Snowshoes allow you to “float” on the snow by spreading your weight over a large, flat surface. When you’re wearing snowshoes, you can more easily make your way up snowy slopes or along groomed trails, which makes snowshoeing an accessible winter outdoor activity for people of all skill levels. Snowshoeing typically costs less than other winter sports, too. Consider this guide your invitation to get outside in the freshly fallen snow and join the growing snowshoe trend!
To pick the best snowshoes of 2019, we looked for comfortable, well-made, highly tractioned and easy-to-use snowshoes. We prioritized qualities like flotation (how much you’ll sink into loose snow), traction (how well the snowshoes grip on steep slopes), extra features (like heel lifts and flotation tails), comfort (especially around the bindings) and ease of use.
As per usual, we started our research by reading through dozens of REI customer reviews. We made a list of the most popular snowshoes sold at REI, and then consulted several snowshoe experts to confirm that we hadn’t missed anything. Finally, we landed on nine pairs of snowshoes to test, plus a few sets of flotation tails and poles. We ordered each pair of snowshoes—some in two lengths since snowshoes should be bought based on weight (more on that later)—and then tackled four popular and snowy Pacific Northwest mountain trails. We climbed up and down snowbanks, asked friends and strangers to weigh in on ease of use, and completed treks through flat, rolling and mountain terrains.
After using each pair of snowshoes for several snowy treks, we landed on the following pairs as the best snowshoes you can buy at REI in 2019:
The Best Snowshoes for Mountain Hiking
Available Sizes: 22 inch, 25 inch, 30 inch
Recommended Weight Limits: Up to 280 pounds, depending on snowshoe length
MSR’s Lightning Ascent Snowshoes have long been the favorite snowshoe for hikers and outdoorspeople, and for good reason. These snowshoes have a reputation for lasting for many years if you take care of them, according to the experts we spoke with as well as customer reviews.
The Lightning Ascent snowshoes come in women’s and men’s profiles. (The women’s snowshoes are slightly narrower, although we found that our testers could use either version comfortably.) The Lightning Ascents also come in many lengths, and you can buy extra flotation tails to add length if you plan to hike with a heavy pack.
The Lightning Ascents are made with aluminum frames. Durable, TPU-coated nylon is stretched between the frames. Steel crampons provide expert traction in all terrains and any of the individual components on these snowshoes—including the bindings—can be replaced fairly easily by MSR, should they break.
The MSR Lightning Ascents offered the best traction on steep slopes compared to the other snowshoes we tested because of their well-placed steel crampons. The Ascents kept our feet locked in as we climbed, with no side-to-side movement or worries about ankle rolls. The traction was just as good going up as it was going down, too: Our feet didn’t slide during the descents and one of our testers said he felt like a mountain goat even on steep slopes. The Ascent’s bindings were fairly easy to lock in from the start as well (although if you have small feet, beware that the straps may be a bit long; you can always trim them).
The Lightning Ascents also offer heel lifts, which are game-changers for steep slopes; small metal bars flip up under your heels to help you climb hills without calf pain, turning your snowshoes into something like a stair climber. The flotation of the Lightning Ascents was just right in deep snow, too: We tended to float on top of loose snow rather than postholing (breaking through).
These snowshoes are best for mountainous terrain, where you’ll want to pay a bit more for those special features like heel lifts and expert traction. That said, the Lightning Ascents will work just as well on rolling and flat terrain; if you plan to buy a pair of all-purpose snowshoes, the MSR Lightning Ascents are the best choice.
“I have owned these for two years now,” said one reviewer on REI.com. “I have owned 5 pairs of snowshoes over the last 20 years and led snowshoe outings for Sierra Club and others. Backcountry, off trail and snow camping are my thing. With that said, these are the best snowshoes I have ever owned. The side rails offer good stability on side hills, even icy. The cleats also are aggressive for climbing. The deck offers good flexibility, allowing your ankles to move freely on terrain. The lifter is a bonus for uphills… If you want to get out in the backcountry, these are a great choice!”
The Best Snowshoes for Beginners
Available Sizes: 22 inches
Recommended Weight Limits: Up to 180 pounds, depending on snowshoe length
The reasonably priced MSR Evo Snowshoes are a great beginner option for folks who plan to snowshoe occasionally on groomed, rolling or flat terrain. These snowshoes are the most entry-level MSR model available and they’re a solid, “good enough” option, with easy-to-use rubber bindings, a lightweight plastic frame and deck, and powder-coated steel crampons.
Compared to some of the other basic snowshoes we tested, the MSR Evos give you more traction for your money. They’re easy to operate with intuitive rubber bindings that cinch up over the top of your feet and behind your heels. However, the MSR Evos don’t have heel lifts and they’re really only offered in shorter lengths, so you should keep to groomed trails and avoid deep snow or steep slopes, where you’re likely to break through snow or slide around more than you’d like. (If you’re heavier than 180 pounds—pack included—consider purchasing extra flotation tails for the Evos, which will help you float a bit more.) They’re also a bit bulkier than the advanced snowshoes mentioned in this guide, which means you may have to lift your knees higher and move a bit more slowly than you’d like in the snow.
Again, MSR snowshoes have a reputation for being super durable, and the Evos are no exception. Despite their relatively low price, most reviewers reported that they’d owned them for more than five years and that they were still going strong. If something breaks, MSR offers replacement services for individual parts, so you don’t have to buy a whole new pair of snowshoes.
One reviewer said: “I bought these snowshoes as my first pair 8 years ago. They are great beginner shoes because they work for most terrains and they are fairly light weight. Even though I've upgraded for speed, I still feel myself using these many times because they are stable and sturdy. As a matter of fact, I just used these on a 22 mile trek with a best friend who had rented a similar pair and they stayed out and comfortable the whole trek…. Great for the price and great if you’re looking for long term durability.”
The Best Snowshoes for Trail Running
Available Sizes: 22 inches
Recommended Weight Limits: 190 pounds
If you’re a trail runner, consider strapping the Atlas Run Snowshoes onto your favorite trail running shoes and heading out for a snowy run on groomed trails. We found the Atlas Run’s cinch-and-go bindings to be easy to use once we understood the system, and the light weight of these snowshoes (they’re less than three pounds) made them a solid choice for days when we wanted to move quickly. The Atlas Run’s bindings are made from rubber and the frame is a durable aluminum. The deck is constructed from stretched nylon and the crampons, while not built for mountain terrain, are fashioned from a fairly grippy stainless steel. These snowshoes are also made for agile running: your heel will lift out of the snowshoe as you move, which allows you to cover ground more quickly. Instead of lifting up the whole snowshoe with each step, you can glide more effortlessly along the snow.
We took the Atlas Runs out for a few tests in deep snow and groomed terrain and found that they performed most admirably on groomed trails with rolling hills. They’re not quite long enough to provide flotation in deep snow, especially for people who weigh more than 180 pounds (pack included), but they grip the snow nicely and help you float on groomed, possibly icy, trails.
One of our testers put it best: “These are made for a flat, fairly groomed trail run in the snow. They’re not good in deep snow but the stride is right; the snowshoe heel comes up with your foot as you run, and you can move quite quickly.”
What kind of snowshoes do I need?
When you’re buying snowshoes, you first need to think about where you plan to go winter hiking, says Christa Lindsey, sales lead at REI’s Sacramento, California, location. She says that terrains can typically be broken down into three categories:
- Flat terrain (think: open meadows, river valleys, groomed trails)
- Mixed or rolling terrain (think: forests, rolling hills, off the groomed trails)
- Steep, mountainous terrain (think: uphill and downhill, backcountry)
For flat, mixed or rolling terrain with groomed snow, you can typically get away with using a more basic snowshoe that has less traction and a shorter tail. Plastic or foam snowshoes are a good choice for flat terrain, as they’re less expensive and typically lighter in weight.
If you’re headed to the mountains or off the groomed trails, Lindsey says you’ll want to buy longer snowshoes that offer solid traction and flotation, which probably means seeking out durable features like aluminum frames, nylon decks and steel crampons.
“The most important thing to consider [are] the materials and the durability of said materials,” says Emily Murray, an assistant category merchant at REI. “I want snowshoes that will give me the traction I need, and bindings that will hold onto my feet.”
Think you might be interested in a pair of snowshoes, but not quite ready to make the investment? You can also rent snowshoes at your local REI.
What materials are used to make snowshoes?
Most brands use aluminum or plastic to make snowshoe frames, says Lindsey. Aluminum is lightweight and strong, but easily dented; plastic is heavier yet quite durable. Crampons are generally made of stainless steel, which provides long-term durability and grips the snow well. Most snowshoe bindings and decks are made of plastic or rubber. Some snowshoes (like the Crescent Moon EVA snowshoes, which we tested) are even made of foam! Again, your choice of materials and snowshoes will vary depending on your use case.
What style of bindings are best?
Bindings are meant to connect your foot to the snowshoe itself, says Lindsey. Ideally, you want bindings that will keep your foot locked into the snowshoe, even in deep snow, with little front-to-back or side-to-side movement (this does not include running shoes, which should allow for a bit more mobility). There’s nothing worse than stepping into deep snow and losing a snowshoe because of loose bindings!
There are many styles of bindings on the market, so your choice really depends on personal preference. According to Murray, some bindings are made of nylon webbing and plastic cams, while others use heavy rubberized straps, and still others use a ratcheting or a Boa® system like the ones found on ski boots. Murray notes that Atlas, for example, has a binding that requires only a few pulls of a cinch-strap, while MSR’s bindings are virtually indestructible and meant for aggressive ascents, but may be a bit harder to hook onto your feet than other options.
To find the best bindings for you, head to the store with your snow boots to try on snowshoes and discuss your adventure plans with a salesperson. You’ll also want to bring a pair of mittens or gloves to test how easily you can manage the bindings with your hands covered.
How deep should the snow be for snowshoeing?
“In general, you want to don snowshoes anytime the snow is deep enough that walking on top of it without snowshoes would impede your ability to travel efficiently because you would be punching through the surface [commonly referred to as postholing],” says Lindsey.
How deep is that? You’ll want to break out your snowshoes when the snow is consistently over the top of boot height, says Murray. “Think of it as mid-calf snow ... 14 inches of compact snow, or 8 to 14 inches of non-compact snow.”
“There may be times, especially at the beginning or end of the season, where the snow is patchy. While one section of a trail may have hip deep snow, another might have none,” says Lindsey. “In this case, having snowshoes is helpful to get across those snowy spots but they will need to be carried across those bare sections.”
A fun fact from Lindsey: You can also use your snowshoes at the beach, desert or even sand dunes. They provide floatation by increasing your surface area so you can walk more easily across the sand!
What are the best pants to wear snowshoeing?
This depends on where you are and how intense your snowshoe adventure will be, Murray says. You definitely want a windproof and water-resistant layer that will dump heat and keep you dry. Some people will choose to wear snow pants if the climate promises to be especially cold, while others will wear gaiters or rain pants in warmer climates.
“Mostly, you should pick what makes you comfortable,” Murray says. This goes for your jacket, too, which should keep out wintry elements like rain, sleet and snow, says Lindsey.
What are the best boots to wear snowshoeing?
Definitely something waterproof, Murray says: “Remember, you’re hiking in frozen water with things strapped to your feet.”
“Depending on the conditions you will be in, having insulated boots may be necessary as well,” says Lindsey. You should also wear thicker wool or synthetic socks, to keep your feet warm and blister-free.
Read more: The Best Winter Boots for 2018–2019
Do you need special snowshoe poles?
Unless you’re hiking on flat terrain, the answer is yes, according to our experts. Snowshoeing forces your stance a bit wider than normal, so you’ll want the extra stability of poles, Murray says. This is especially true when you step into an area with loose snow and your snowshoe breaks through at a funky angle, which happens often in icy conditions. A set of poles can help keep you upright.
“Poles are a critical piece of gear you don't want to hit the trails without. They help keep you balanced on uneven terrain, are a tool for probing snow depths and strength, as well as an invaluable tool for standing back up after having fallen in soft snow,” says Lindsey.
An added benefit: “If you’re snowshoeing for fitness, poles bring your arms into it,” Murray notes.
How to pick the right snowshoe size for you:
Snowshoes typically come in 22-inch, 25-inch and 30-inch lengths, although options will vary depending on the brand.
Choosing snowshoes is a decision that includes calculating your weight (with your pack) and thinking about snow conditions. In general, Murray says to remember that heavier people will need longer snowshoes (which cover more surface area) in order to keep themselves afloat in deep snow. Any person will need longer snowshoes if you plan to hike in deep, loose snow.
Typically, people under 180 pounds (pack included) will want 22-inch snowshoes; sizes extend from there, as your weight increases. If you don’t want to buy longer snowshoes, you can purchase aftermarket flotation tails, which give you extra length if your pack gets heavier or the snow gets deeper.
A quick note on safety:
Often, avalanches are triggered by people traveling on or beneath unstable snow slopes. This means you may want to undergo avalanche training before you head out for a snowshoe trip, so you can be aware of the signs. Most hiking applications also provide information about avalanche warnings, which you can check before heading outside to make sure that you won’t be hiking in a dangerous area. For more information about avalanche awareness and basics, check out our Avalanches Guide.
Care and maintenance:
“Wipe off your snowshoes and check them for wear after you use them,” Murray recommends. “If you only use your snowshoes in the snow, they should last forever.”
Lindsey echoes this, saying that she’s had her snowshoes for 15 years and they are still going strong. “I like to rinse my snowshoes off with fresh water after each trip to remove any dirt, sand or salts that may cause the snowshoe to rust or wear. When storing, do so with the crampons facing each other to prevent other gear from getting ruined. Store in a cool dry place.”
Rocks can break down the materials on a snowshoe, so you should be careful to put on your snowshoes once you reach the snow. “Snowshoes are for snow. Do not put them on and walk across the parking lot, that breaks them down,” Murray says. She also recommends keeping an eye on the straps and the bindings, which could wear out with use.