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Finding Bigfoot: Free-form family fun in the snow

Imagine: It’s a sparkling clear winter morning; everyone’s still in their pajamas. The kids want to play in the snow, but there’s not a flake in the forecast. You tell everyone to put on their warm clothes, grab a few hats and gloves and a hearty snack, and throw a couple of things in the car. You’re soon pulling out of your driveway on your way to an all-day snow adventure. Time elapsed: 30 minutes.

No slam on skiing, but sometimes I tire of the schlep of it. Like most parents, my work weeks are a tangled ballet of logistics: this kid here, that kid there, soccer, choir, careers (two), grocery shopping (for four), laundry (for hundreds, it seems). What I want in my downtime is relief from the grind. No lift lines, no snarled parking lots, no car packed to the hilt with thousands of dollars worth of gear. I want a winter sport that doesn’t require a strategy.

Enter snowshoeing — the anti-schlep snow solution.

Why snowshoe?

My family loves snowshoeing for many reasons. For one thing, it’s easy: No lessons required and there’s hardly even a learning curve. If your kids can walk, they can snowshoe. It ain’t elegant (my kids call it “dork-walking”), but it’s such a relief to try something new as a family with no tearful, frustrating first attempts (hey, I’m working on it!). You just strap on the shoes and go.

And for a snow sport, snowshoeing is cheap. Rentals for a family of four will set you back around $50 for a full day. At some point, you should consider buying, says Steve Guthrie at Marmot Mountain Works in Bellevue. “If you’re going once or twice a year, renting’s fine,” Guthrie says. “But if you’re any more serious, you should own your own shoes.” There are a couple of good reasons for this: On busy weekends, it can be hard to find snowshoes for rent. “A scout troop can wipe out our entire rental stock in one hour,” Guthrie says. And snowshoes don’t wear out; they last years and years, so they’re a smart investment. You can own them and use them your whole life.

My family took to snowshoeing like overstuffed waddling ducks to water. Last year, we rented four pairs four times. Argh! Big mistake. This year, we’ll be rocking spanking new Atlas shoes for about $150 each, an outlay of $600 for a lifetime of snow fun. That’s about the cost of ten downhill lift tickets. I’m just saying.

Chaotic serenity

Like a balm to the schlep-weary parent, snowshoe days provide pristine vistas, solitude if you seek it, and plenty of judgment-free opportunities for the crazy that kids bring. My 7-year-old can holler “Cowabunga!” at the top of his lungs with no hairy eyeball coming from less exuberant bystanders (I’ll get to avalanche danger in a minute). As I’m soaking up views of rolling snow hills —  untouched but for rabbit tracks — my kids are throwing snowballs or testing the limits of dork-running. For this one afternoon, we’re truly free, out in the wild (OK, a mile off the highway), breathing the bracing air and — dare I add? — getting a righteous workout. Snowshoeing takes it out of you. You will thank me for this.

Gearing up

So, I’ve got you convinced, but where do you start? At the rental counter. There are plenty around (see sidebar, below). Grab a latte and go alone to get the gear; you can carry four pairs of snow shoes and the latte (another reason to love this sport!). Just be sure to take your family’s height and weight measurements so the rental pro can hook you up with the correct size of snowshoe. Consider picking up your gear the day before your outing so you can head to the snow first thing in the a.m., when the snow, and the kids, are the freshest.

Snowshoes strap right onto your snow boots or hiking boots, and the bindings are simple. You don’t need poles, but some adults like to use them. At least skip the poles for the kids, says Guthrie: “Kids shouldn’t use poles. They get tangled up in their poles way more than they help them, and then they fall on their poles.” Trust me, you don’t want your kids waving sticks when they dork-walk.

The rest of you and your kids gear consists of warm ski pants and socks, and those ever-lovin’ layers. You’ll work up a sweat, believe me, but you’ll be cold before and after, so you need versatility of the non-cotton variety. Gloves and hats are an absolute must, as are sunscreen and sunglasses. Bring a backpack to stuff the layers into as they’re shed.

Getting started

There are lots of great places to snowshoe around here (see below), but Guthrie recommends an easy start. “Go someplace really simple to figure it out,” he says. “Kids are lower to the ground. They have really short legs, and now they have to walk with their legs farther apart. They’re going to fall more, spend more time in the snow.” Park at a Sno-Park at Snoqualmie and trundle around on level ground. It’s less than $10 a day, or around $20 for a season pass. If you have little kids, plan a short outing at first, and don’t forget the thermos of hot chocolate!

A couple of notes on etiquette: Stay on the shoulder of groomed trails. Don’t mess up those parallel cross-country grooves. The smooth center part is actually groomed for snow skaters, and they will not be happy to find a family tearing up their track. We found this out the hard way after shelling out for trail passes at Snoqualmie’s Nordic Center: Groomed trails are really for skiers, and snowshoers don’t belong there. Neither do dogs — they’re not allowed on groomed trails or at ski areas.

Staying safe

Part of the charm of snowshoeing is that off-the-beaten-path feeling, but that comes with a warning. When you’re in the backcountry, you need to take extra precautions. Avalanche danger is very low at groomed Sno-Park areas, but the odds go up in the backcountry, so take a cell phone with you, just in case. Keep an ear open for snowmobiles. And as in hiking, you need to take the “Ten Essentials” with you every time (see below). Bring lots of water.

Tips for kids

If you’re toting a toddler, consider renting a pulk, a specially designed sled you can tow behind you. The pulk has a clear vinyl cover and a child seat inside; it straps to your waist, with the sled at a comfortable distance so you don’t kick it as you walk. These typically rent for less than $20 a day. Your kid can ride a while and walk a while, freeing you up from snow-induced meltdowns.

My kids love to find a nice, steep hill and spider-walk to the top. Once there, they sit, lift their giant feet in the air, and slide down on their butts. About half our snowshoe time is spent this way, actually, with the parents patiently standing by. Your family will have its own traditions; ours involves dark chocolate.

Finally, the most important tip of all: Go with the flow! Don’t push your kids. Snowshoeing is fun, and if they’re not having fun, there’s something that needs fixing. Make sure they’re warm enough, well-fed, not-sick enough. Try to relax and enjoy the glory that is dork-walking. “Don’t go with the expectation that you’re going to go four or five miles,” says Guthrie. “With snowshoeing, it can’t be about the destination. It’s the journey.”

Kristen Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor, mother of two and a dork-walker in her own right.

Ten Essentials

The Mountaineers have compiled this list of the “Ten Essentials” which should be taken on any hike or snowshoe outing:

• Extra clothing
• Extra food
• Sunglasses
• Pocket knife
• Fire-starter candle
• First-aid kit
• Matches in a waterproof container
• Flashlight (with working batteries)
• Map
• Compass

Also bring:
• Sunscreen
• Sunglasses (important for glare)
• Tissues
• Cell phone (for emergencies only — keep it turned off!)
• Your wallet (never leave anything valuable in your car)


Snowshoe rentals

Bellevue: Marmot Mountain Works
827 Bellevue Way N.E.

Tacoma: Backpacker’s Supply
5206 S. Tacoma Way

Olympia: Alpine Experience
408 Olympia Ave. N.E.

Most REI locations rent snowshoes; double-check for the location nearest you at rei.com. Stores are located in Seattle, Redmond, Tacoma, Southcenter, Alderwood, and a new location in Issaquah (opening in November).

The Summit at Snoqualmie Nordic Center — at Summit East (formerly Hyak)

Places to snowshoe

The Summit Nordic Center is located within the Summit East Base Area. You can park here for free and then walk east to find plenty of snow to play in. If you buy a trail pass, stay on the shoulder of groomed trails, or leave the trails and head into untouched snow.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission provides Sno-Park areas for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. You must have a current Sno-Park permit displayed in your windshield (a ticket runs upwards of $50!) There is great list of vendors that sell permits and the permits are also easy to buy in advance at many local sporting-goods stores.

Here's a list of all Sno-Park areas in or near the Mount Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest.

Marmot’s Dan Guthrie also recommends Blewett Pass, south of Leavenworth. Head for  the west side of Highway 97 (the east side is popular with snowmobilers).

The Washington Trails Association lists great snowshoe excursions. This is a great site for hikers, too!

If you’d like help getting started, consider a weekend snowshoe program at Snoqualmie Pass or Mount Rainier, led by U.S. Forest Service guides. The programs start in December; call 425-434-6111 for information.

Other resources

Avalanche hazard and snow information for the Cascades and the Olympics: 206-526-6677

When your family is ready for a bigger journey, check out this excellent book: Snowshoe Routes: Washington by Dan A. Nelson, Mountaineers Books.


Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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