So you have your first pair of running snowshoes. You just received that first winter snow storm and you are itching to get outside and try those snowshoes out. But the next thing to consider is what to wear?
From my time snowshoe running, this is a much more important topic than you think. It is also one that could go down many rabbit holes, so I will try and be as concise but also as developed as possible. Snowshoe running is an amazing activity for us runners and it takes us away from the treadmills and out into Mother Nature to enjoy some brisk, cold winter landscapes. But like anything, there are risks associated with not dressing properly.
The big one is frostnip and hyperthermia. Snowshoe running kicks up snow and that snow like in my photo up above winds up on your backside. Often being out in cold temps and nasty wind chills, moisture is your enemy. But as we exert ourselves in snowshoes, it is pretty hard not to work up a sweat. Luckily, shorter runs and races, you can often get-away with wearing less. For Snowshoe marathons and ultras, approach this from the preparation of something like a 100 miler. It is always better to have more gear and changes of clothes with you to one of these races than to be stuck shivering to death. Here are some of my bullet-point tips to have an enjoyable time out on the snow:
- Focus on Layers and insulating your backside.
- Wear gear that sheds water–Breathable water repellency is often better than waterproof.
- Softshell jackets are a thing of beauty.
- Practice what you wear in training so that you can race well.
- Do not overdress
- Extremities are more important than you think.
- Merino Wool Socks and Gaiters-give them a go.
- Vests can be the best.
- Do not forget about good underwear.
- The hood can be your saving grace.
Everyone runs different in terms of how they heat-up and how much. Snowshoe running is a high-intensity aerobic activity. Often when I finish a race, steam is radiating from my body. You exert and lose a lot of heat. Some may need more layers, others, may not. When you look at most snowshoe races, racers are not wearing that much. For most, that is because you heat-up quickly and for a shorter distance of 5k-10k, you are outside for maybe 20 minutes to 2 hours so accumulated “dampness” that might occur is not as great as a long endurance snowshoe event that spans 4+ hours.
Layers, Layers, Layers. A great baselayer is where it starts. I love my Craft Baselayers and have been wearing them ever since I got into the sport. A blend between Wool and Synthetic is good though I often slant more to a synthetic as wool, I feel is better in keeping moisture from entering in. You want breathability here, a next to skin type of fit and something that is warm and insulating even when wet. This is your primary defense in feeling comfortable snowshoeing. After that, I usually wear a thermal midlayer (one with a hood) and then some type of windbreaker, softshell running jacket, or a light insulated vest or shell vest. The goal with your layers are to breathe and move moisture out from your body. Zippers are great to ventilate but BE CAREFUL: In very cold temperatures, venting too much when you are sweating and really cold can flash-freeze yourself and you are more likely to get frostnip and/or suffer from hyperthermia. Once it gets below 20 degrees F, is when I start to think about adding another layer-maybe a t-shirt underneath my midlayer. Sub zero requires a much different approach often looking to focus on wind-blocking and thermal wear that traps more body heat. Buffs are a must-have in those cold temps to protect your neck and face.
Wear gear that repels water. Some Might run with a waterproof jacket. You can but I prefer breathability because if it is cold enough and you sweat enough underneath that Waterproof jacket, the moisture could collect and refreeze inside your jacket. A breathable windbreaker in my opinion works better. Tights are important. I like wind tights or pants that are made of a softshell material or a hybrid of thermal fleece with wind panels. These are great as they keep snow from collecting on you. You can find these types of pants on Amazon but I am partial to brands like Sugoi or Craft.
I like softshell material because it incorporates stretch, is thicker and warmer than your regular light wind shell a lot of us runners use. I get cold easier than others so warmer layers work great for me. Softshell material you often find in outdoor brands like Patagonia, The North Face, Columbia Sportswear, Mammut, Marmot and others
When I train in snowshoes, I often wear more than what I would race in. The reason is to experiment with different layering systems to find out what works best in what conditions. Then come race day, I can really be selective with what I wear. Each article of clothing has a distinct purpose that is different from the next. That way, you are not just throwing layers on to throw them on. Remember, you want to be mobile too.
Do not overdress. Most athletes in snowshoe running race in a lightweight longsleeve shirt with a singlet over it, winter beanie, gloves, and tights. You can wear this and be just fine. We warm-up like 10 degrees from the air temperature so try and dress accordingly. Again, any of your winter running outside is a try-out period to get your snowshoe outfit dialed in.
Extremities. Gloves , hats, socks. We lose a ton of heat through our head and hands and feet. Investing on solid gear here is in my opinion crucial in snowshoe running. Winter beanies are easy to come by and most will do just fine. I do like merino wool blended hats here as wool blocks some of the water molecules from entering and that means your noggin stays warm longer. In real cold, hats like my orange Dion hat has fleece on the inside and that helps keep me warmer longer. For gloves, I look to ski brands like Spyder or Nordic ski brands like Hestra, Swix for my gloves. I also love the gloves that can be mitts. The convertible gloves into mitts are awesome and I use most of the time for snowshoe running. If your hands are warm, you can open up the mitt and run with the glove, but mitts are always warmer than regular gloves. I have even been using insulated gloves like from C.A.M.P that are amazing for those long or sub zero temps. I often look to the gear used in Nordic Skiing as inspiration for snowshoe running, especially with gloves. With socks, I usually wear 2 socks: One that is a synthetic running sock or compression sock then a merino wool-blended sock over that one. The merino keeps out moisture and even melted snow that might try and come into your shoes.
Your feet are crucial. I have been with Fits socks as an athlete since 2012 and love their merino wool blended socks. Wool is warm, anti-stink and repels water so in many ways a perfect fiber for protecting your feet with snowshoe running. Gaiters are great too. For my snowshoe 100 mile run, I am looking into buying water-proof hiking gaiters that are lightweight but can protect my feet as well as my legs from all of the snow that gets kicked-up. The longer you go in snowshoes, the more likely that fighting moisture through sweat and from melting snow on your body becomes more of a task to manage. Great gaiters can help protect you for the miles ahead.
Vests are best. Why do I love vests for snowshoe running? They are that layer that has less fabric than a standard jacket, and they help insulate your core. Vests come in all types of styles from Down, Synthetic Down, Softshell, Hardshell, Wind-breakers, and Fleece. I like the vests that are water resistant. Block out that moisture. Synthetic down is great in colder temps as it still keeps you warm when wet, whereas standard down loses its loft and properties the wetter it gets. Vests are easy to put on and off, and I find can be that one extra layer that just makes snowshoe running enjoyable in -20 degrees F vs freezing to death. Vests also do not restrict your movement so I find are great for running.
Good underwear?? Really Cole??? Yes , really. I am not saying go to a designer store and get some undies. But hear me out. Just that like that core baselayer you have up top, do not forget about your bottom. Both are equally important. Remember, you are going to kick-up snow. And in doing so, your bottom is suspect to getting pretty dang cold as that snow melts on the outside. I like to go with something that breathes and is synthetic. No cotton, but wool blends can work here. Craft (not to be an add for them but they do it really well) has a wind boxer that has changed my life. It can get wet and still feel warm. The front also has a windproof shell that protects those “parts” that you would never want to get frostnip on. Can you get away with regular polyester underwear? You can but I would rather spend a little more money on something that is going to keep my bottom from going numb on a long snowshoe run or race.
And lastly the hood. As my midlayer, I wear a thermal jacket or 1/4 zip that has a hood. Just by having a hood go over your head, you can warm-up significantly up to something like 5 degrees F. That is huge! With a hood, you also have the option of taking it off if you are overheating. With these types of midlayers, I like outdoor companies. They offer mountaineering fleece midlayer jackets with hoods that are lightweight, thermal, and have the “tight” hood that fits snug around your head. I love those because you do not want a big hood flopping in the wind. Ushood, a sponsor of the USA Snowshoe Running Team has these really cool baselayers that cover-up your face completely like a ninja. They are great for cold-weather snowshoe runs and races.
And that is that. This really is just a start to the dialogue of what to wear. It can be as simple and as complicated as you make it. Just know that wearing items that keep you warm and dry will be the magic ticket to logging tons of miles out there this winter.