Layers 101: How to Dress While Snowshoeing

Trekking the winter trails can be peaceful and exhilarating, and snowshoeing is a great way for people of all ages to experience it first-hand. Yet given the lower temps, managing thermal and moisture comfort become critical. You’re wearing more layers than you would in summer, and you’re exerting your body more as you trek through the snow. But with the right layers and approach, it can be safe, comfortable, and fun.

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The Four Tenets of Layering

  1. Stay warm but don’t sweat. The whole point of wearing layers, instead of just throwing your big ski jacket overtop when you go snowshoeing, is to stay just as warm as you need to be comfortable, without sweating. Getting wet and sweaty while snowshoeing, aside from just being uncomfortable, could cool you down to the point of being unsafe. Having multiple thin layers allows you to take them off or put them on as needed to hit that Goldilocks zone of warmth.
  2. If it works for you, it works for you. There is no law about how many layers you should wear, how thick or thin they should be, whether wool, down, or synthetic is better, or how much money you should spend on layers. Experiment with different options to find out which works best for you.
  3. No two days are the same. Just because you wore these layers the last time you went out, doesn’t mean they will work today. While large parts of your system can remain the same, you may need to add or remove layers for certain days, change your base layers from lightweight to heavyweight when it gets cold, or bring an extra big parka for summit days. Watch the weather and choose what will work for today.
  4. Leave the cotton at home. While cotton clothing is soft, comfortable, and likely hanging in your closet already, it is not recommended for use on the trails, especially during the winter. Cotton fabric retains moisture and holds it against your skin and can create an unsafe condition, particularly in cold, wet weather. Cotton socks can also retain moisture on your feet and contribute to blistering. It’s ok to carry a cotton bandana to wipe the sweat away, but not as one of your primary clothing layers.

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Break it Down: The Layers

These layers generally break down into three categories: Base or under-layer, the mid or insulation layer, and the outer or shell layer. After that, layers for your hands, neck, face, and your eyes are all important, too. You will need all of these layers for snowshoeing, but use them strategically as you go.

Number 1: The Base Layer

This is the “long underwear” layer, or any fabric layer that touches your skin. It comes in different weights from light to heavy, and includes your shirt and pants/leggings. The intent here is to add just enough warmth while effectively wicking moisture away from your skin. This smooth base layer also creates a ‘slip’ between your skin and the outer garments which reduces rubs and blistering.

Look for synthetics like polyester, or wool layers for colder days.

Number 2: The Midlayer

This is your insulating layer and it should keep you just warm enough while you’re snowshoeing without causing you to sweat. You will likely need a couple of garments, like a fleece or light sweater, as well as a vest or puffy jacket. Vests work great because they keep your core warm which can allow heat to radiate to your arms and legs naturally.

Midlayers themselves can be layered. Many start with something lightweight and breathable, like a fleece to wear while you’re hiking, because they add just a little warmth. But you may want a second insulating layer, like a down or synthetic parka, similar to the EMS Feather Pack, to pull on when you stop or when you venture above treeline. These are lightweight and pack well into small spaces, so it won’t take up much room if the spend most of the day in your pack. Down is an excellent choice and is super-lightweight and insulates exceedingly well, but can be pricier than synthetic options. Just know that you have to keep this layer dry, when it gets wet it loses much of its insulating value and takes a long time to dry-out. Synthetic insulation is a nice alternative to down. It’s also lightweight and will dry-out quicker than down, but aren’t as lightweight and packable.

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Number 3: Shell

This is your weather protection (wind and precipitation), so you’ll need a jacket and pants like the EMS Thunderhead line that are both waterproof and breathable, with taped seams, and zippered ventilation options. Ideally, the shell layer is not insulated, in order to keep your layering options flexible. Use your mid layers to stay warm, then add the shell when it’s really windy or precipitating, especially above tree line. If you do wear it while you’re moving, features like arm pit zippers can help you stay ventilated.

There are multiple options for a waterproof/breathable system: A laminate lining system like EMS’s System 3 Technology, or GORE-TEX. Each provide the same basic service, at different price points.

The Extremities

Socks are also critical during winter hikes. Wool or synthetic materials work well. Wool blends make great socks too, as does Merino wool, a softer, fine wool material. Don’t forget to bring a spare pair!

Much like your other layers, you should have a pair of gloves or mittens for warmth, and an outer waterproof glove/mitten shell. Try using a pair of fleece or polypro gloves, then add a GORE-TEX mitten shell when its wet. A pair of thin polypro glove liners are nice because you can take your hands out and adjust your snowshoes, without exposing your skin to the cold.

A warm hat is always good, but try using a headband if you’re getting too hot. Knit caps are great, but make sure they have a fleece lining for additional warmth and wind protection. Balaclavas, scarves, neck gaiters work well for face and neck protection, and if it’s really cold and windy, consider using a face mask or balaclava, especially if you’re venturing above tree line.

There are plenty of layer options out there for you to choose from, and since each of us has a different physiology, be sure to find what works best for you. Remember to stay just warm enough, but not too warm, and add that layer when you stop for a break to preserve heat.

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So How Do I Use This?

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to dressing for winter adventure, including snowshoeing.

Option 1: Start Warm

This is a very common approach, to begin in a comfortable state then remove those extra layers as you warm-up on the trail. It’s a logical technique, just keep in mind that you have to shed those layers proactively as you go so that perspiration and moisture does not build-up inside your clothing. If you start to sweat, it’s already too late as wet clothes can quickly create a safety hazard for you or your fellow snowshoe hikers.

Option 2: Start Cool

Another option for snowshoeing is to begin cool, and only wear the minimum layers you’ll need when you’re fully warmed up. This means starting out cool, even cold, knowing you will soon warm-up as you go. It takes a little fortitude at first, but it does work. And you’ll be less likely to sweat out those extra layers, making this the most popular option.

Make Adjustments

Regardless of the route you take, remember that layers aren’t meant to be stagnant. Not warming up as much as you thought? Put a layer on. Did you overshoot? Take a layer off. Stopping for a break? Keep a warm layer close at hand to throw on when you come to a rest to trap body heat, then take it back off before you start moving again. Add and remove layers as needed as your activity level changes, as the weather changes, and however you think you need to to stay comfortable without sweating.


How to Choose a Backpack

During a long day on the trail, your backpack should be your best friend. It should be easy to access the things you need, comfortable carrying however large a load you have, and easy to move the distance you need in. But backpacks are an extremely wide category, containing everything you might need for a half-day jaunt through the local park to massive packs for expeditions on the world’s tallest mountains. Knowing how you intend to use the pack is step one in deciding which is right for you, but understanding the differences in size, features, and structure will help guide you to the right option.

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Daypacks (Up to 35 liters)

Daypacks are the smaller bags used for day hikes. Since hikes vary greatly in length and intensity, even as day missions, they aren’t one size fits all. You’ll need to have one big enough to hold all of your hiking essentials, as well as food and appropriate clothing for the location and season, meaning day hiking bags during the winter are consistently larger than summer backpacks. Consider the terrain, too: Will you be above treeline and need to carry more layers for wind/storm protection?

Also, it’s worth noting there is a distinct difference between school/commuter bags and hiking packs. The latter typically have better shoulder support and waist belts that effectively transfer the load to your hips, making them more comfortable on longer hikes or carrying heavier loads.

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Backpacking Packs

As the name implies, these are your overnight bags, big enough for all the gear that comes with that. And just how many nights you’ll be out, as well as your creature comfort level, will determine exactly how large a pack you’ll need. Pay particular attention to how the pack fits your body as you will be carrying more weight, and for multiple days.

Keep mind that the volumes given and how they relate to the length of a trip are not law. While they are a pretty good guide for beginners, there are plenty of weekenders who like to carry extra food and gear like camp chairs, so a bigger pack might be nice. Simultaneously, thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, out for weeks at a time, often pack ultralight and get away with extremely small packs.

Weekend (1-3 nights, 36-55 liters)

These are slightly larger than daypacks, and likely have more compartments in them. This volume range is suitable for a few nights out, if you’re using lightweight modern gear. But be prepared: A lot of packing discipline and efficiency technique goes into fitting your gear into these smaller packs, so most beginners opt for slightly larger packs, even on weekends.

Multiday (3-5 nights, 56-80 liters)

These packs, the most popular backpacking packs, are slightly larger for longer trips, or those shorter trips where you may need to carry extra gear. They are well-suited to warm-weather trips lasting 3-plus days. This is the size/volume range that you typically see on long-distance hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail, or the PCT. It will have more space for food and extra clothes.

Expedition (More than 5 nights, 70 liters and up)

These specialized packs are meant for long-duration journeys or trips to remote places where additional gear or equipment may be needed. This could be a 7 to 10 day trek out west, extended trips to climbing destinations, or travel in extreme weather regions like the mountains or winter backpacking. They might also be necessary for parents carrying extra gear on multiday family trips.

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Hydration Packs & Waist Packs

Hydration packs offer a smaller, streamlined version of a daypack. They are useful for shorter hikes, and for outdoor fitness like running, cycling, or the slopes where you may want food and water beyond a granola bar. They are also a good starter pack for kids and are helpful for parents to encourage hydration on-the-go. If you need a little more space, most daypacks today are hydration compatible (see below).

Waist packs have become more technical over the years, which has increased their functionality and range of use. They come in a wide range from smaller pouches for your wallet, keys, and a few granola bars, to larger packs that hold water bottles and some gear. They’re suitable for short walks, or when you’re touring and want a little extra pocket space on-the-go. There are also lightweight versions that are popular with long-distance runners, they hold small water bottles and maybe a snack or two.

GO: Daypacks | Backpacking Packs | Waist Packs | Hydration Packs

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Backpack Structure

Packs are built and organizes in many different ways, many of which impact personal preferences, but others impact the carry-ability and usability of a pack for a specific activity.

Internal vs. External Frame

Almost all packs feature some kind of rigid frame through the back. These add stability, keep the load close to your back, and help transfer weight to your waist. In daypacks, this usually just comes from more rigid foam or fabric, but in larger backpacking packs, these are metal rods, typically set up in one of two ways:

External frames are composed of hollow aluminum pipes and are easily visible on the outside of the pack. The pack bag is then attached to this frame system, and the frame offers many attachment options for additional gear. Less common than they once were, these types are still available on the market.

Internal frame backpacks are far more common, today. They are composed of thin fiberglass or metal rods that are sewn into the pack itself and give the pack its structure while using minimal materials. They also tend to be more streamlined and keep the load toward the center of your back. Most internal-frame packs also allow you to adjust the torso length to fit your body.

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Top-loading vs. Panel Access

Most larger packs are top-loading, providing access to its main compartment through a cinched opening at the top of the pack. This makes it easy to load the pack efficiently and keep its contents stable. Packing these packs requires some thought to correctly position commonly-needed items toward the top so they are more easily accessible.

However, some designs (including most daypacks) offer you a panel access option, allowing you to reach into the main compartment without digging from the top and removing other items unnecessarily. This also allows you to organize your pack around each item’s weight and not just the frequency you may need to access it on the trail.

Many backpacking packs today feature aspects of both, primarily using a top-loading access point, but offering other zippers along the sides or back to make accessing deeper items on the fly easier.

Sleeping Bag Compartment

A sleeping bag compartment is one panel-access point on larger packs, specifically designed for sleeping bags. It is a separate area at the bottom of the pack just below and sometimes connected to, the main compartment. It is accessed from the outside so you can reach for the sleeping bag at the end of the day without having to remove everything else. Some packs have the option to remove an internal panel and make the sleeping bag area contiguous to the main compartment.

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Load Support, Padding & Ventilation

A pack’s load-carrying system consists of two main supports: shoulder straps and the hip belt, both of which have varying types (and amounts) of padding. Packs are designed to direct the weight onto your skeletal frame at your hips, a natural point of support for the human body. Shoulder straps hold the pack upright and close to your body to direct the load directly down, rather than pulling you to the side or backwards. While shoulder straps should not carry the weight, they do have additional “load-lifter” straps to fine-tune the fit and pull it closer to your body.

Padding on the shoulder straps and hip belt is an important feature, and largely a matter of personal preference. Thicker padding can offer more comfort and a flexible fit to your unique body shape, while less padding can allow these points of contact to ventilate better. Some straps are even designed with holes in them to reduce sweat build-up. Always test your pack in the store and fully-weighted to see what feels right for you.

Ventilation is another important feature of your pack, as it can reduce the build-up of uncomfortable, and possibly unsafe perspiration on your body. Traditionally, the padded fabric of the pack lays directly against your back, like a typical school bookbag. You might not notice how much sweat builds-up until you take the pack off. These days, most hiking packs are designed with greater ventilation, potentially using air channels in the backpanel, an arch between the shoulders and hip to lift it off your back entirely, or breathable mesh in the backpanel.

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Pack Features & Accessories

Pockets

In addition to the main and sleeping bag compartments, a pack will have several other storage pockets. Starting at the top, the “brain” is the very top pouch that closes over the main compartment, acting as storage and weather closure. It is a great place for those items you may want to have on the go like lunch, gloves, hat, sunglasses, or a map. Some packs have a removable brain, allowing you to either leave it at home to reduce weight or use it to carry a few items on a short side trip from your camp, or into your tent at night.

Other pockets include water bottle pockets, which are located just behind your hips and are nice for carrying a water bottle, or other small items you may need to reach while walking. Exterior access pockets can also be found on the outer sides of the pack, and are nice for storing items you may want to reach for without digging into the main compartment. This might include rain gear, lunch, or a water filter.

Hip belt pockets are a great feature found on many packs today. These are small, zipper-closed pockets on each side of your hip belt and in easy reach while you’re hiking. These are a great place for a compass, GPS, or snacks.

Different packs have varying numbers of pockets and organizational abilities, mostly corresponding to preference—Some like the organization of multiple pockets, while others prefer the streamlined nature of keeping everything in the large main compartment.

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Attachment Points

You will notice most packs have a variety of small loops or straps sewn into them for attaching additional gear. These are helpful for attaching bulky, but lighter-weight, gear like trekking poles, a sleeping pad, an ice tool, spikes/crampons, snowshoes, or even skis. Consider your intended activities and see what attachment point(s) might be useful to you.

Rain Cover/Weather Resistance

Most hiking backpacks are made with water-resistant materials but are not actually waterproof. And when you are on the trail, you will definitely want the option to protect your clothing and gear from the elements. Rain covers are like a fitted, waterproof jacket that you stretch over the pack. Some packs come with a rain cover built-in, but if not, there are many options available and it’s a worthwhile investment. They come in a range of colors for degrees of visibility, and some include reflective graphics.

Hydration-Compatibility

Keeping hydrated is critical when you’re on the trail, and many hiking packs now have a specific sleeve/pouch inside the pack to hold a hydration reservoir. A reservoir is a plastic bladder with a drinking hose that stretches through a secure opening in the pack so you can hydrate on-the-go. It is a very nice feature, and many find it easier than reaching for that water bottle.

GO: Pack Rain Covers | Clips & Buckles | Straps & Gear Ties

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Where to begin?

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, where does one go to find the right pack? It is strongly recommended that you visit an EMS store to try the backpack on first-hand and receive advice from a store expert. Buying online might be convenient, but finding the right fit your body is critical and well worth spending the extra time to get it right.

When you visit a store and work with their staff, you should expect several things. First, you will get introduced to many different pack styles, designs, and manufacturers. Each has its own unique approach and one of them may suit your needs and preferences better than the others. Secondly, you will get the pack properly fitted to your body. This is imperative and it involves finding the correct torso length, then fine-tuning the fit. Third, in the store, you will be able to load the pack with test weights (usually sandbags) to simulate a fully-loaded pack. Then you can wear the pack around the store for a length of time to see how it really feels. It is always best to find out how it truly feels before you make the final selection.

Lastly, you can expect good, relevant advice. Store staff will take the time to work with you and give you invaluable advice on how the packs work, how they are constructed, and how each might work for you and your intended activity. You can often find a staff member who has specific experience related to your chosen activity, so the guidance you receive will be timely and on-point.


8 Short Winter Hikes in Southern Maine

Cabin fever? Want to introduce yourself and your family to the fun of winter hiking? Consider these short explorations in Southern Maine, and glimpse what so many of us love about the “fourth season.”

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Bauneg Beg Mountain

This lovely moderate 2-mile hike begins with a drive to the trailhead through the bucolic countryside of North Berwick, Maine. The trail head is easy to find and has ample parking. You’ll find the trails are wide and easy to follow, and all ages can enjoy walking the rolling terrain through a mix of open hardwoods, and shady evergreens. You’ll step through old stone walls on your way to the summits, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including some distant peaks to the north. One route follows some steep rock scrambling, so consider using “Ginny’s Way” for a milder ascent to the main summit.

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Mount Agamenticus 

The “First Hill” in Southern Maine, Mount Agamenticus (or Mount A) offers both forest solitude and an open summit with 360-degree views of the seacoast. And the best thing about Agamenticus? There is so much to explore, you can take a new route each time and experience it all over again. Numerous trail options take you through a mix of hardwoods and evergreens and over streams that gurgle year-round. Stay on the Ring Trail for an easier circuit, or hike up one of the many rocky routes to the broad, open summit. At the summit, you’ll find plenty of space to explore, including viewing platforms and interpretive panels that describe the local wildlife and distant views.

For families, Agamenticus has a fun “Story Walk” along the Ring Trail, featuring colorful pages from a nature-themed children’s book. The kids will be excited to follow the trail and find what happens next.

Short on time, or not able to hike up? No problem, take the road to the summit parking area where you can easily enjoy the beautiful views. Bring your lunch or coffee and sit and relax atop Maine’s first hill.

Second Hill at Mount Agamenticus

For a slightly longer walk on Mount A, try visiting Second Hill and savor the peace and quiet of this less-populated trail. Routes are easy to follow and offer you a different perspective on the wooded seacoast region. Second Hill is a nice stop for lunch, and it has plenty of space for kids to explore and a nice little summit sign for fun pictures.

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Highland Farm Preserve

Easily accessible on Route 91 between York and South Berwick, Highland Farm Preserve offers easy to moderate hiking and cross-country ski trails through woods and open meadows. Created in 2009, this preserve is part of the Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Region (MtA2C). Trails are well-marked and an easy walk will bring you through open meadows, and alongside stone walls and old family cemeteries. You can enjoy the meadows, or expand your hike along wooded trails for up to 2-miles. Kids might enjoy a short climb up to the ridge where you can take in views, and find a second family cemetery.

Tip: See if you can find the tall stone cairn, a secret gem of Highland Farm Preserve!

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Brave Boat Headwaters Trail

A great starter hike for young families, and only a mile from the busy Kittery Outlets, the 1.5-mile Brave Boat Headwaters Trail is a lovely winter walk. Nearly level, this gentle loop brings you through a wooded area with towering mature trees before rounding a point where you can enjoy numerous vistas of expansive Spruce Creek. Take note of waterfowl which remain active throughout the year, and look for animal tracks in the snow: You’ll forget you’re barely a mile from I-95.

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Vaughn Woods Memorial State Park

This is a wooded oasis along the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick, Maine. Enormous hemlock and pine surround you as you walk 3+ miles of wide, easy-to-follow trails. The Park is very family-friendly and simply a joy to walk in winter. Trails and bridges are well-maintained and great for all ages and abilities. Look for evidence of winter wildlife as you traverse gentle hills and icy streams, while the sun streams through the evergreen roof. The River Run trail offers great windows onto the Salmon Falls River, or take the side trail over to the Hamilton House and enjoy the vista for this prominent Georgian-style mansion.

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Orris Falls Conservation Area

The wooded region where York, Eliot, and South Berwick meet provides a rich habitat and numerous opportunities to explore Maine’s local wilds. This fun series of trails offers everything you want in a hike: streams, boulders, waterfalls, wetlands, a beaver pond, a gorge, and an enormous balancing rock. The natural features alone will keep the kids motivated and delight hikers of all ages.

The trail has few markers but is easy to follow, and trail junctions are marked with signs. The route provides an excellent mix of terrain for a fun hiking experience. Kids will have a ball traipsing over streams, through little ravines, and atop ridges. Look for tracks from abundant wildlife, and a nice example of a beaver dam just before the turn for Orris Falls, where the stream tumbles into a 90-foot deep gorge. Continue to the Orris Family homestead site and wonder what it might have been like to live here in the 1800s.

Families: Balancing rock is only 1/2 mile from Emery’s Bridge Road and so worth it. Talk to the kids about glacial erratics and they will impress the science teacher at school on Monday!

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Kennebunk Land Trust – Alewive Wood Preserve

This is a pleasant, multi-use 2.5-mile loop trail in West Kennebunk that rewards you with lovely Alewife Pond. The trailhead is on Cole Road, mid-way between Alfred Road and Walker Road, and has parking for about 6 cars. The teardrop-shaped route is well-marked with red blazes, but occasionally shares a multi-use trail, so look for small signs indicating where the hiking trail veers off. There are also a few unmarked routes that crisscross the trail, so keep an eye on the red blazes.

All along you’ll find yourself wandering through new growth evergreens and hardwoods, giving the feel of a young forest with plenty of sunlight streaming in. A separate spur trail, marked with blue blazes, will lead you to Alewife Pond. This trail follows the shore briefly to a secluded spot with benches and nice views, making it a great place to pause for lunch or a warm drink before heading back.