REI categorizes snowshoes as follows:
While most snowshoes fall into these 3 categories, a few models are designed specifically for trail-running, fitness or climbing.
Here's another option: Many REI stores offer snowshoes for rent. Take a pair out for a test walk. (Please call first for availability.)
Recommended loads are based on light, dry snow conditions. But consider that on powder snow you need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat than you would on compact, wet snow. In other words, a powder-happy Utah snowshoer may want a larger size than a same-sized snowshoer in wet Pacific Northwest snow.
Packed trails, brush and forest call for more compact shoes, which are easier to maneuver in tight spaces. Steep or icy terrain is also best explored with smaller snowshoes. Open areas with deep drifts require larger snowshoes.
Tip: Get the smallest size that will support your weight based on snow conditions and terrain. As long as you have adequate flotation, smaller snowshoes will be much easier to handle.
Your weight, including equipment, is referred to as the recommended load or carrying capacity on snowshoe specs. This is a major factor in determining the right size. In most circumstances, a heavier person or one with a heavily loaded pack will require larger snowshoes than a smaller person or one carrying gear just for the day.
Snowshoes allow you to travel across snow-covered ground without sinking or struggling. This is much easier than walking with regular snow boots. To do so, snowshoes provide "flotation" by spreading your weight evenly over a large, flat surface area. This flotation allows you to hike, climb or even run. Generally, the heavier the person or the lighter and drier the snow, more surface area of a snowshoe is required.
Historians trace the origin of snowshoes to Asia sometime between 4,000 and 6,000 B.C. As recently as the 1950s, snowshoes were still constructed from wood and rawhide.
Today, most snowshoes have aluminum frames and synthetic decking. These decks usually feature nylon or Hypalon rubber so they can be light and responsive.
Another style of snowshoe, popularized by MSR, features a composite frame with an integrated hard decking material. You can attach an up to 6" tail to these for extra flotation in deep powder.
Snowshoes secure to your boots with bindings, which usually consist of a platform and nylon straps that go over the foot and around the heel. Two types are common:
You don't need special footwear to go snowshoeing. Most snowshoe bindings are built to accept a variety of footwear styles, from hiking boots to snowboard boots. A few are made specifically for running shoes, while others are made for plastic mountaineering boots.
Although your weight provides some traction by pushing snowshoes into the snow, snowshoes feature tooth-like crampons or cleats for greater grip. Snowshoes for flat terrain offer moderate amounts of traction, while models made for mountainous terrain have more aggressive crampons for steep, icy conditions.
Q: Where do I place my foot in the snowshoe?
A: Your foot should be centered with the ball of your foot over the pivot point of the snowshoe. This placement gives you the most natural feel when you walk and helps you maintain a normal gait.
Q: What makes a "fitness snowshoe" different from other types of snowshoes?
A: "Fitness snowshoes" are generally made with lighter materials, minimal traction and a tapered tail. This creates a lighter snowshoe that is easy to run with and helps you to maintain a normal gait. Some women's snowshoes have these same properties and can double as fitness snowshoes.
Q: Can I use my downhill ski poles for snowshoeing?
A: This is not recommended. For most snowshoeing outings, poles should be adjustable for your comfort and safety. Trekking poles outfitted with large snow baskets work fine. Snowshoe poles are essentially the same thing as trekking poles, but with snow baskets already in place. You can switch these out to smaller trekking baskets for summer hiking.
By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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