc@verizon.net. Please allow several weeks advance notice.