The snowshoe market is flooded with a plethora of snowshoe options, making it difficult to decipher how to find the perfect pair for you. There are so many aspects to take into account that one can easily end up with a pair that doesn’t meet their personal requirements.
We stand by one simple principle – buying your first pair of snowshoes should not turn into an agonizing decision-making process. So, in order to help you with your shopping, we decided to put together a definitive guide so you can learn how to choose the perfect snowshoes for your needs.
In this guide, we cover how to choose snowshoes by considering:
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Consider the Use
First, let’s discuss the type of snow conditions and terrain in your area. These two factors will be critical as you determine how to choose the snowshoe that’s right for you. As you’ll notice, there may be some crossover between conditions and terrain within snowshoes.
The Snow Conditions
To select the right pair of snowshoes, you will need to take into account the snow conditions.
Snowshoes with a smaller surface area tend to have difficulty in very deep snow, especially powder snow that’s light and dry. To help limit sinking in deep, light powder snow, you’ll want to look for snowshoes with a wide decking covering the snowshoe. Oftentimes, snowshoes with ‘backcountry’ in the name or description specialize in deep snow.
Here are a few examples of modern snowshoes to consider for deep conditions:
Traditional wooden snowshoes also tend to have a larger surface area, making them an excellent option for deep snow. The Huron snowshoe especially excels on flat terrain and deep snowpack.
MSR also offers modular tail extenders to any of their snowshoes to increase the length and provide better floatation in deep snow conditions.
If you’re snowshoeing in some snow with a depth of 12″ or less or in wet conditions where you may not sink, snowshoe selection is much more flexible. In these cases, the ability of the snowshoe to handle snow depth is not as important as making sure that the snowshoe is built for the terrain you plan to go on.
Snowshoes are built with different features (descriptions below) that help the snowshoe navigate certain types of terrain. In order to learn how to choose your snowshoe, know that over time modern snowshoes have been classified into three main groups.
Hiking snowshoes are also known as recreational snowshoes. These are very popular among novice trackers or those interested in navigating relatively unchanging, stable terrain. These types of snowshoes usually have several common features – a simple traction system, and webbing-based bindings.
Hiking snowshoes are suitable for flat terrains and rolling hills, and typically have some form of “trail” or “hike” in the name or description. Due to the simple features, these snowshoes are among the most affordable ones.
Some examples of modern hiking snowshoes include:
Traditional wooden snowshoes typically come with simple features and are excellent for navigating flat terrain. The Huron (also great for deep snow) excels on a flat and rolling terrain, and the Ojibwa is great for carrying heavy loads on flat ground.
With snow workouts becoming immensely popular, it should be no surprise to stumble upon running snowshoes during your snowshoe browsing. These snowshoes are designed to support any fitness activity on the snow.
Running snowshoes are intended for those who prefer flat and groomed terrains. Compared to regular snowshoes, these ones are narrower and shorter to increase mobility and speed in the snow. Plus, the smaller the snowshoe, the less weight, which is important when running or snowshoe racing.
Some examples of running and racing snowshoes include:
If you prefer a wooden snowshoe, there are wooden racing snowshoes available too, like this 9 x 32 racer from Iverson Snowshoes.
Technical snowshoes are built for navigating unpredictable terrain and have the most features on them. For this reason, these snowshoes are usually more pricey when compared to other models. But, they pack advanced features and are made of very durable materials.
Most ‘backcountry’ snowshoes that we discussed above fall into this technical snowshoe category. Snowshoes in the technical category may also feature the words “alpine”, “mountain”, “ascent” or similar descriptions. Overall, if you are planning on breaking your trail through deep snow, or steep and icy terrain, these snowshoes are a must-have.
Backcountry snowshoes feature properly sized bindings so that people wearing snowboard or winter boots can wear them easily. You will also frequently find multiple crampons underneath the toe and heel of the snowshoe and sometimes advanced grip on the frame of the snowshoe.
Some examples of technical snowshoes include:
Know Your Features
Now that we’ve considered how you’re going to use your snowshoes with a few examples, the next step on how to choose your snowshoe is the features. Knowing the different features will help you narrow down your options and enable you to make a smart purchasing decision.
We’ve decided to list bindings as the first feature on our list because it is the most important one, in our humble opinion.
There are several types of bindings. Here are a few common ones:
- Nylon webbing straps are the most common straps found on entry-level snowshoes. They are great because they allow you to adjust your snowshoes for a great variety of footwear. On a side note, they tend to stretch over time, especially in wet and cold environments.
- Rubber or polyurethane straps are the most common straps across the board. They are better than nylon ones because they don’t stretch due to elements and low temperatures.
- Ratchet straps are very similar to those you can find on snowboards. They are easy to use and will allow you to adjust bindings according to your specific needs.
- The BOA closure consists of a wire with a tightening mechanism. This binding is one of the easiest to use, especially when wearing gloves or mittens.
Binds are becoming more sophisticated over time. You may also see bindings that feature a complete foot closure/toe box, as well as advanced lacing systems to secure your feet.
Which binding you choose is a matter of personal preference. The most important part is that your foot fits correctly in the binding and that when the binding is tightened, you don’t feel any cinching, pinching, rubbing, or shifting.
For those with larger foot sizes, simple 2-strap or 3-strap nylon or polyurethane bindings are going to be the best bet. Bigger boot and shoe sizes can have trouble with bindings that feature a toe box or advanced closure. Thus, with larger foot sizes, the simpler the binding, the better.
The Snowshoe Frame
The days of having only classic tubular aluminum frames are over. Now, there are a few different options, as new snowshoes models come in different designs and feature different frames.
If you are planning on hiking on surfaces that don’t require you to wear shoes with extra traction, snowshoes with tubular frames will do the job.
Tubular frames can increase surface area, but if not done correctly, can also cause snow to build on the snowshoe frame in deep snow. These types of frames are commonly found on hiking or recreational snowshoe models, like the Tubbs Xplore.
Some models come offer frames that are serrated to offer increased traction. Depending on the frame materials, these snowshoes can be heavy, but the extra grip can be incredibly useful, especially when mountaineering. One example of a phenomenal snowshoe that also has a serrated frame is the MSR Lightning Ascent.
V-Tail or Pointed Tails
Some snowshoes have a tubular frame (or similar shape) near the toe, but a pointed tail in the back. These frames are often designed to help snow build-up on the frame and increase maneuverability in deep snow. An example of a v-tail snowshoe is the Women’s Pace from Redfeather, the first company to engineer the v-tail design.
To be able to produce lightweight snowshoes, manufacturers have started to make decking out of plastic or any other rigid material. Plastic decking is lightweight and these snowshoes have a good grip, but the tradeoff is the stiffness of the frame. These snowshoes can often be very slippery, so tread carefully. An example of a snowshoe with plastic decking is the MSR Evo Trail.
Traditional snowshoes are often made of ash wood, which provides an incredibly quiet snowshoeing experience. Being quiet in the snow makes wooden snowshoes an excellent option when hunting or observing wildlife. These frames also can naturally withstand frigid temperatures up to 30 degrees below zero.
In addition to the above frame materials, snowshoe frames and materials are continuing to evolve over time. You can now find snowshoes with frames and decking made of recyclable and more environmentally-friendly materials, like the Crescent Moon Eva snowshoe.
Another feature of snowshoes is the importance of traction, which is achieved via crampons or serrated edges. Recreational snowshoes typically have simple traction, whereas technical snowshoes tend to have advanced traction.
The crampons are usually made out of steel or any of its composites, and aluminum. Steel crampons are stronger than aluminum but aluminum is lighter than steel. Most snowshoes have two or three crampons at the toe. You may also find crampons underneath the ball of the foot, which is helpful for descending. The serrated frame mentioned above also helps the snowshoe provide traction.
When evaluating how to choose your snowshoes, you’ll also want to consider whether the crampons are coated to prevent snow and ice build-up. Sometimes, if the crampons aren’t powder-coated, snowballs can build up in your crampons, especially in wet snow.
If you find that snow is building up on your snowshoes, you can always spray an environmentally friendly lubricant, such as ski wax on your crampons to limit snow build-up. Just be careful not to put on only a light coat, so you don’t make your crampons too slippery.
Speaking of snow build-up, the traction provided on snowshoes is best used in conditions that have snow. If your trail is mostly icy conditions, it’s recommended to use a traction device such as Yaktrax or Kahtoola to navigate these types of terrain. Using your snowshoes on icy surfaces can cause unnecessary wear to the steel or aluminum crampons underneath the snowshoe.
Finally, snowshoes can have climbing bars or heel lifts. If you are planning on regularly climbing steep terrain, consider getting snowshoes with these. The heel lift helps alleviate muscle fatigue in your calves when climbing up steep hills and can be a lifesaver on a difficult trek with steep elevation changes.
Master The Sizing Of Your Snowshoe
Okay, so now that we’ve discussed how to assess snowshoe conditions, terrain, and features, it’s time to find your correct snowshoe size!
When considering sizing, it’s important to remember the main functionality of snowshoes is flotation or to prevent substantial sinking in the snow. Since the overall surface area of the snowshoe impacts floatation, you want to make sure you have the right snowshoe size to distribute your weight equally on the snowshoe. The size will, in fact, dictate the amount of flotation.
If you look into the specs, every snowshoe has a recommended weight range. Bear in mind that the weight does not only refer to your body weight but your body weight including all the gear you are going to carry with you.
The weight range is intended to limit sinking in the snow. Thus, it’s most important to consider when hiking in deep snow where you could sink. If you’re over the weight recommendation in 3 feet of snow, you could sink too deep and have an unpleasant snowshoe experience.
However, if you are snowshoeing on packed trails or shallow snow where you will not sink, there is more flexibility in the weight recommendations. Make sure to check whether the manufacturer’s weight guidelines are listed for packed or powder conditions.
In addition, another aspect of finding the right snowshoe size is the binding’s fit on your foot. Sometimes, snowshoers will only follow the weight recommendations, but then end up purchasing a snowshoe that is far too large for their foot.
Many manufacturers will list shoe sizes for each snowshoe based on the binding. If they do not, make sure that the binding of your snowshoe will comfortably fit your foot. The snowshoes shouldn’t be so large that they cause you to deviate from your natural gait.
If you find a snowshoe that fits your foot correctly, but you do not fall exactly within that snowshoe’s weight requirements, that’s okay. You can always still use that snowshoe, as long as you’re not snowshoeing in very deep snow where you could sink.
Overall – How to Choose Your Snowshoes
Hopefully, this guide will help you choose the snowshoes for your specific needs and requirements. Before you come to a final decision, make sure to go through the specs using the information above, and look for customer reviews. Also, check out our gear guides and reviews to explore options!
Have you used any of the recommendations above? What are your tips for how to choose the right snowshoe? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
This article was originally published on November 18, 2018, and was updated by Susan Wowk to include new and relevant information on February 25, 2021.