If you're looking for an easy way to exercise outdoors in the snow, or if bad knees have forced you to hang up your skis, strap on some snowshoes and start walking. About 6 million people did so in 2004, a 93% jump since 1998, according to a report from the Outdoor Industry Assn. One reason is that snowshoeing doesn't require much skill, says Nate Goldberg, product manager at Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center in Vail, Colo. "After five steps you're an intermediate," he jokes. Studies show that snowshoeing burns 420 to 1,000 calories an hour.
As long as there's snow, preferably at least a foot deep, you can snowshoe. Local parks or golf courses are ideal places to practice. Beginners should spend about 10 minutes walking on flat terrain to get used to the shoes. To climb uphill, kick the front of your snowshoe into the snow and press down to compact the snow into a step, making sure each new step is sufficiently above the last to avoid falling backward. When going downhill, bend your knees slightly, lean back, and shift your weight to your heels.
If it sounds easy, it is. But some instruction can help you polish your skills. Many resort areas and Nordic centers such as Beaver Creek (www.beavercreek.com) offer snowshoeing classes and rental equipment. You can find links to other good spots on the Web sites of three snowshoe retailers: atlas-snowshoe.com, redfeather.com, and tubbssnowshoes.com. But keep in mind that these sites tend to highlight places that offer their equipment.
Some retailers also hold free workshops for beginners. Atlas Snow-Shoe Co. offers about 60 free clinics nationwide for women. Sporting goods outfit REI holds workshops around the country and provides good tips at its Web site, rei.com.NARROW IT DOWN
Renting equipment will help you narrow your choices before you buy. Snowshoes are tailored for backcountry expeditions, hiking, or racing. Unlike snowshoes of yore that looked like tennis rackets, new, lightweight models are made of aluminum and offer better traction. To find the right pair, consider your terrain. If you'll be trekking around a park or golf course, try the Tubbs Altitude 30 Snowshoes ($225), which are designed for day hiking. Going to a ski resort or Nordic center? Try an all-terrain pair such as the Atlas 10 Series ($249 for women, $259 for men). Bindings on Crescent Moon's snowshoes (from $169 for women, $159 and up for men) are designed to distribute tension evenly and to be adjustable even while wearing mittens.
What else do you need? Stainless steel grips, known as crampons, will help you navigate steep ascents and descents. You'll also want to use poles to prevent sliding on ice-packed snow. Look for comfortable grips, and avoid downhill and cross-country poles, which are too long for snowshoers. Then pull on some boots, pile on the sweaters, and hit the trails. By Lauren Young