First time snowshoeing and backpacking

10:09 p.m. on January 20, 2008 (EST)
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I’m looking at buying my first set of snowshoes for a backpacking trip I’m planning in a few weeks in the Porcupine mountains in Upper Michagan. I’ve snowshoewed twice before, but only for a mile or two on level ground and never with a lot of gear on my back. I do most of my winter backpacking in Wisconsin and haven’t ventured to the UP in winter due to the fact that much of it receives 200+ inches of snow a year.

First, I’m looking for a good set of snowshoes. I’m planning a 4-5 day hike and plan on hiking most of the day on each of these days. I generally do most of my walking off trails, so I imagine that would play some part in my selection as well. Because it’s pretty cold up there, my winter load is usually approx 50 lbs. The terrain where I’m going is quite uneven so I would imagine a quality set would be in order. Someone mentioned to me that the Atlas 10 snowshoes were pretty decent, but heavy. Does anyone have any other recommendations or would I be pretty happy with these? Is there any specific features I’m looking for?

Also, I realize from the other two times I’ve tried snowshoeing that I’ll be hurting at the end of the first day and I can only imagine how I’ll feel by the end of day 5. I realize that an off trail hike with a lot of gear and only one other person to help break trail that it is a pretty ambitious trip. I’ll be out of town for most of the time before the trip, so I’ll only have one or two days to train with whatever snowshoes I select before I go. Is there any specific exercises I can do for the next two weeks while I’m on the road? I’m in pretty good shape, but as I remember, snowshoeing uses some muscles that don’t seem to get used much. Anything I can do to target these areas would likely allow me to cover more ground and have a lot more fun. Any suggestions here, or is the real thing the only thing to do here?

11:28 p.m. on January 20, 2008 (EST)
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I don't want to be a kill-joy, but is seams to me that your training should have begun some time ago. Just as one should not start out on a multi-day hike in new boots, using new snowshoes for the first time on a multi-day trip may not be the best thing to do.

Due to the short length you described, I must assume that your previous experience on 'shoes did not include a 50# pack. You may want to see what this is like before going. It's slow. Shin-splints are pretty common as well. Poles help with balance. Some old schoolers resist their use, but they work well for balancing while wearing a heavy pack.

If you do decide to go on your trip. Remember to purchase snoshoes that are of the proper weight rating for you AND your 50+ lbs of gear. Longer shoes are better for deeper powder, but they can be heavier than smaller ones. They get annoying on packed trails too.

There are a lot of different types of snowshoes. Heavier treking shoes are usually built better than the lighter racing type. If you sacrifice strength for weight and your shoe breaks back of beyond - you didn't save anything. Make sure you can repair anything that may break on your shoes - frame, decking, bindings, poles etc.

Caution, caution, caution. File an itinerary. Carry cell phone, a map, compass and safety equipment.

11:42 p.m. on January 20, 2008 (EST)
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I think that f klock has nailed it, your planned trip is beyond your current capabilities and you should start with several trips of a single over-night each and then 2-3 nights and work up. Begin with areas close to home where you can bail if you find it too harsh at first, don't worry, the skills and emotional attributes needed for this type of camping WILL come, if you go slow....we all had to begin somewhere.

I have been doing this type of trip since 1970 and I would suggest Faber of Quebec 10x36" modified bearpaws or Northern Lites "high tech" shoes of the same size. I have put MANY hard miles on Fabers and they work very well in such conditions. The mountaineering shoes I use here in BC tend to be too heavy and slow moving for the shuffle-style motion you want to develop on those trails.

Pushing too hard at first can get you into DEEP doo-doo, take it easy.

12:38 a.m. on January 21, 2008 (EST)
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I owned a pair of Atlas 1025's. In my brief experience with them, they are good snowshoes for backpacking in winter. I sold them and bought skis, but that is no reflection on the shoes, just my preference.

50 lbs. is a lot to carry on shoes; I couldn't do it, but I'm not very big. Snowshoeing takes a lot of energy, especially in soft snow. I now tow a sled with most of my stuff in it instead of carrying a heavy pack.

Get trekking poles if you don't have a pair. If you fall over wearing a big pack and snowshoes in deep snow, it will take forever to get back up-firsthand experience. I fell even with them, so without them, I almost guarantee you will at some point.

If you aren't an experienced winter camper, or even if you are, get a copy of Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book. It is about half skiing, which won't interest you, but the other half on winter camping has lots of tips and done in a cartoon style, so it is a fun read and it's cheap.

11:08 a.m. on January 21, 2008 (EST)
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I have a pair of atlas snowshoes and they work very well, I prefer them to similar shoes by Tubbs as I found the bindings on the Atlas shoes to work better for me. You may wish to consider renting shoes rather than buying.

I've also been to the porkies on several occasions, summer and winter. What part are you headed to? Skip the pack and pull your gear in a sled. Just get a plastic kids sled and rope and pull it all behind you. Carrying a winter load on your back is really hard. I've done it both ways and sleds are easier.

You can have a great winter experience in the porkies without heading very far into the bush. You may wish to set up a base camp closer to the park headquarters and then go out on day hikes. Tearing down camp each morning and setting camp up in the evening takes a lot of effort. I'd encourage you to go, but make your trip easy and don't get in over your head.

11:44 a.m. on January 21, 2008 (EST)
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Great information shared on this thread so far. I am in the planning stages of a snow-shoe backpacking trip as well.

I just might try this sled idea :)

12:51 p.m. on January 21, 2008 (EST)
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I forgot about the sled deal! - We did that back in like nineteen seventysomething - (Longer ago than I'd like to admit.)

From experience, pulling a sled with a rope is a pain in the...well you know what I mean. Uphill is fine, but while going downhill, or when you stop abruptly, the sled slides forward and can take you off your feet.

Try adding a 4-6 foot section of 1/2 inch pvc or light aluminum tubing (clothsline props work well) over the rope on each side of the sled. You can attach the loose ends to the sides of a pack belt or even a lightweight climbing harness via carabiners.

Drill some extra holes in the edge of the sled to lash your gear down.

I stole the idea from the ski patrol. Their stretchers are affixed this way. It also works for dogs too!

This system works really well when using trekking poles. you can use all 4 limbs to aid in forward motion.

Another benefit: You can ride the sled down longer, not-too-steep slopes!

I'm going to build a new sled today!!!

1:26 p.m. on January 21, 2008 (EST)
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A lot has already been covered well, but here are a few more points:

As already mentioned, your trip sounds rather ambitious to me (50 lbs, off-trail, 4-5 days straight), and especially so for a first time. I like the basecamp idea though, as well as the sled. That way you can hike in a short distance (or no distance) and have the luxury of not carrying a full pack during the day and working on your winter camping skills in a safer way.

Will your companion be an experienced winter backpacker/camper? Have you ever done it? If not, don’t take on too much too soon. Going out with an experienced group or friend is a great way to get into stuff like this.

I second Tom’s recommendation of reading a book (or several) like “Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book” or the “AMC Guide to Winter Camping.” While book reading will not give you the direct experience for winter camping, it can provide a lot of valuable info. I’d highly recommend “Freedom of the Hills” for comprehensive info.

Since your snowshoeing experience is limited I highly recommend doing a rental or demo before buying to see what you like about particular models. I know you’re eager to get the gear and get out there, but to make good gear choices you need to know what does and doesn’t work for you and your needs.

If you’ll be doing regular off-trail, steep, heavy-duty hiking and backpacking, you’ll need a backcountry model of snowshoes (http://www.trailspace.com/gear/snowshoes/backcountry/). There are a number of good ones, as mentioned above (I personally really like my MSR Lightning Ascents, which come in men’s and women’s models). But ultimately you have to decide what features you need and prefer in a snowshoe based on how you’ll use it, what bindings you like best, and so on. With my MSR’s I love the heel lifter (excellent when climbing), good traction, and the fact that it comes in a women’s model too.

Trailspace also has a “How to Choose Snowshoes” article at http://www.trailspace.com/gear/guide/snowshoes.html

It’s already been said, but I heartily agree so I’ll repeat it—Start slow and build up from there. You want to have a safe and positive experience outdoors, and there’s less room for error in winter.

I love snowshoeing and winter camping is excellent. So I hope you have a safe and great time with whatever you choose to do. Please let us know how it goes.

8:24 p.m. on January 21, 2008 (EST)
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In my experience, sleds work better on flat ground or frozen lakes. You can handle moderate uphills OK. I keep a tow rope tied to the rear of the sled as well, and on the moderate downhills I let the sled slide down in front of me, or sometimes even ride it down.

Much of the Porkies is to steep for sleds, except closer to Lake Superior. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to walk the hilly areas with a 50 pound pack, either. Base camping sounds like a better idea to me.

I second the motion regarding more training. A good way to ruin a trip is to overuse muscles in a way they haven't been overused before.

Have a safe and enjoyable trip.

10:12 a.m. on January 22, 2008 (EST)
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When I used a sled in the Porkies I only had ropes to pull it rather than a rigid harness system. A rigid system is certainly preferable, but I managed the hills, both up and down, with a minimal amount of swearing. Anything beats humping a winter load on your back. In the porkies in the winter, true with most places I would imagine, you do not need to go far into the bush to get away from nearly everyone.

11:04 a.m. on January 22, 2008 (EST)
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You don't really need a heavy pack for winter camping, here is what I carry for 3 day trips here in BC.

Hilleberg Soulo tent-4 lbs. 6 oz. or ID MKI-XL @ 4-12

Exped Downmat Deluxe 9-3 2

Integral Designs XPDII custom bag- 4 9

Brunton Nova-Snowpeak pots, Ti spoon, fuel- about 2 8

First Aid-Emerg. Kit 3 lbs.

Clothing-4 lbs. plus worn

Food-about 7-8 lbs. for 3 days, I like some luxuries.

Water bottle full 3 lbs.

What else do you need?

Total= About 32-33 lbs. plus pack and snowshoe and poles, not a huge weight and you "can" trim this if you want, I just prefer to have certain items with me.

I would estimate that most of my total pack weights in all seasons, except hunting, go around 40 lbs., all in, this gives me the tools, goodies and gear I enjoy having on a trip. I can and have gone for 5 day treks in the most rugged, trackless places in BC, with 45 lbs. total and with everything I wanted.

I have used toboggans in the mountains and find that they are often more trouble than functional, using a good pack like a Mystery Ranch makes it easier, IME.

1:42 p.m. on January 22, 2008 (EST)
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I've since picked up lighter gear, but at the time I used what I had. Old school polarguard bag for example was over 6 pounds, Eureka dome tent was at least 10 pounds, Optimus 111 is heavy but bombproof. The lack of cash at the time prevented me from obtaining lighter gear.

1:53 p.m. on January 22, 2008 (EST)
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Bud, I started with crap that you would not give to your worst enemy, I KNOW where you are coming from!

I am actually going to buy another 111 for my hunting camp as nothing works quite as well, but, do you notice that they seem a LOT heavier than they USED to be!!!! :)

4:29 p.m. on January 22, 2008 (EST)
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Sorry it took a bit for me to get back to you. To answer you're question, I have quite a bit of winter camping experience usually doing several 3-7 day trips each winter. The issue is that I usually do this in northern Wisconsin where there is only 6-12 inches of snow and I haven't had to bother with snowshoes. The only new thing for me would be the snowshoeing which it sounds like will be a bit of a challenge given the terrain. I'd still rather make a full trip rather than set up a basecamp (setting up and tearing down camp on a cold dark night/early morning is half the fun right), but It sounds like I should be pretty conservative regarding how much ground we cover. By the way, I love the sled idea, any other suggestions like that would be greatly appreciated. I do have a sled that I've used for hauling deer out of the woods which would work perfect, I just never thought about using it for my pack. I even have a harness that I rigged up for it, probably best not to use it near any of the cliffs though!!!

I do plan to be conservative about the ground we cover, but is there any specific exercises that I can do between now and then that will allow me to cover more ground when I get there or is the only way to work the required muscles to go out there and snowshoe. I ask because I'm on the road for work right now till a couple of days before I leave. I do quite a bit of running and biking, but it seems like snowshoeing makes you sore in differant areas than running and biking, but I have a hard time thinking up a more similar exercise that I can do on the road.

4:30 p.m. on January 22, 2008 (EST)
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That old polarguard bag was heavy and bulky, but I never slept cold while in it and for that I have very fond memories of using the bag. Even inside a Lowe compression sack the bag was huge. I paid about $100 for it from REI and that was very real money at the time. I'm pleased to have moved onto ligher gear.

111's are certainly heavy, but they remain one of my all time favorite stoves. They always light and they never break. I use them mainly on canoe trips or winter camping if I'm pulling a sled and weight isn't a huge issue.

2:10 a.m. on January 23, 2008 (EST)
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WISam, I'm no expert snowshoer,but really,snowshoeing on flat or slight rolling terrain is not much more than walking with really big things on your feet. It is a bit awkward and yes, walking through soft snow is tiring, but it is walking, plain and simple. Anyone who tries to make it seem more complicated than that is kidding themselves.

First time I used mine, I put them on, figured out how to turn around and take a few steps without stepping on my own feet and off I went. In soft snow, it's more about balance than anything and remembering to pick up your feet high enough to clear the snow-that does get tiring.

Sleds-you can buy one or make one from a kid's sled. There are few websites that have plans, sell complete sleds and components. Ed at http://www.skipulk.com is a good source for parts. Since you already have one, why not use it?

I made mine from a blue sled I got at Sports Authority, plus some bits and pieces from Home Depot-eyebolts, links, pvc pipe, end caps and glue. I use two biners to attach the poles to my hipbelt loops. Total cost about $25. I had the biners already. You can spend way more for a fancy sled with stainless marine fittings and a cover, but for casual use, something like mine is fine.

If you get ambitious, you can add fins on the bottom or put what look like catamaran daggerboards on the side to control slipsliding. I haven't done that yet, but have seen pictures of how to do it.

7:50 a.m. on January 23, 2008 (EST)
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I pop-riveted two lengths of triangular aluminum stock to the bottom of my sled to prevent side slip. Makes the sled stiffer while going over little ditches and gullies too. I ran the (8mm) rope all the way around the sled, through holes I drilled, using an in and out pattern. I thought this might take the strain off of just 2 points at the front, and, it gives unlimited tie down options. I also added brass grommets where I drilled the holes, thinking that it might add some strength to the holes. Not a proven method yet, but I'll see once we get some real snow here in PA. Biners on the hip belt IS the way to go here too.

If you use your sled a lot, there are companies that sell 1/16" -1/8" thick polyethelene(sp?) sheeting. You can attach that to the bottom for extra wear resistance and toughness. We use it on the bottom of our basket stretcher for wilderness evacuations. Actually, you could make a roll-up type sled out of the stuff alone. OK, I'm done....

9:02 p.m. on February 28, 2008 (EST)
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Just got back from my snowshoe/backpack trip to the Porcupine Mountains a few weeks ago and wanted to say thanks to everyone who helped answer some of my questions about the trip. I ended up going with the Atlas 12 snowshoes which worked out great. Got a great deal on them too!! ($190) with a $19 rebate on top of that).

The thing that surprised us the most was the depth of the powder up there. Where I’m from (Milwaukee) we typically have a hard crust on the snow due to thaws or the occasional rain shower. There was no crust on the snow and we had a good 3 feet of powder all the way to the ground. What surprised me was how unevenly you sink into the ground with the snowshoes. One step, you may sink a foot or so into the snow. The next time you may step on top of a fallen tree that was completely hidden by the snow and you may only sink 6 inches. On another step you may step on the edge of something and I could see easily twisting you’re ankle if you try to go too fast. On the trails the walking was relatively easy, but off the trails, it’s amazing how many obstacles the snow hides till you step on them. The route we ended up taking took us from the ski area north to Lake Superior. From there we followed the lakeshore west till we hit Buckshot landing roughly 8 miles west of where we started. Right along the shore the walking was pretty easy as it was flat and treeless. We wouldn’t have been able to cover the first 8 miles so quickly if we had been in the woods as there are no trails in this area. By the way, Alan The sled idea worked out great. On the flat ground near the shoreline it was almost like I wasn’t dragging any weight at all. From Buckshot landing we took the Lake superior trail back northwest till we hit M-107 which is closed this time of year due to snow. Still quite a bit of Snowmobile traffic thought so we ducked off on the X/C ski trails whenever we could. Overall, it was a great and I’m actually planning on giving it another try in a couple of weeks.

All together we covered 15 or so miles. Unfortunately we could only pull off three days. For the next trip I actually managed to get 8 consecutive days off of work!!!

4:58 a.m. on February 29, 2008 (EST)
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I've had great fun backpacking with skis in various terrain, and feel that snow shoes are a real killjoy. But I've never skied with the super heavy load described.

Skiing really isn't feasible with an honest-to-gosh 50-pound load except maybe on the flats, or for a true expert, the likes of which obviously don't spend much time posting on Trailspace.

At moderately significant downhill speeds, falling, which is inevitable, even with a fairly light pack, can be extremely unpleasant.

Overnights, obviously, are a good way to get a handle on one's rig before a major trip, and doing so may be critically important.

7:57 a.m. on February 29, 2008 (EST)
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I'm glad you had such a good trip, WISam! Thanks for letting all of us know how it went (I always wonder how people’s trips actually went when they come here and ask for gear advice or info in advance).

Glad to hear the sled worked well for the terrain too.

Have fun planning your next eight-day trip…

2:52 p.m. on March 2, 2008 (EST)
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WISam, check out a site called The Rucksack. From looking at the site it seems there is a small but pretty hard core group of people based around Lake Superior. I haven't been able to meet up with them or make any trips because of work and my next chance will be next winter. I'm hoping to make at least one winter trip out near Grand Marais or Munising next year with these guys, or possibly in Canada if they head over that way. I'm looking at the International Bridge and Ontario as I type.

9:24 a.m. on March 6, 2008 (EST)
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WISam, glad to hear the trip went well, thanks for checking in.

dm1333, I've backpacked with folks via the Rucksack and they are a great group. I'm hoping to do so again this fall.

1:16 p.m. on March 6, 2008 (EST)
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Nice to hear that you had a good trip, the surprise at the amount of snow kinda made me chuckle as that was one thig I was trying to get at in my initial post.

Even though the departed critic of everyone's experiences seemed to disagree, a shocking surprise to ME, (grins), my friends and I often used to ski into various wilderness parks here in B.C. with 50+ loads. I stopped doing this after my last fractured leg, not bush involved and stayed with good snowshoes.

I have never found them to be anything other than a LOT of fun and they can get you into and OUT OF some really wonderful experiences.

3:07 p.m. on March 6, 2008 (EST)
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NOLS teaches their winter trips on skis, students pull sleds and carry packs. Skis in an area like the Porkies aren't a real good choice due to the terain.

10:05 p.m. on March 18, 2008 (EDT)
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I have never been to the Porkies, but I wonder how the terrain can be so bad that skis are not a good choice? Where I live in Norway we have mountains also, and we all do skiing in them. This weekend my wife and me did a two days trip in the mountains of about 70 km. With snow-shoes this would have taken much longer time. At least three days, probably four.

11:42 a.m. on March 19, 2008 (EDT)
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Otto -
Norway has much more open terrain and (in my limited experience there and in your neighbor Sweden) well defined paths. The Porcupines (Porkies) have a lot of tangled brush and undergrowth, as does much of British Columbia where kutenay hangs out. In such conditions, having those long boards that get tangled in the vegetation is a serious problem. And you can't really get the advantage of gliding that skis give you in more open terrain and well-defined paths.

12:13 p.m. on March 19, 2008 (EDT)
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Ah, Norway, land of my Viking forefathers, who discovered North America, invented skis and built the most beautiful ships/boats ever seen. The one foreign country, more than any other, I want to visit is Norway and I have lots of relatives there, stout fellas.

The whole question of understory or $#@!#^&% "buckbrush" and "devil's club" is what really makes skis less functional in most of B.C., as Bill points out; this is why I now use only snowshoes and don't worry about speed of travel as I am too dam old to care!

BTW, do they still brew "Frydenlund" in Norway?

8:03 p.m. on March 19, 2008 (EDT)
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Yes kutenay, they still brew and drink Frydenlund beer in Oslo. It is a bit of distance to where I live, so they do not sell it in shops where I live (north Norway)

True we ski more in the aeras above tree level, and my trip was in these areas. Here it is mostly low birch bush that may be of a problem for skiing.

May be I would leave my skis at home if I came to your area, or maybe you would prefer skis if skis were something you had been using for more than 50 years. It could be a matter of tradition. We are used to master it from the age of tree, you are perhaps not.

We use skis not only in defined paths, and btw here in my area there is only paths near the biggest towns. A ski track needs no more than the space of a normal walk-path. Would be interesting to see what "buckbrush" is.

If you come and visit my area, I would be happy to show you around. In addition to fjords and mountains we have the most unbelievable fishing conditons for those who fancy that. http://home.c2i.net/rune.dahl/saltstraumen2.html This place is only 30 miute driving from my home, and fishing in sea is free for anyone.

Norway have very liberal rules for camping. It is allowed to put up a tent anywhere except on farmed fields and near houses and populated places. (100 meters)

But I admit, snowshoes are used by some also here. But I have seen only one person on it, and he was german!

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