Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — December 2002

Snowshoeing Off the Beaten Path

by Gary Thornbloom

A heavy snowfall does not have to leave you stranded indoors yearning for spring. With a pair of snowshoes you can be walking in a tradition that dates back thousands of years. The earliest snowshoes were little more than slabs of wood tied onto early man’s feet, and it was only after crossing the snow covered Bering Straits that snowshoes were perfected in North America. Each Native American tribe living in areas where deep winter snows made getting around difficult perfected a style of snowshoe that worked best for regional snow conditions. Snowshoes, which were once essential to winter survival, today offer the simplest solution to getting out and enjoying the winter woods. If you can walk, you can snowshoe.

The best way to learn how to snowshoe is to put a pair on and just walk. The initial awkwardness will disappear by the end of an afternoon on the snow. Snowshoeing is a great activity for the entire family. Beginners and those with more experience can enjoy being out together. The pace can range from a stroll to an aerobic workout. Once sufficient snow is present the woods are open for your adventure. Floating a foot or two over the forest floor eliminates the need for staying on a trail. Places that are inaccessible to a cross-country skier or to a snowmobile are accessible on snowshoes. Steep mountain sides or thick woods — no problem with enough snow and snowshoes.

The experience of walking out into the whiteness of a landscape covered with an unspoiled blanket of new snow stretching for miles into the wildness of the woods is accessible to most of us. To avoid getting lost, choose an area that has very obvious boundaries formed by streams, roads, utility right of ways, or the edge of mountains.

In Central Pennsylvania we are surrounded by a large amount of public lands. The Moshannon State Forest is one such area and it is an area that tends to get more snow than the valleys. Route 504 between Black Moshannon State Park and the end of the mountain above Unionville offers nearly seven miles of roughly east/west highway.

If this is your first off trail venture try walking for thirty minutes or so north of Route 504, and then turn around and walk back heading south. With a long straight boundary to come back to, I have found it impossible to get lost as long as I was comfortable with a compass and a map, used the sun, and used my tracks.

Once you are comfortable wandering around in the woods, each day offers unique adventures. The white, unspoiled world of a new snowfall will eventually contain the tracks where many animals have written their story. And the story is often filled in by following those tracks. Some days are pure fun — “skiing” down steep inclines with the higher comfort level snowshoeing offers as compared to cross-country skiing.

Winter safety can be enhanced by following a few basic precautions.

  1. Always let someone know where you will be departing from and when you expect to return.
  2. Dress in layers adding and subtracting them as your comfort level dictates.
  3. Drink plenty of fluids. In winter it is easy to overlook the fact that you need to replenish what you are losing as you perspire.
  4. Take a daypack that includes items such as: a dry layer of clothing, dry socks, a headlight with lithium batteries, matches and fire starting material, an emergency bag (“space blanket” material), whistle, sunglasses, first aid kit, duct tape and bailing wire (snowshoe repair).
  5. And one last emphasis on a compass and map, even if you know where you are going they could be needed if you become disoriented. Winter is no time to be lost in the woods.

Dressed in layers, safety concerns addressed, snowshoes strapped on — it is time to head for the woods and enjoy winter. Snowshoeing offers a way for each of us to explore the State Forest and State Game Lands that are there for all of us. And remember, it really is as simple as just walk.

If You Go: The seven miles of SR 504 east of Black Moshannon State Park offers a well-defined east/west boundary. Bureau of Forestry Roads and utility right-of-ways offer additional landmarks to aid orientation. Trailheads along this section of highway have parking areas that are usually kept plowed. The Moshannon State Forest Public Use Map is available for free at the park office.

USGS maps as well as snowshoe rentals are available at Appalachian Ski and Outdoors in downtown State College. The USGS topographic maps for Black Moshannon and Bear Knob include the section of SR 504 mentioned. USGS maps offer the detail needed for heading off trail.

If you are not comfortable venturing off trail on your own, consider joining a local outing with the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club or with Ridge and Valley Outings Club.

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Gary Thornbloom is the Outings Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net