For 15 winters, Scott Keith lived in the Colestin Valley near Ashland and walked one mile each way from his house to his car. On snowshoes. Though he later moved to Medford to start and manage the Northwest Outdoor Store, he still loves to strap his boots into a pair of bindings and head for the high country.
"There's really no learning curve," says Keith. "It's not like cross-country or downhill skiing, where you have to practice. It's really walking or hiking on snow. Anyone can do it. It makes the winter outdoors accessible to everybody."
Confused by all the options of snowshoe technology? Consider renting a pair for the first couple of outings. Some stores will even apply the price of your rental to a subsequent purchase. These Rogue Valley stores rent snowshoes:
Ashland Mountain Supply, Ashland, 541-488-5402
Ashland Outdoor Store, Ashland, 541-488-1202
Blackbird, Medford, 541-779-5431
Get 'n Gear, Ashland, 541-482-5181
Kokopelli, Ashland, 541-201-7694
Northwest Outdoor Store, Medford, 541-245-4000
REI, Medford, 541-732-1938
Along the way, he formed strong opinions about how to dress for the occasion.
"It's better to have a good-fitting, waterproof hiking boot plus gaiters than big Sorrell boots," Keith explains. "Plus wool socks. Never cotton, never acrylic."
Don't forget to dress in layers.
"You want a windproof, waterproof shell plus down jacket for when you stop so you don't get chilled," he adds.
With the large winter temperature swings in Southern Oregon, finding a reliable snow base requires frequent reconnaissance. Mount Ashland is a reliable and accessible location, and Keith recommends the Mt. Ashland ski lodge as a good launching point, especially for beginners.
"You can head out Forest Road 20 to Grouse Gap, or go as far as you like," says Keith.
Bull Gap, accessible from a sno-park on the way to the lodge, is another option.
"If the wind's coming from the south or the west, Bull Gap is a little more protected from the wind, whereas Grouse Gap is a little more exposed," warns Keith. "But it's double-edged, because that same exposure out toward Grouse Gap gives you really long views, and it also gives you the sunshine."
If you want to avoid the crowds, several locations up Dead Indian Memorial Road above Ashland may be just the ticket, says Medford snowshoer Carol Ingelson.
"Moon Prairie is a good out-and-back," says Ingelson. "Beyond that is Pederson sno-park, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses. It's a huge parking area, so there's space for a lot of cars."
A hike of two miles on the PCT brings you to the Brown Mountain shelter.
"It's a great place to stop and have lunch and warm up," says Ingelson. "There's a stove there that they usually stock with wood."
Beyond the shelter is another network of trails, opening up possibilities for a full day of exploration.
If you don't mind some company, especially from cross-country skiers, stop at Buck Prairie on the way out to the PCT. The Bureau of Land Management manages 17 miles of Nordic trails at Buck Prairie, located 13 miles east of Ashland.
"There's enough variety up and down for both snowshoers and skiers there," says Ingelson.
At this designated cross-country ski area, make sure to abide by the unspoken trail etiquette: walk beside or between the ski tracks so you won't damage them, and step aside when faster-moving skiers pass by.
Buck Prairie is a favorite destination for Ingelson and a couple dozen of her friends, a group that hikes, skis and 'shoes every Wednesday throughout the year.
"It's an informal group, started years ago through the Sierra Club," Ingelson explains. "We'll have a designated turn-around time, so everyone will return at the same time — the skiers are so much faster."
Other snowshoeing locations that Ingelson recommends include the roads around Hyatt Reservoir and the Lollipop trail system around Fish Lake.
If you're thinking about renting or buying a pair, it's important to understand that all snowshoes are not created equal.
"It's a question of whether they're recreational or back-country snowshoes," says Mike Reinert, footwear buyer for the Ashland Outdoor Store. "Recreational snowshoes are not going to function very well in the back-country. They're going to be more appropriate on level, well groomed trails."
Although the two types of snowshoes are shaped differently — recreational models are more rounded while back-country models have more tapered, exaggerated tails — it's the bindings that provide the functional difference.
"You just can't allow any side-to-side motion (in a back-country binding)," says Reinert. "If you can get it to move side-to-side, it's not going to be very stable going up the side of a hill."
If you're more interested in the off-trail, back-country experience, a snowshoe with an ascension bar can make life easier, especially on uphill climbs.
"An ascension bar is a huge lifesaver," Reinert explains. "It's a heel riser, a bar you can flip up underneath your heel. ... It makes you feel a little bit more level, you're not having to stretch your calves as much."
Sizing your snowshoe is equally important. The more weight you — and your pack — place on the snowshoes, the more surface area you'll need to prevent you from sinking too much.
If you're used to skiing and snowshoeing in the Rocky Mountains, where the fluffy powder causes you to sink in more easily, you may want to consider a smaller model here in Southern Oregon.
"One reason why I found I didn't have any issue going to a smaller snowshoe is that our snow is fairly wet and consolidated," says Reinert.
Regardless of which snowshoe model you use, this mode of winter transport allows you to get away from crowds quickly.
"It gets you into the wilderness where everything is still," says Scott Keith. "Often nobody else is around."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at email@example.com.