Exploring off the beaten piste
Have you ever wondered about the mountains beyond the pistes and busy resorts? Felt that pull to explore further beyond the ski area? Snowshoeing is your ticket to seeing more of the mountain. Get past the bustling bars and restaurants, away from lift queues and into the peace and quiet of mountain forests and pastures. The tranquility of unspoilt mountain tracks is surprisingly close (and accessible) to the major resorts.
Why go snowshoeing?
Snowshoeing is great exercise, is very sociable, and does not require the days of learning and falling that come with other mountain sports. It gets you further into the mountains to views and experiences that you just can’t get on piste.
Snowshoeing can be a great way to cut up your week or day. Use some different muscles, see some different landscapes, and return to your planks (or plank) the next day refreshed and ready for more. And if you don’t want to cut down on your skiing or snowboarding time, then a lot of resorts even have evening snowshoe trips on offer.
Snowshoeing can be active and high calorie burning, or a relaxing gentle stroll. Think of it like picking a walk to do on your weekend – you can take an easy riverside stroll or a big hike up into the mountains.
Snowshoeing also means non skiers can take part in activities, so if you travel with non skiers in the group it could be a way for everyone to enjoy the mountains together.
What’s a snowshoe?
But why bother with a snowshoe? Well, you could just head out in your hiking boots, but take a couple of steps off a groomed track and you could find yourself in thigh deep snow, which is not an easy way to travel!
Snowshoes distribute your weight over a wider area which prevents you from sinking deep into the snow and are believed to have originated in Central Asia 4000-6000 years ago. They were used by indigenous North Americans, then adopted by Europeans in colonial times. Modern snowshoes were developed in the second half of the 20th century as interest in the outdoors grew.
Traditional snowshoes were made from animal hide, but these days tend to be plastic with metal crampons. There are three types: running, mountaineering and recreational. It’s this last type that is most widely used and that you are likely to rent for a snowshoeing excursion.
Advances in lighter, more durable materials means today’s snowshoes are surprisingly easy to use and to manoeuvre. However, you’ll find you need a wider stance when walking with snowshoes which make take you a short while to get used to. Take your first steps on relatively flat ground before heading up on steep powder slopes. But it shouldn’t take you long to get used to them.
The heel is left free, but the ball of the foot is attached to the snowshoe with straps. Various different designs are on the market, but they all work on this basic principle. Most snowshoes also come with a heel lift (a block for your heel) that makes walking up steeper slopes easier.
What kit is needed?
So firstly snowshoes! These can easily be hired in resort, or on a guided trip are usually provided by the guide, and included in the cost of the trip. Poles will help your balance and can be provided with the snowshoes, or you can take your ski poles.
Wear warm, comfortable, waterproof boots, and warm clothing in layers that you can remove/add as needed. Your usual ski kit will be good, but make sure you have layers you can remove as you will work up a bit of heat walking up the mountains.
And don’t forget your sunglasses, suncream and plenty of food and water!
Guide or no guide?
You can strike out on your own – most major resorts will have a snowshoe or nordic trails guide and you can rent snowshoes and follow this. However, for your first time at least it is advisable to have a guide. Not only will you have no safety worries (is a trail in danger of avalanches?), you won’t need to navigate, and will get tips on using your snowshoes and a wealth of information about the local area.
Guides are usually passionate about their backyard and can tell you everything from names of mountains, to local history, to which plants can be eaten.
What can I expect?
To get a taster for this, I headed out with Morzine based guide, Véronique Fillon. As with most guides, she can be booked privately by the day or half day, but also offers group trips which makes for a good value option if you are booking alone or in small numbers.
Six of us headed out with Véronique, and assistant guide Sinai the dog, in her minibus driving up to the Col de l’Encrenaz. This ensured we’d reach the best viewpoints easily, rather than hours slogging uphill. Not a bad plan!
We parked up and were kitted out with snowshoes, poles and headed up. Starting out on a basic easy trail, everyone could get used to the snowshoes, before we broke off on a little untracked trail through the woods – the kind of trail you need local knowledge to find. This was where the real fun started. Endless untouched snow spread out in front of us. With Véronique breaking trail we followed on, happily chatting and enjoying the fresh air.
We’d timed the trip perfectly, a clear sunny day after a few days of fresh snowfall meant that a landscape of virgin snow spread out in all directions. The snow sparkled in the sunlight and count not have made for a more magical setting.
As we broke out from the trees we turned behind us to see the slopes of Mont Chery (part of the Les Gets – Morzine ski area) with skiers gliding silently down them. They were so close and yet we were enveloped by silence and nature.
A little further on and we stopped by a bush with a few little red berries hanging on under the snow. Véronique explained these were edible and she regularly added them to dishes and made jams with them. We squeezed them to push out the soft interior and taste it. Sharp and sweet at the same time they made a welcome snack and short break!
Travelling on we joined the path of some snowshoers who had broken trail earlier that day and made for an easier climb for us. Véronique pointed out deer tracks and told us about the different deer and animals who called these mountains their home and came out to play when no noisy humans were around.
As some of the group started to tire Véronique magiced out of her pack a flask of tea and we all took a short break. She pointed out the different chains of mountains we could see from the Aravis and Pointe Percée to Mont Blanc and the entire Mont Blanc Massif. We’d reached an incredible vantage point in only a little over an hour of walking.
A short journey on and we’d looped round and it was time to descend. Now of course you can just walk down the hill, but where’s the fun in that?! It may not quite be the same as hitting powder on skis or a board, but running down the hill in snowshoes is an experience to try at least once in a lifetime. Bounding out across fresh virgin snowfields, we not only ruined the clean sparkling look of the snow, but the silence and tranquility of the mountains! Laughter, shrieks and whoops could be heard as our ground bounded across the fields.
Snowshoeing works up a pretty good appetite and one of the reasons for booking with Véronique is her lunch. She and her family live in a traditional chalet d’alpage (a small mountain chalet that is inaccessible by road) at 1500 metres altitude. Unlike most locals, Veronique invites her guests in and will serve lunch, often with local wild herbs and flowers that she gathers in the summer.
Today was a traditional local speciality, poêlée. It’s basically potatoes, onions and cheese all cooked together in a pan (poêle). This was served with bread, salad and charcuterie, and of course local wine. Perfect mountain fodder! The meal was rounded off with homemade cakes, made with herbs gathered on the mountains the previous summer.
All that remained was a 10 minute walk back down an easy track to the car park and back into normal civilisation. Before we knew it we were pulling on skis and boots to head out for a few hours skiing before collapsing in a heap at the end of the day.
Over lunch Véronique told us about a great option for anyone not wanting to miss a minute on the slopes. She can also do a night snowshoe experience with dinner in her chalet afterwards : a trip out in the mountains at night with just a head torch and the stars to guide the way, before a warming fondue.
If you’re unsure where to start for your first snowshoe trip, try to find the local bureau de guides or ask your hotel or in the Tourist Office. They’ll usually have a list of the different guides and different snowshoe outings on offer so you can pick and choose. The possibilities are endless, just make sure you check the safety and avalanche risk of any route before heading out without a local guide. And don’t forget to take tea and cake!
If you are interested in buying your own snow shoes then below are a couple of places you could start your research and browsing.
Crystal Ski have a range of last minute offers on package holidays to Morzine. Check them out.
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