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Low cost makes snowshoeing popular winter sport

| Friday, Dec. 21, 2007

If the word "snowshoeing" conjures up the image of someone in a parka plodding across a snow-covered field with old, wooden tennis rackets strapped to both feet, you're not alone.

But modern snowshoes bear little resemblance to the bulky, awkward contraptions most people think of. They're smaller, lightweight and come in versions meant for everything from backpacking and hiking to running and winter adventure racing.

Snowshoeing is also inexpensive compared to other winter pursuits and easy to do, making it an ideal sport for just about anyone.

"In the mid-90s was when the technology advanced and prices came down," said Joe Nicholls, who led a snowshoeing clinic at REI at the SouthSide Works last week. "It opened it up to a lot more people."

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, snowshoeing drew 5.5 million participants in 2005, over one-third between the ages of 16 and 24 and more from the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, than any other region of the United States.

Last Saturday, Venture Outdoors led an intro to a snowshoeing trip that, despite lacking snow, was nonetheless sold out and had a waiting list. Participants still got a chance to strap on the snowshoes and try them out in a field before setting off on a regular hike at Harrison Hills Park in Natrona Heights.

There needs to be about four inches of snow on the ground in order to snowshoe and six inches for participants to really get the feeling of floating on top of the white stuff.

But other than having a snow base and perhaps a set of poles to help maneuver, the sport requires little else besides the actual snowshoes, some waterproof shoes or hiking boots and perhaps a pair of gaiters to keep the snow out of one's boots. There is no special skill set needed to snowshoe.

The only real difference between snowshoeing and regular hiking is that the legs have to lift a little higher than normal and turns must be executed with some degree of caution so as not to cross the backs of the snowshoes and get tripped up.

"Snowshoeing is easy to learn, fairly inexpensive compared to other winter sports, has little risk of injury, is a great cardiovascular fitness activity and a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors," said Becky Lubold, environmental education specialist at the Jennings Environmental Education Center in Butler County.

Snowshoes range from about $100-$275 for purchase, but nearly 40 pairs of snowshoes are available to borrow, free of charge, at the Jennings Center. They are available for use in the park on a first-come, first-served basis on any days that the park office is open, generally Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There are guided snowshoe tours at the park every Saturday now through February at 1 p.m. when there is enough snow on the ground, and while they do not offer formal lessons, park employees will instruct beginners how to put the snowshoes on and how to move in them.

Venture Outdoors has had so much interest in the sport that they will have at least one snowshoe trip every weekend in January and February, including family snowshoeing, beginner and advanced snowshoeing and several specialty trips, including lunar eclipse snowshoeing and a Snowshoes, Microbrews and Stews trip. Costs range from $15-$30 for members and $30-$50 for non-members.

REI rents snowshoes with free pick-up and drop-off days for a charge of $14 per day for members and $20 per day for non-members for the first day and $3 and $5, respectively, for additional days. Kids' snowshoes and poles are also available for rent.

There will also be a build-your-own-snowshoe workshop at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle in Erie on Feb. 2 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cost is $155 and registration is required. See www.trecpi.org for details.

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