Hunter in National Elk Refuge_credit Lori Iverson USFWS


Turn a snowy tromp into an easy romp

Anyone who can walk can also snowshoe — the sport is that simple. It certainly makes getting around in the snow much easier, but that doesn’t mean you won’t break a sweat. Snowshoeing can be great exercise too. And like any outdoor activity, having the right gear and knowing a few tricks can make a snowshoe hike less arduous and more enjoyable.

Size matters when it comes to snowshoes. “Your total weight — not only your body weight but also the weight of your clothing and your pack — is a primary consideration when selecting snowshoes,” explains Jeff Oster, marketing coordinator for Atlas Snowshoes, who also teaches clinics for Weigh yourself with all your gear and clothing to find the perfect fit. Trail conditions are also important to sizing the deck (the flat surface of the snowshoe), which can range from 22 to 35 inches long. “If it’s fine powder, you need more surface area so you don’t sink,” says Oster. “Smaller decks are better on packed trails.”

Terrain is the other key factor in selecting snowshoes. “Where you’re going determines how much traction you need,” says Oster. “Snowshoes have two traction systems: crampons under the ball of the foot and deck rails along the frame. If you’re trail walking, the crampons can be less aggressive,” meaning the crampon teeth can be smaller. On side hills, you want as much of the traction system as possible to grip.

The decking material — which stretches across the snowshoe’s frame, distributing your weight and creating buoyancy — can matter too. Traditionally, snowshoes were made using a wood frame and rawhide webbing (and some are still built in this way). Today’s snowshoes typically have a light-weight aluminum frame with decking made from plastic or synthetic rubber. When stealth is the goal, Oster recommends looking for nylon decking rather than a composite or plastic decking because composites flap more on snow (making more noise as you trek). However, he adds, it’s a trade-off because “composite decks are more durable and flexible if the terrain is really uneven.”

Oster also strongly suggests using telescoping poles for better stability and control in the woods. When travelling uphill, he concentrates his weight over the crampons to get them to grab and shortens his trekking poles to keep his elbows at a 90-degree angle. Going downhill, he lengthens his poles to obtain the same 90-degree angle at the elbow. He also takes smaller steps and resists the urge to lean forward. On side hills, he slows down, intentionally choosing his steps while taking care not to step on the other snowshoe.

“The hiking season doesn’t have to end when the snow comes,” Oster says. “Snowshoeing keeps it going all year long. It’s good exercise and quiet, without a lot of people. And those same old trails look different in the winter!”

Trailing Whitetails

Find the signs of bucks and does

White Tails_Rappahannock River Valley NWR_VA_credit USFWS-cropThe theories about tracking game, particularly white-tailed deer, are fraught with fallacies. Joe Lacefield, a biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife for the last 25 years and a long-time bow hunter, debunks a few of the misleading notions about how to tell a buck from a doe based on the signs it has left behind.

Myth: Bucks leave deeper, bigger tracks than does.
Fact: If it’s a really big buck, its tracks will be bigger, but most whitetails are so heavily hunted on public land that finding a trophy that’s 5 years old — the age at which bucks get significantly larger than does — is rare. More than 95 percent of whitetails harvested are under 4½ years old. A large, pregnant doe could leave tracks similar in size to the average buck.

Myth: If the tracks include marks from dew claws (two smaller hooves on the back of the leg), it’s a buck.
Fact: A heavier deer sinks in more, leaving a dew claw print, but it might be a doe. It’s only a big buck if other tracks in the same soft surface are smaller.

Myth: If the front hoof marks are bigger and wider than the back ones, it’s a buck.
Fact: It’s difficult to tell. Mature bucks are heavier, with broader chests, and could leave a bigger, wider track — but a 1½-year-old buck will not.

Myth: If the droppings are pellets, it’s a big buck.
Fact: Scat shape and texture is a result of diet, not sex or size.

Myth: A scrape on the ground proves a buck passed that spot.
Fact: Scrapes are one of the ways deer leave a scent message for other deer. Does scrape occasionally, too. That said, if it’s during the rut and you see a scrape, it probably is a buck.

Myth: If large hoof prints leave a game trail, it’s a buck.
Fact: Bucks with big racks will navigate around dense foliage overhead, but it may be a large doe that’s browsing.

Then how do you tell for sure if you’re following a buck? “If it makes a rub on a tree, it’s definitely a buck,” says Lacefield. “Rubs are made by antlers. And you can tell from its bed. Big bucks have bigger beds. When deer get up, they often urinate. If the spot is in the middle of the bed, it’s likely a buck. Does tend to urinate near the edge.”

Between where a deer beds and where it feeds, it usually follows the path of least resistance, which also provides clues to its whereabouts. “The biggest mistake is not watching to the sides,” says Lacefield. “A deer will stand and wait until its sees what’s coming. Be observant of everything.”

An award-winning outdoor photographer and writer based in Red Lodge, Montana, Lisa Densmore Ballard spends much of the year in hiking boots – sometimes attached to snowshoes. The author of seven books, she travels frequently throughout North America on backcountry treks and to hunt. (