Snowshoeing in the Finger Lakes: A Beginner’s Guide

If you think snowshoeing is for hunters, loggers or mountaineers only, it’s time you tried a pair and got out on some trails. You’d be joining 4 million other Americans (last year’s count, according to SnowSports Industries) who strap them on to enjoy running, walking and hiking in wintry weather.

It’s easy to see why snowshoeing for fun is on the rise. First, it’s affordable. A top-of-the-line pair of snowshoes can be purchased for $200 or less, roughly the cost of a weekend’s lift ticket and equipment rental at a ski resort.

If you don’t want to commit before trying them out, you can rent snowshoes. Eastern Mountain Sports offers good one-day or multiday rates. (Visit for more information, and to find a store near you.)

Third, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy snowshoeing. “If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” the saying goes, and it is no exaggeration. First-timers can participate the minute they strap ’shoes on their feet, and, after only a few hours of practice, they can keep pace with experienced snowshoers (versus a few months or even years for other winter sports).

Affordability combined with a short learning curve makes snowshoeing a remarkably family friendly activity. Even the shortest legs in the troop are able to keep up, and the longest won’t get too far ahead. There’s little to worry about as far as the group getting strung out.

Like running, snowshoeing is a great aerobic exercise. Unlike running, there is no risk of high-impact injuries like stress fractures.

As with all forms of winter exercise, snowshoeing is effective in the prevention and treatment of seasonal affective disorder, a complaint with which residents of the Finger Lakes are very familiar, especially if they spend most of the winter cooped up indoors.

Best of all, a number of scenic and easily accessible snowshoeing venues are spread across our region. Finger Lakes residents are blessed with a number of easy-to- moderate trails that wind their way through scenic parks. (Note: these trails are often shared with cross-country skiers. An important point of etiquette for snowshoers is that they steer clear of skiers’ set tracks; a small courtesy that costs very little but buys a great deal of good will.)

Green Lakes State Park – Located within easy driving distance of Syracuse, this park is north of Fayetteville in the Town of Manlius. It offers visitors access to the Round Lake National Landmark, 800 acres of old growth forest and a big view of Oneida Lake. GPS parking coordinates are 43.05870 -75.97143.

Camillus Unique Area – Located west of Syracuse on the grounds of the old Syracuse State School, it offers a climb through an open area to a nice view of the city, followed by trails leading through a regenerating forest. GPS parking coordinates are 43.06996 -76.27723.

Taughannock Falls State Park – This Tompkins County park is extremely popular for three-season use. Visit on snowshoes to experience the park without the crowds. A two-mile loop trail is accessible from either the parking lot on Rice Hill near the skating ponds (GPS coordinates 42.54293 -76.61392), or the lot at the falls overlook (GPS coordinates 42.53877 -76.60802).

Bare Hill Unique Area – On the eastern side of Canandaigua Lake midway between Canandaigua and Naples, the trails up Bare Hill provide an expansive view of the lake to the west. GPS parking coordinates are 42.74670 -77.30264.

Ganondagan State Historic Site – The trails southeast of Rochester, at a mid17th-century settlement site of the Seneca people, traverse rolling grasslands and forest. GPS parking coordinates are 42.96128 -77.41324. For a slightly more strenuous hike culminating in a big view towards Canandaigua, park at 42.96129 -77.43210 and follow the Granary Trail up Fort Hill.

Your Equipment

Snowshoes – Anyone who has seen a pair of wood and rawhide snowshoes understands why the French word for this footwear is raquette. If you have that image in mind, you might be surprised when you first see today’s contemporary designs – they don’t really resemble racquets at all.

There are two basic variations; both come in multiple dimensions. In the first, a segment of Hypalon, a type of trademarked synthetic rubber, is suspended within a frame of aluminum tubing. In the second, the entire body of the shoe is composed of a piece of injection molded plastic. Picture a piece of corrugated roofing panel, but made of thick plastic rather than metal.

An 8-by-30-inch snowshoe is probably the most common, and is a good size for first-timers. It is large enough to provide some floatation when the snow conditions are soft and powdery, but not so large that it’s awkward when trails are packed and icy.

In addition to the differences in form, contemporary snowshoes are better on packed and icy trails than traditional models, thanks to the addition of crampons. Snowshoe crampons are not sharp and long like mountaineering crampons. Rather, they are 1/2-inch- to 3/4-inch-long metal teeth that provide enough grip to keep the user’s feet up under him or her, even after the snow has been packed down, or has gone through several freeze-thaw cycles.

A typical arrangement includes a crampon riveted in the Hypalon behind the wearer’s heel, and another at the wear’s forefoot beneath the binding.

While modern snowshoes are remarkably free of hassle, the bindings can be a tiny bit of a hassle from time to time. The goal is a secure fit that is not so cinched down as to cut off circulation to toes and lead to cold injury. This is not to say that getting into snowshoe bindings properly is rocket science. But before you walk out of the door of the store, take the time to practice getting in and out of them with whoever you buy them from.

Long underwear – The most important piece of clothing for winter outdoor recreation is probably the first to go on. A good pair of long underwear keeps the wearer warm by moving sweat away from the skin and drying quickly. Underwear made from light merino wool, polypropylene, or polyester (available under a variety of trademarked names) functions ideally for this purpose. Cotton does not! In fact, cotton underwear will make the wearer colder after it becomes wet with sweat, because cotton dries slowly and holds a large volume of moisture relative to its weight.

Outerwear – When choosing outerwear, remember that snowshoeing is a high energy output activity. In other words, snowshoeing in ski bibs and a parka quickly leads to the boil-in-a-bag effect! A medium-weight sweater or a nylon windbreaker with a fuzzy lining is a good choice for a typical winter day in the Finger Lakes.

Socks and boots – As long as the temperature is not truly frigid, un-insulated footwear such as trail runners can work well for snowshoeing. Pack boots are another good choice, and often include a notch at the Achilles to help hold the back strap of a snowshoe binding in place. Footwear should not be tight, and a thin liner sock combined with a medium or heavyweight wool sock will keep dampness and cold at bay. Seriously consider the purchase of a pair of gaiters (a passable pair should run $30 to $40) to prevent snow from entering your boots and socks, then melting.

Hat and gloves/mittens – A pair of wool gloves worn with a thin liner will work for most snowshoers. If you’re prone to cold hands, consider mitts rather than gloves. A lightweight beanie will keep wind off your ears, and a pair of sunglasses helps prevent headaches caused by sunlight reflecting off the snowpack.

Just in case
Even if you will only be out for an hour or two, you should still tote along these important extras.
• A map is a necessity when trails are out-of-sight of roads and houses.
• A light snack is optional, but some water or energy drink is a must. Liquids need to be carried in a thermos, or stashed inside a pack lest they freeze. A CamelBak-type hydration reservoir is an option, as long as you clear the water from the tubing after each drink by blowing it back into the reservoir.
• You’ll appreciate a Gore-Tex shell jacket and balaclava if the wind kicks up.
• Chemical “shake it” hand warmers are also a nice just-in-case option.
• A small headlamp or flashlight will ease your nerves if you find yourself still out there when evening sets in.
• A bookbag-sized daypack provides more than enough space for these extras. Lumbar (aka, “fanny”) packs are also quite popular among recreational snowshoers. They are a “just right” size for the items I’ve mentioned, though they might prove a bit small if you’re carrying extra for children.

by Matthew Timothy Bradley

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