how to choose snowshoes

If you've never experienced the beauty or serenity of hiking in fresh-fallen snow, you're in for an adventurous treat. Snowshoeing is easy to do and fairly inexpensive. With a little knowledge, buying the right snowshoes is a walk in the park.

This article and video give you the basics of how to shop for snowshoes.

Know Your Terrain

REI categorizes snowshoes as follows:

Flat Terrain

  • Designed for easy walking on flat to rolling terrain; ideal for families.
  • Includes entry-level models that offer good value.
  • Easy-to-adjust bindings and less aggressive traction systems.

Rolling Terrain

  • Designed for hiking on rolling to steep terrain; suitable for all but very steep or icy conditions.
  • A step up from entry level, good for hiking off the beaten track.
  • Designed with more aggressive crampons and beefier bindings.

Mountain Terrain

  • Designed for icy, steep terrain.
  • Aimed at snowshoers who want to blaze their own trails for day hiking, winter summiting, backpacking or backcountry snowboarding.
  • Made with climbing-style crampons and rugged bindings that can withstand harsh conditions and terrain.

While most snowshoes fall into these 3 categories, a few models are designed specifically for trail-running, fitness or climbing.

Shop REI's selection of men's snowshoes and women's snowshoes. You can narrow your selection by using the left-hand navigation column.

Here's another option: Many REI stores offer snowshoes for rent. Take a pair out for a test walk. (Please call first for availability.)

Snowshoe

Find the Right Snowshoe Size

Aluminum-frame snowshoes come in multiple sizes, usually 8" x 25", 9" x 30" and 10" x 36" or something similar. Composite snowshoes come in one size (typically 8" x 22") and offer the option of adding tails (up to 6") to help you stay afloat on soft snow.

Why does size matter? It's a key factor in getting the right amount of flotation.

Step 1: Narrow by Gender (or Age)

Snowshoe sizes and shapes vary as follows:

  • Men's snowshoes are designed to accommodate larger boots and heavier loads.
  • Women's snowshoes tend to feature narrower, more contoured frame designs and sizes down to 8" x 21". Their bindings are sized to fit women's footwear.
  • Kids' snowshoes vary by intended age. Smaller sizes are intended for casual snow play, while larger models offer the same technical features found on adult snowshoes.

Step 2: Consider Snow Conditions

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.

Step 3: Determine Your Weight with Gear

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.

Parts of a Snowshoe

Parts of a Snowshoe

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.

Frames and Decking

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.

Frames and Decking

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.

Bindings

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:

  • Rotating (or floating) bindings pivot at the point where they attach to the decking—under the balls of your feet. This movement allows you to walk naturally and to climb hills. The amount that bindings pivot varies among models. Some bindings are attached with metal rods and pivot 90° or more. This causes the ends of the snowshoes, called tails, to fall away as you step, shedding snow and reducing leg fatigue. Rotation also allows "tracking" or steering in deep snow and positions your boots for kicking steps into steep slopes. The downside? Rotating bindings can be awkward when you need to climb over logs or back up.
  • Fixed bindings are connected with heavy-duty rubber or neoprene bands and don't pivot as much. This type of binding brings the snowshoe tails up with each step, allowing a comfortable stride. This also makes stepping over obstacles and backing up easier. The downside of fixed bindings is that they tend to kick up snow on the backs of your legs.

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.

Traction Devices

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.

  • Toe or instep crampons are located on the undersides of the bindings, so they pivot with your feet and dig in as you climb. This is the primary source of traction for any snowshoe.
  • Heel crampons are placed on the decking undersides of many snowshoes. They are frequently in a V formation, which fills with snow and slows you down as you descend.
  • Side rails (also called traction bars) on the decking undersides provide lateral stability and reduce side-slipping as you cross slopes.
  • Braking bars are integrated into the undersides of plastic-decking snowshoes to provide forward traction and prevent backsliding.
Snowshoe heel lift

Heel Lifts

Also known as climbing bars or, on MSR models, Televators, these wire bails can be flipped up under your heels to relieve calf strain on steep uphill sections and save energy on long ascents. This feature gives the feeling of walking up steps and prevents exaggerated calf and Achilles strain.

Snowshoe FAQs

Sorel winter boots

Q: What kind of boots should I wear with my snowshoes?

A: Any waterproof hiking boot or insulated winter boot should work fine. For long hikes, avoid loose-fitting boots with removable liners as the liners eventually pack down and leave your feet cold. Consider wearing knee-high gaiters, too, to keep snow out of your boots, especially in deep snow conditions. For details, see the REI Expert Advice article, Gaiters: How to Choose.

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.

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