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Snowshoeing is a Versatile Way to Get a Great
Winter Workout

By James Wall - Special to the Rocky Mountain News

On summer weekends, Tracy Aiello of Denver, Colo., is a runner taking part in a medley of races both in the Denver area and the mountains.

But in the winter, Aiello throws her dog, Theo, into the back of her Saab and heads off to the foothills or high country with a little more equipment: Redfeather snowshoes, old ski poles and a few layers of clothing for warmth.

"I head to a good trail, what would work for hiking in the summer," says Aiello. "That's what makes snowshoeing so appealing: finding a new trail, letting the dog loose where allowed, and getting all the aerobic benefits — and more — than running."

Snowshoers have always gotten strange looks from skiers on mountains as they climb switchbacks meant to be used for heading down on skis. Snowshoes also work well on mountain-bike trails, together with trails through ski resorts and other high-country towns.

Just about anywhere you can hike in the summer, late spring or fall works for snowshoeing in the winter.

Nordic-ski centers and some golf courses also offer more refined terrain for snowshoers. Groomed trails designed for cross-country skiers make the going easier and allow the amateur athlete to slip more easily into that rhythm typically associated with running.

Kate Lewis of Boulder, a skier who has telemarked from a young age, loves to snowshoe when "I just feel like a break from the crowded mountain — usually on a weekend." Lewis also takes her black lab, Doc, with her on most excursions.

Says Lewis: "I love to strap on the snowshoes and hit the trails around Vail. At any resort town, or mountain town for that matter, it's easy to find a good trail. Just ask around or get a hiking map from a local gear shop. Just make sure you know where you're going."

So, what are the health benefits of snowshoeing? Tom Rutlin, designer of Exerstrider poles designed for use while walking when the snow's melted (www.exerstrider.com), has collected data on walking with poles (more or less what snowshoeing is) over the last 15 years.

Says Rutlin: "The upper-body part of snowshoeing — planting the poles in the snow to help propel the body forward — turns the sport into a full-body workout, burning more calories and toning the arms, legs, shoulders and more.

"In addition, the slight extra weight on the feet adds to the work you have to do with your legs, increasing the workout. You'll burn many more calories than by simply walking."

Cross-country ski poles (or decent downhill poles) are a necessary part of snowshoeing from a balance perspective, as well as adding to the aerobic benefits.

Lewis says the workout can be moderate or extreme, depending on the type of trail and the effort put in by the snowshoer.

"The folks you see climbing the ski-mountain switchbacks are usually the endorphin junkies, looking for a tough workout that gets the lungs burning and muscles throbbing," says Lewis. "But take a trail that's fairly flat, and it becomes moderate to easy, depending on your preference."

Extra weight on the feet has been reduced in the last decade as technology has allowed for lighter, easier-to-use snowshoes for both the advanced and beginner, according to Kris Koprowski of Denver's Redfeather Snowshoes. Redfeather is one of the leading brands of snowshoes in the nation, and No. 1 in the Rocky Mountain region, according to Koprowski.

"The manufacturers have designed systems that make putting snowshoes on a piece of cake," says Koprowski. "Strap them onto a pair of good winter hiking boots to keep the moisture out, and you're away. And, with aluminum frames now the norm, these things are light."

Depending on conditions, Koprowski also recommends using gators to keep the snow from getting in the tops of boots, as well as good, ski-type pants if the snow is deep or the weather is cold.

He notes that his company and others make different types of snowshoes for different levels of activity, so do your research before buying.

One note of caution from both Aiello and Lewis is to be sure to take a backpack stocked with layers of warmth and waterproofing lest a storm unexpectedly rolls in during your trek. And take plenty of fluids and snacks to keep you going.

Says Lewis: "I met a snowstorm head-on one afternoon on a trail on the north side of I-70 close to Vail. Luckily I had brought my ski jacket and a couple of fleece sweaters, plus some serious gloves and a ski hat, to keep me from getting hypothermia and get me home OK. If it looks like a snowy day, I may take a thermos of hot tea, just in case."

"It's the extremities that you have to worry about, as well as hypothermia," says Smith, who hits a trail or two to test new products quite a bit during the winter. "So take some very good gloves and some layers in a backpack, and you'll be fine."

Snowshoers sometimes have the chance to dust off their equipment along the Front Range after a storm hits. Denver's Washington Park and South Suburban's Highline Canal trail get some snowshoers when the snow decides to hang around after a big dump. "It's purely a matter of being practical," says Aiello. You can't run when there's a foot or more of snow on the ground, she adds.

And, that's the essence of snowshoeing, according to Aiello. It's both practical and fun. Why not give it a go if you haven't already?

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