The earliest snowshoes were most likely made from panels of stiffened animal hides or slats of wood. They were probably held on the wearer’s feet by leather thongs or roping made from fibrous plant stems, tied to the foot and ankle to secure their snowshoe.
After thousands of years, the traditional/wooden-framed shoes still use mostly leather strapping and laced foot harnesses to hold onto the wearer’s feet. Straps have advanced to incorporate ratcheted buckles and basic bindings now also include ‘step-through’ rubber/synthetic sleeves instead of the conventional strap. Yet those traditional styles of bindings remain straightforward.
The development of metal and synthetic-formed “modern” or “western” snowshoes frames and their associated components have revolutionized today’s snowshoes. As a result, the binding systems available to snowshoers now are diverse, given all the frame designs, skill levels, and range of terrain/snow condition options.
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How a Binding Works
A snowshoe binding is a mechanical device (foot platform and strap/harness system) that attaches the snowshoe to the wearer’s foot. The binding can range from simple straps to more sophisticated mechanisms, which we discuss below.
Bindings secure your boots or shoes to the snowshoe. They also provide a comfortable fit and optimal control across various snow environments and typically align with the snowshoe design.
How the binding is affixed to the snowshoe and how it allows the foot to move in relationship to the snowshoe is referred to as articulation.
In a full rotation/pivot binding, the snowshoe falls away from the wearer’s heel. Such “floating” bindings pivot at the ball of the foot and reduce leg fatigue when climbing (try a technique called kick-stepping on steep slopes). Also, these types of bindings tend to shed snow (no snow kicked up on your pants while walking)
With fixed bindings, the binding keeps your boot or shoe relatively parallel with the snowshoe. This design causes the entire frame to lift with each step while still providing some flex at the ball/toe bar. Although not as efficient on slopes, fixed bindings do lend themselves to a more natural walking stride when used on flat and hard-packed terrain.
Read More: Snowshoeing Techniques for the Beginner
All bindings include straps, lacing, or webbing to secure the foot. They can also incorporate other components that create an optimum system for a particular snowshoe design and use.
Components might include:
- Adjustable heel straps – Try ratcheted or hook/loop straps for better adjustment.
- EVA foam foot platforms – These can provide extra comfort and warmth.
- Toe cups/boxes – These tend to provide extra security and minimal movement while snowshoeing.
- Heel lifts – These allow more efficient foot placement when climbing hills. Flip the heel lift up and down when needed by using the tip of your pole or with gloves.
Watch a Video: Anatomy of a Snowshoe
When choosing your binding, consider the terrain and material of the binding to suit your needs best.
Flat Terrain: Try a basic strap binding configuration (like those on recreational snowshoes) with no heel lift needed. Toe boxes/cups can provide extra security for your foot but are unnecessary.
Rolling/Uneven Terrain: A heel lift could be helpful since you may have some slopes. Overall, try a more moderately-priced snowshoe with sturdy, easily adjustable bindings.
Mountainous Terrain: You will have steep terrain and potentially icy slopes and likely need a technical snowshoe. Also, rugged traverses may require sophisticated bindings (including features like a foot platform, toe cup, heel lift, etc.). So, look for bindings that cater to stouter footwear and sizes.
Read More: 7 Beginner Snowshoes for Varied Terrain
Binding materials have different characteristics that make them better suited for one particular range of use and less for others. Some materials, their uses, and their advantages and disadvantages include:
Leather/Neoprene: The classic and familiar style used for webbing and bindings on traditional wooden snowshoes
- Advantage: like synthetic leather, these are non-stretching and moisture tolerant
- Disadvantage: prone to stretching when wet and requires routine maintenance
Nylon Webbing Straps: Found on double-use/sandal-style bindings and often as belted straps/laces cinched around the foot. Moreover, these are most commonly used for light recreational use.
- Advantage: sometimes work better at securing larger footwear
- Disadvantage: tend to stretch over time and in colder environments and can cause trouble if combined with a toe box or other forefoot restriction
Rubber/Polyurethane: An elastic sheath or webbing that holds the boot snuggly against the snowshoe
- Advantage: no moving parts, easy to use with mittens
- Disadvantage: they may take some time to adjust
Ratchet Straps: Similar to those used on snowboards, ratchet straps offer incremental adjusting and lock the foot onto the snowshoe frame.
- Advantage: easily and precisely adjustable, and offers better security and control of snowshoe while maneuvering in challenging terrain
- Disadvantage: these can be heavy and add weight to the snowshoe
BOA Fit System: BOA uses a network of small, strong, nylon-coated stainless steel wires encircling the binding around the foot area. The system functions by spreading the force of the pressure over both light and heavy-duty footwear. The system uses an adjustment knob to fine-tune the fit.
- Advantage: easy to adjust and use with gloves/mittens, does not loosen over time, withstands freezing temperatures, repels ice/snow.
- Disadvantage: replacement parts might not be made by the original manufacturer and can be tough to find
Read More: Traditional Snowshoe Bindings 101
Over the last decade or so, there have been and continue to be a wide variety of binding innovations.
BOA Fit System
Though the BOA system is now commonly found on snowboards, cycling shoes, and snowshoe bindings, other products have incorporated this system over the last 5-10 years. For example, Atlas and Tubbs Snowshoes (like their former Apex MTN model) use the BOA system.
“We build the bindings around the BOA system,” says Bryan Cranandang, marketing manager for Elevate Outdoor Collective (Tubbs, Atlas Snowshoes). “The advantage of BOA is that you get an exact fit with equally distributed tension. They’re very comfortable, and the ease of use is amazing for quickly getting in and out of the bindings,” he added.
The system works within several categories of snowshoes (backcountry, mountain, day-hiking, trail walking) and is incorporated with the bindings on select high-end models of several snowshoe brands. “Our [Tubbs, Atlas] snowshoes have bindings that were designed and incorporated around the BOA system,” adds Cranandang.
Pack Flat Binding
Atlas Snowshoes created a “Pack Flat” binding that lies flat against the frame. It provides ease of attaching to a backpack when not snowshoeing, skiing, or snowboarding. You can also replace this binding in the field with other Atlas-compatible bindings.
MSR designed a freeze-resistant mesh strap incorporating a toe for precise foot alignment. The binding wraps securely around a wide range of boots for ultimate control.
In 2019, Fimbulvetr released their Hugin Binding, which features a locking cinch cord-type foot harness. The laces look similar to a shoe and tighten from a pull of the cord. You then need to lock the laces to keep them secure.
Choose Your Binding
Snowshoe design helps bindings work best in specific environments, from casual flatland use to challenging, diverse terrains. A binding feature may be an advantage in one setting and a disadvantage in another. Consider both the landscape and material when choosing your binding.
In today’s innovative snowshoe market, where the expansion of traditional straps and buckles include high-tech’ cable-adjusting fitting systems, binding choices are as varied as sophisticated.
What type of binding do you prefer? Also, what other recommendations do you have? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.