THE BALANCED LIFE | Snowshoes? Yes, snowshoes |

Would you trade the cost of a couple dinners out or one more pair of the latest hi-tech runners for better health, the opportunity to discover Pelham from a new perspective, and a chance to avoid the winter blahs?

That’s what a pair of snowshoes can offer. Yes, we’ve just experienced an unseasonably warm and beautiful autumn, and who knows what weather this winter will bring, yet there are few outdoor winter activities that require fewer special skills and offer more benefits at low cost than snowshoeing. Having a pair of snowshoes hanging in the basement or garage, ready for that day you wake up to perfect fresh snow blanketing everything from the frozen waterfalls of Shorthills to Bradshaw Park’s winding paths is worth considering.

Unless we get another Blizzard of ‘77, it’s true that snowshoeing in Niagara can be hit or miss. On average, we have 42 snowfall days annually which bring 137 centimetres (54 inches) of snow. Those aren’t snowbelt numbers, but experience says it’s sufficient for eight to 15 days of snowshoeing.

New snowshoes can cost between $50 and $200. Those at the low end of the price scale would be found online and you’d have no fitting or selection assistance. Quality mid-range snowshoes are available from mass retailers like Canadian Tire and SportChek, as well as specialty stores such as Outdoors Oriented and Mountain Equipment Company (MEC), where some purchasing advice is likely to be provided. Top-end models and the best advice will found at select sport-specific vendors.

Modern snowshoe technology isn’t difficult to understand. Like most products, researching how to get the features, size and fit appropriate to your needs is easy on the internet (REI and MEC sites are exceptionally informative yet easy to understand).

Trail and flat-terrain snowshoes are great for local use and those new to the sport. They’re usually reasonably priced and provide sufficient traction for most snow conditions in Niagara. Mountain-capable snowshoes will offer better traction in icy conditions and on steep slopes, and may be lighter, which is beneficial if you progress to longer trips and more challenging terrain.

Size is related to weight-carrying requirements and snow conditions. If you expect to carry a backpack for hydration, lunches, photography equipment, a child or cat, clothing storage, etc., add this weight to your own when using a weight and height chart. If you plan to spend time breaking trails rather than following designated paths, a slightly larger snowshoe is better.

You’ll be wearing your own waterproof hiking or winter boots in the snowshoes, so fit decisions are about shape, materials and bindings. Slightly narrower snowshoes make walking easier and more natural. Aluminum frames can reduce weight compared to composites and plastics, and offer some flex which can make walking on hard-packed snow more comfortable. Binding selection is personal, and may be based on how easy the bindings make putting the snowshoes on and tightening. Other purchasers might be more interested in bindings oriented to specific types of snowshoeing. Floating bindings reduce leg fatigue during longer trips and generally provide better grip on slopes. Fixed bindings provide a more natural walking motion on flat and packed trails.

Beyond the price of the snowshoes, and perhaps a pair of walking sticks if you’d like the extra security, that’s it for costs. You likely already have winter or hiking boots, some breathable or wicking athletic tops, a winter or sports jacket, gloves and headgear — everything you need to begin snowshoeing locally.

Experts often lump the physical and mental health benefits of snowshoeing together, and assume a training-type regimen. I believe snowshoeing locally in our unreliable Niagara weather requires differentiation of these benefits, and some caution.

During occasional snowshoeing one’s heart rate is likely to increase, so care must be taken to avoid overexertion and know your limits. That said, a heart beating more quickly will deliver more oxygen to muscles, allowing them to work harder at flushing toxins. This can relieve muscular stiffness and mild pain.

Snowshoeing involves additional muscle groups compared to walking, yet remains very low impact, making it easy on knees, hips, ankles and joints in general. Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves all get a workout similar to walking, plus abdominal and core muscles are engaged to provide stability and balance— important as we age.

When the sun is shining and you’re surrounded by a sparkling, undisturbed blanket of white, your breath is clouding your sunglasses and the only noise is the chatter of birds and squirrels, stress evaporates

When did you ever hear anyone lament about the weight they put on during the summer? It’s that delicious turkey stuffing and wine, or additional time spent snacking while binging on a favourite Crave TV series that adds the pounds during winter. Snowshoeing burns calories 42 percent quicker than walking on average. The exact number is of course dependent on snow conditions and terrain, but in general even casual snowshoeing is an effective weight-control activity.

The mental health benefits of snowshoeing can occur whether we snowshoe regularly or occasionally. When the sun is shining and you’re surrounded by a sparkling, undisturbed blanket of white, your breath is clouding your sunglasses and the only noise is the chatter of birds and squirrels, stress evaporates.

Faces gaze upward rather than down, backs straighten, thoughts of long, cold and dark days are vanquished as our minds relax. Trails overgrown with ragweed or burred thistles in the summer are of little concern now — snowshoes allow you to forge your own trail and go anywhere.

Snowshoeing provides quiet, reflective time alone if that’s required. It can also be very social, allowing opportunities for friends or groups to do an invigorating winter activity outdoors together at a time when public health officials are again becoming more concerned with virus transfer indoors.

Pelham offers a surprising number of nearby and unique locations to enjoy snowshoeing.

Harold S. Bradshaw Memorial Park, on Chantler Road, is perfect for beginning snowshoers. It’s level, flat, and protected from cold winds with clearly marked trails. Arrive early enough, and you have a chance of encountering a fox, deer, or coyote. The Gerry Berkhout Trail offers similar conditions with additional length.

Short Hills Provincial Park has opportunities for all skill levels. The trail to Swazye Falls from Roland Road is flat and packed down, yet provides a spectacular winter view of the ice-encrusted waterfall. Continue upstream then along the west boundary of the park on a less used trail if you enjoy small hills. Enter off Wiley Road and follow the Black Walnut Trail past Terrace Falls and you’ll spend your whole day climbing or descending. (Caution: In the unlikely event of a big early snow, note that Indigenous deer hunters will be in Short Hills on November 23, and December 3 and 14. The park is supposed to be closed to other users on hunt days, but the Voice has been told that signage is sparse or non-existent.)

For the truly adventurous, or those that just want to say that they did it, snowshoeing from E.C. Brown Conservation Area on the frozen and snowy Welland River provides a unique view of the shoreline.

There’s no guarantee how many days of good snowshoeing conditions this winter might provide locally, but at such a reasonable price and with no long drives or lift lineups to worry about, could this be the year you decide to purchase a set of snowshoes, just in case? One perfect sunny day in January after a heavy snowfall will amply reward you for taking the chance. Grab a pair now while the selection is at its best.

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