Tim Jones: Sliding snowshoes provide best of both worlds
Imagine you are playing the TV game show "Jeopardy!" and this answer came up "Pure, silly fun and great exercise in the snow." Your question would be "What are sliding snowshoes?"
Sliding snowshoes bridge the gap between snowshoes, which can go almost anywhere in winter, one plodding step at a time, and skis, which are faster, but require more skill to use.
When the "Blizzard of ‘13" (let's hope it's not the only blizzard of ‘13!) dropped 32 inches of snow, my son, Justin, and I grabbed three pairs of sliding snowshoes and headed out to play.
Justin took my trusty old "Karhu Karvers," which I've had since the early ‘90s. I had two new pairs of sliding snowshoes I wanted to test. Unlike the Karvers, these are still being manufactured and can be purchased easily online. The "Hok" from the Altai Ski Co. (www.altaiskis.com) are very lightweight, 120 cm long, with metal edges and inset climbing skins on the base. It's clear these are an evolutionary step from the Karhu originals.
The others are Marquette Backcountry Skis (www.marquette-backcountry.com). They are heavy, made of indestructible injection-molded reinforced plastic with fish-scale bases. They are 140 cm long, 130 mm wide and have a tip that curves up like a water ski. I got these late in the winter of 2010-11, used them on spring corn snow and had been waiting ever since to try them in deep snow. Unlike the Karvers and the Hoks, they don't have metal edges, so hard snow is simply not an option.
We headed for a local patch of woods that's popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers and headed out. At first, we followed a trail broken by snowshoers, and started out just kicking and gliding along as if we were on cross-country skis. A short while later, we popped out into a slanted field, left the packed trail and started to explore. Justin decided to see how fast he could run through the deep snow. Pretty quickly, he tangled his tips and tumbled. As long as you paid attention, though, you could move right along, and we took turns breaking trail.
Though my Altais were shorter than the Karvers, they are also a little wider and seemed to float just as well and turn slightly more easily. I was impressed. After an hour or so of playing on trail and off, we switched to another location, where an old logging road climbs a short, steep hill. I switched to the Marquettes and tried to follow Justin up the hill, but the fish-scale bases didn't stick as well on the steeps. So, I had to break trail to keep from sliding backward. Coming back down, however, the Marquettes floated magnificently on the deep fluff and I was able to carve sinuous S turns almost effortlessly. I wish that hill had gone on forever.
Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
OK, so what are sliding snowshoes? First, imagine a very short, very light, very wide ski designed for easy maneuverability and lots of flotation in soft snow. Add a little sidecut and steel edges. On the base it will have either fishscales (like a typical waxless cross-country ski) or permanently attached climbing "skins" (a directional synthetic hair which allows the ski to slide forward, but grips and stops the ski if it starts to slide backward). Again, the goal is to split the difference between plodding along on snowshoes, and gliding along on skis.
Based on early testing, it looks to me like the Altai Hok is going to redefine the category, and become the standard by which all other sliding snowshoes are judged. I had originally received this pair for testing, but I'm going to have to buy them.
The Marquette Backcounty is fun, less expensive, but more limited. It doesn't climb nearly as well as the Altais or Karvers and was much heavier. But if you've got a slanted field anywhere near your house, and a pair of old 3-pin bindings and boots, these things are a hoot going downhill in deep snow.
If you'd like to read reviews of all sliding snowshoes, go to www.easternslopes.com and search "meta skis."
The Altai's aren't there yet but they will be soon.
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