It’s winter, and the hills are finally coated in deep snow. It’s beautiful out there, as the muddy trails and green peaks have made way for our annual sea of white. The Coast Mountains are famous for their deep snowpack, and as outdoor enthusiasts, a Pineapple Express isn’t going to slow us down - in fact, quite the opposite.
Ok, so, yeah yeah, mountains and snow are great, everyone knows that. But you want to get out there - explore the wilderness. You head to your garage (or, in Vancouver, behind your fridge, maybe?) and grab your winter gear. What are you taking? Snowmobile? GT Snowracer? Skis? Snowshoes?
The two most popular modes of transport in the winter in the South Coast Mountains are undoubtedly snowshoes and alpine touring (AT) skis. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of both, with people clamouring to strap something to their feet and head up to the top. And it makes perfect sense - they are both among the most enjoyable activities you are likely to find. Fun, healthy, adventurous, and they are great tools to take you to beautiful place.
But, which one is for you? Well, that depends! Let’s walk (or ski) through a few thoughts and see if we can sort out this whole snowshoe vs ski touring business.
The first concern when looking at snowshoes vs AT skis is how much skill is required to use them, And without question, snowshoes are easier to use than skis. They are lighter, smaller, and they are designed to mimic the forward moving walking gait - provided you don’t walk like these guys. Simply put, they are designed to make walking easier. AT Skis, on the other hand, are designed to make walking in skis easier, and that’s a big difference. You still have a rigid ski boot, and despite all the incredible developments on that front, they are still not all that easy to walk in. They are big, harder to maneuver, and don’t come with built-in crampons to prevent sliding on steep pitches (you can adapt your skis with them, but that’s a whole other thing.) As well, downhill travel really exposes the divide in skill level required. In snowshoes, there are a few minor adaptations you need to make, but in reality, you just walk down the hill. With AT skis, if you’re heading downhill you're skiing. Excellent or poorly - you’re skiing. It doesn’t matter if it’s champagne powder, breakable crusty snow, or light snowpack with the ever present “sharks” (barely covered rocks that grab the bottom of your ski, damaging your ski and often a few of your human bones for the trouble), you need to be able to ski to make it to the bottom of the hill in one piece. And skiing is hard!
This is a broad, sweeping generalization (yikes!), but snowshoeing takes less effort than alpine touring. Of course, terrain, conditions, objectives, and gear play into this, making it easier or harder, but moving an AT ski is a bit harder than moving a snowshoe. It has to do with required gear, mechanics, pivot points, and a few other gait issues, but the general point is that snowshoeing is more like regular walking, and so your body can adapt to it faster. If you are new to the mountains in winter, a short trek with snowshoes will usually take a lesser toll on your body than the same time skiing.
Both snowshoeing and alpine touring are great ways to open up the mountains and explore some amazing terrain. However, snowshoeing is typically an activity that, much like it’s summer cousin hiking, is about what we like to call “travel to.” That is, moving through the mountains to get to a destination, be it a lake, mountain top, or cozy hut. With ski touring, people typically focus on “travel for.” The main aim of ski touring is skiing - finding that sweet powder stash, skinning to the top, and ripping out a few laps. That means half the purpose of the ski is to do one thing (travel) and the other half another (throw yourself down a mountain.) And to this end, the gear is designed for just that. If you don’t plan on bombing down a slope, then all the edges, bindings, and camber in the world just doesn’t matter. It’s all overkill.
As is the case with every outdoor activity, conditions play as large a role as anything. Deep powder, crusty snow, hard pack - what’s underfoot and falling from the sky changes everything. Walk five feet off trail, or sit through a massive storm that rolls through, and the optimal mode of travel quickly changes. Modern, compact snowshoes like the MSR Evo and Denali Hike are better than nothing while breaking trail in powder, but they are mostly designed to be used on packed trails, and the longer, larger surface area of a pair of touring skis displaces your body weight better, and the shape rises through the snow with less effort, so is slightly easier to move along when it’s really deep. So, if you’re travelling after a big storm or you are off trail, skis are ideal. However, if you are heading out to Dog Mountain or Brockton Point on a sunny Saturday morning (don’t forget your permits!) you will likely be travelling on a hard packed trail. Snowshoes have the perfect amount of displacement and grip for this, and are much better for travel.
Simply put, AT skis are extremely expensive, and snowshoes are much more reasonable. The technical requirements of ski touring means you need skis ($700-1,200), bindings ($500 or so), skins ($200), boots ($800-1,000) and poles ($60-250). That’s potentially over $3,000! That’s nearly the cost of two lift tickets at Whistler Blackcomb! With snowshoes, the basic requirement is snowshoes ($100-400.) If you are heading out a few days a year to climb Hollyburn or catch a Bowen Lookout sunset, snowshoes are a much more digestible purchase. Even better, you can rent them from us!
Because of the technical requirements of AT skis, not only are they more expensive, but they have a few more moving parts and are trickier to use than snowshoes, which you can slap on to a basic pair of winter boots and take for a walk fairly easily. Of course, snowshoes come with varying levels of technical gizmos, but the point of them remains to make walking easier, so weight displacement and grip are the main aim. These are fairly easily accomplished by making your footprint a bit bigger and having a few spikes underfoot. Travel might be a bit slower, but that’s not always a bad thing - you get to spend more time in the mountains, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
If you want to go ski, go ski! If you want to snowshoe, strap ’em up! One thing’s for sure, being out in the mountains is far more important than the tools you use. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, but since most of these kinds of blogs end with a wishy washy opinion, and nobody came here for that, we’ll take a firmer line: For a day exploring the North Shore, snowshoes are probably better. There are more established, well-travelled trails so it will be more compact underfoot. There is also an abundance of rolling terrain which lends itself to snowshoe travel a bit more. And the skiing, while it has its moments, is often a bit of a mess. However, if you are heading into bigger terrain, with wilder spaces, and higher elevations like the Sea-to-Sky Corridor or further afield, skis are your best bet. More trail-breaking, longer climbs, and better ski lines mean that AT skis take a slight edge.
But really, skis or snowshoes, just get out there. You won’t regret it.
And as always…
Be sure to make and leave a trip plan with someone. A great resource for this can be found at Adventure Smart.
If you are heading into avalanche terrain, know the forecast, bring your beacon, probe, and shovel, and know how to use them! If you don’t, Canada West Mountain School runs great two-day Avalanche Skills Training Courses on Mount Seymour. It can save your life.
If you’re heading into the backcountry, make sure you always pack the ten essentials!