Snowshoeing may not have the same high profile as skiing, but the number of snowshoe enthusiasts in Montana is growing as it is in other states. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' "Becoming An Outdoors Woman" program, the Montana Discovery Foundation and other groups offer classes for beginners and host snowshoe hikes.
These new snowshoers are in good company. The number of snowshoe enthusiasts has grown by 93 percent since 1998, according to a national study. Forty-four percent of participants are women, and 5.9 million people over the age of 16 go snowshoeing today.
So what is the appeal?
Snowshoeing is simple and hassle free. If you can walk you can snowshoe. Strap on your snowshoes and you don't have to post hole through the forest, or risk a leg in those black holes formed by willows and deadfall. Snowshoes set you free. You get to see moose nibbling ripening red dogwood buds, winter birds and the general comings and goings of wintering wildlife. You can walk along an iced-over mountain stream and hear the water whispering under the ice.
Being mobile in the snow is also serious exercise. You can burn an estimated 420-1,000 calories an hour snowshoeing, about 45 percent more than walking or running at the same speed. Be assured, none of those calories are burned weight lifting heavy snowshoes.
Our grandfather's steamed wood and rawhide-strung relics are history, replaced by aircraft-grade aluminum, nylon laminate and PVC webbing, molded bindings and easy-pull camlock and ratchet buckles. Today's snowshoes may cost from $75 to $300. A good recreational pair will run about $100. There are even kid-friendly snowshoes for children as young as three years old.
Snowshoeing alone one-on-one with nature can be as much fun as it is in a group. But for those who prefer a group experience, and are new to the sport, one of the best ways to find fellow snowshoe enthusiasts is to take a snowshoeing course and network while you're there.
Make plans with your new friends to visit familiar hiking trails and build up to more difficult trails and new areas. Snowshoeing trails in Montana can be found on maps and on the Internet. Most national forests have recreational trail information on their web sites.
Whether you go snowshoeing with others or on your own, planning a safe trip is the first priority. If snowshoeing is your first winter outdoor recreation experience, study up on how to dress and prepare for winter sports in Montana.
* check the weather, including night and day temperatures,
* dress in layers including a wicking layer and a water and wind proof layer,
* drink plenty of liquids and carry high-energy snacks as hypothermia and exhaustion can sneak up on you when recreating outdoors in the winter,
* always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return,
* learn how to recognize avalanche areas, and remember
* days are shorter in the winter so take care to be back to your car before dark.
Familiarize yourself with the route you plan to take and pack a trail map in case the landscape is hard to recognize under the snowy conditions.Whether you want to enjoy the outdoors alone in winter or with the family, snowshoeing can be a simple, social, and safe sport.