Snowshoeing isn't what it used to be. While snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country and downhill skiing enjoy great popularity as winter recreational pursuits, snowshoeing, for years, was stuck with the reputation of being an activity you did because you had to. When you had to get somewhere and the snow was too deep for skis or snowmobiles, you strapped on snowshoes, usually giant wooden ones. Most snowshoes spent their lifetime hanging in storage or displayed over fireplace mantles, only seeing light after blizzards or at garage sales.

No, snowshoeing isn't what is used to be. The development of smaller models made of aluminum and other lightweight synthetic materials in the 1990s introduced outdoor enthusiasts to user-friendly snowshoes. That, coupled with the release of studies showing that about half of all Americans are overweight, led many to adopt snowshoeing as a winter exercise activity. The extra calorie burning that comes from having to lift the extra weight of snowshoes out of the snow with each step only added to its appeal.

The commonly cited clichè, "If you can walk, you can snowshoe" is actually true. With snowshoes on you stride normally. Most snowshoes are narrow enough so that you don't have waddle when you walk. As you step, raise your snowshoe just high enough to clear the top of the snow surface, minimizing knee lift. Efficient snowshoe walking technique looks like a low shuffle; often the tail of the snowshoe never leaves the ground. And if you should topple over, the snow makes for a much softer landing area than bare ground.

Snowshoers often use ski poles on their treks. In addition to providing a bit more stability when traveling off trail, reaching and planting the ski poles with each stride gives the user's arms a workout as well. Ski poles also help one to get back on his or her feet after a fall.

The true meaning of the word "awkward" becomes apparent when a snowshoer flounders in deep snow. Using a pole for leverage helps these individuals regain their balance with some semblance of dignity.

Snowshoeing can be enjoyed at both ends of the age spectrum. Senior citizen groups, tired of mall walking, are now on outside on snowshoes getting exercise over the winter. On the other hand, kids would seem to be unlikely candidates for snowshoes, fascinated as they are by the speed snowmobiles and ski slops generate. Snowshoeing is too tame for them.

Yet when I brought a dozen pairs to a Cub Scout meeting, there was immediate interest. They strapped on the snowshoes and joined me in a game of "Follow the Leader." The kids enthusiastically stayed with me as we clambered over fallen trees, climbed up giant snow piles and raced down steep hills. A 10-minute game of tag not only left us exhausted but improved their agility more than adults could hope to after an hour on snowshoes. A week later, at their request, I was back and the game of the night was touch football. Snowshoes, these kids discovered, weren't just for grownups.

If you're looking for a real heart pounding workout, try running on snowshoes. Some races draw several hundred competitors. And this year the U.S. Snowshoe Championships will be held in Cable, Wisconsin, March 11-13.

An Internet search for "snowshoes" highlights about 20 major snowshoe manufacturers with most offering a full slate of models in a range of sizes, shapes, materials and prices. Those who plan to snowshoe for recreation can leave the $300 snowshoes to the racers who will pay top dollar for titanium ultra-light models.

Likewise, unless you're planning to scale mountains or do extensive backcountry camping where your life might depend on your snowshoes, you can ignore the high-end models. Most who snowshoe derive great satisfaction from owning moderately priced snowshoes designed for recreational use.

Size matters when selecting snowshoes. Bigger people need larger snowshoes with more surface area to keep them on top of the snow.

For those weighing under 165 pounds, 8-inches wide by 25-inches long should be sufficient. If you're closer to 200 pounds, try snowshoes 9 inches by 30 inches. Heavier snowshoers may need a 36-inch long shoe. These aren't hard and fast guidelines. Snow conditions should be considered when selecting snowshoes. Staying atop dry fluffy snow requires larger snowshoes than when walking on a packed surface. Smaller snowshoes maneuver better in heavily wooded areas where there is deadfall, brush and trees to navigate.

In choosing snowshoes look for bindings that are easy to put on and adjust, providing a snug fit over footgear so that it won't slip off or allow the foot to move laterally on the snowshoe decking.

Smooth hinging is another consideration. When you take a step, your foot in the binding should hinge on the snowshoe allowing your heel to move easily off the snowshoe with each step you take.

First introduced in the late 1980s, snowshoes made of aluminum or synthetic materials now dominate the market. However, traditional wooden snowshoes, laced with neoprene and mounted on a teardrop or oval frame, still are a viable option. Iverson Snowshoes, which has been in operation in the small village of Shingleton, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula for nearly 50 years, is one of the largest manufacturers of wooden snowshoes in North America.

Although the shape and material of the two types of snowshoes are different, both succeed at keeping the wearer on top of the snow. The aluminum and synthetic snowshoes often have cleats or crampons on the bottom to grip ice and provide traction whether the wearer is heading uphill or downhill. Wooden shoes, lacking cleats or crampons on most models, use the pressing of the webbing into the snow for grip.

Before Neoprene was used, snowshoe lacing was made of rawhide. Although effective, rawhide lacing needs a coat of spar varnish whenever the finish gets worn. Wooden snowshoes with rawhide lacing, however, are the overwhelming favorite when it comes to selecting snowshoes to be mounted on the walls of cottages and lodges.

Snowshoers can walk on any snow-covered surface. Even urban dwellers can find opportunities to snowshoe since most everyone lives within a mile of a park, golf course or some vacant land. If you are willing to travel a little, State and National Parks and Forests often have a trail system ready and waiting. Last winter my wife and I enjoyed a day tramping on the Sleeping Bear National Park's snowshoeing trails that led us to the top of the dunes overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands.

Yearning to explore? Grab your snowshoes and you're ready to see places you haven't seen in decades if ever. Especially in the upper Midwest, it is not hard to find land that's uninhabited. On these trips we park the car, strap on our snowshoes and head inland.

Invariably we will cross snowmobile and ATV trails, but once we enter the swampland, all man-made tracks cease. The rugged up and down terrain of fallen trees and snow-covered hummocks of tufted grass don't accommodate snowmobiles or cross-country skiers so we are soon on our own, except for wildlife. Safe from intrusion of man, these remote places are a refuge for woodland creatures. Tracks are everywhere as deer, rabbits and squirrels leave records of their passing.

To get here in the summer you would need hip boots. And no one without snowshoes would have reason to come here in winter. It's fun to think you might trudging where no one has trod in many a year.

With new materials and wider availability - as well as ready application to the needs of a fitness-minded America - snowshoes are no longer relics of our heritage: They're made for the outdoorsmen of today.