Our family loves downhill skiing. My husband and I grew up skiing, and it’s one of the few sports in which we can keep pace with our three boys and while our middle-aged egos remain intact.
But enough friends (as well as my active parents) had raved about snowshoeing that this winter sport piqued my interest. When we received snowshoes as a gift from my husband’s sisters — whose kids are slightly older and therefore cool — we decided to give it a try.
The first time we took the snowshoes out over a winter break, our boys’ interest stemmed mostly from curiosity: What kid (or adult, for that matter) doesn’t like to take their new holiday toys for a spin? It turns out snowshoeing offers a few things skiing and snowboarding don’t. Here are five reasons why snowshoeing is worth working into your family's winter sports itinerary.
You can snowshoe even in cruddy conditions
Going into the holidays, our sons had been begging to go skiing, but local ski areas were closed for much of December that year and we had been skunked. So we grabbed our snowshoes and, like good snow chasers, headed to Mount Baker, usually one of the snowiest ski areas in the country.
My parents know that area well, so we picked our destination the Heather Meadows (Note for 2021: vehicle access limited: Highway 542 is closed to cars for the winter season at the Bagley Lakes Trailhead) base lot, at the edge of the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. That day, we didn’t spot any snowflakes. We were this close to turning around, but we stuck to the plan. And I’m glad we did, because as we quickly discovered, after getting drenched while putting on the gear for the first time, one bonus of snowshoes is that you can tromp over everything. Marginal snow conditions do not have to be an excuse for staying indoors!
One helpful tip I learned beforehand from a friend, who’s something of a snowshoeing aficionado: Snowshoers should stay on the side of the trail. “The smooth center part is actually groomed for snow skaters, and they will not be happy to find a family tearing up their track,” she advised. So, we stayed to the side to yield the way to skiers who were coming down the mountain.
Snowshoeing is cheap
We were fortunate to get our snowshoes as a gift. Still, at $5–$30 per person for rentals (depending on where you go), this is as inexpensive a way to get your family into the wintry mountains as you will find. There are no lift tickets, and parking at Washington state Sno-Park lots for nonmotorized activities is $25 a day, or $50 for a seasonal pass, which is transferable between vehicles. At some Sno-Parks, you will also need a Special-Groomed Trails Permit. Discover Passes, which offer access to Washington’s state park parking lots, cost $11.50 for a one-day pass or $35 for an annual pass.
The ski clothes we already had were totally adequate for the outing. The only thing we needed were hiking boots. For families not wanting to invest in snow pants, layers underneath jeans would work fine — just add gaiters to keep pant legs dry. For more ideas about what to wear, check out our article about winter weather gear for families.
You can connect with nature instead of racing through it
While downhill skiing gets us out in the fresh air, the lift lines and crowded ski runs mean we don’t get to quietly appreciate the beauty and rawness of nature.
Since snowshoeing is basically a slightly awkward walk so we just set off. Being competitive brothers, my boys quickly challenged each other up the highest hills and figured out how to run in snowshoes.
But after that burst of energy, they settled into a walking pace that allowed them to see trees as towering and majestic rather than as gates to ski around. In slow motion, rather than speeding by, they noticed the depth (and danger) of tree wells. They studied the sky and clouds, the direction of the breeze and raindrops. They felt when the temperature dropped enough for the rain to transform into small flakes, and then it felt like we were a part of winter.
You can connect with your kids instead of your electronics
Over the years, I have interviewed Julie Metzger of Great Conversations and taken to heart her advice about having many short talks with your kids “shoulder to shoulder,” rather than face to face. While snowshoeing, we were burning calories but we were hardly out of breath. It is the perfect activity to inspire relaxed conversation.
It’s easier to chat nonchalantly about friendships, teachers and girls (God forbid!) when interspersed with “Is anyone ready for a snack break?” My parents, who go on daylong snowshoe expeditions, shared stories of their different hikes, the peaks they had seen and the people who go with them.
It’s an experience for the ages … and all ages
My kids are lucky to have healthy grandparents, and this is a physical activity that takes advantage of that; snowshoeing bridges the generational gap. After that first trip to Mount Baker, we shared tasty pizza and drinks at The North Fork Brewery in Deming on our way back home, swapping war stories. My kids probably didn’t report back to their friends on the killer run or ride they had that day, but I have a feeling that their snowshoe memories will last.
Editor's note: This article was first published a number of years ago and has been updated for 2021.