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. Consider this guide your invitation to get outside in the freshly fallen snow.
To pick the best snowshoes, 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.
With input from snowshoe experts and dozens of REI customer reviews, we landed on nine pairs of snowshoes to test, plus a few sets of flotation tails and poles. After using each pair of snowshoes for several snowy treks in the Pacific Northwest, we landed on the following pairs as the best snowshoes you can buy at REI.
Best Snowshoes for Mountain Hiking
Frame Material: Aluminum
Deck Material: TPU-coated nylon
Weight (Pair): Women’s – 3 lbs. 12 oz. (22 in.), 3 lbs. 14 oz. (25 in.); Men’s – 4 lbs. (22 in.), 4 lbs. 3 oz. (25 in.), 4 lbs. 12 oz. (30 in.)
MSR’s Lightning Ascent snowshoes have long been a favorite 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 snowshoes are available 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 few different lengths, and you can buy extra flotation tails to add length if you plan to hike with a heavy pack.
Compared to the other snowshoes we tested, the Lightning Ascent snowshoes offered the best traction on steep slopes because of their well-placed steel crampons.
The snowshoes 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 Lightning 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 Ascent snowshoes also offer heel lifts, which are game-changers for steep slopes; small metal bars flip up under your heels to help you climb hills, turning your snowshoes into something like a stair climber. The flotation 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.
Best Snowshoes for Beginners
Frame Material: Plastic
Deck Material: Plastic
Weight (Pair): 3 lbs. 7 oz.
The MSR Evo snowshoes are a great beginner option for folks who plan to travel occasionally on groomed, rolling or flat terrain. These snowshoes are the most entry-level MSR model available and they’re a solid 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 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.)
MSR snowshoes have a reputation for being super durable, and the Evos are no exception. If something breaks, MSR offers replacement services for individual parts, so you don’t have to buy a whole new pair of snowshoes.
What kind of snowshoes do I need?
When you’re buying snowshoes, consider where you plan to go winter hiking, says Christa Lindsey, sales lead at REI’s Sacramento, California, location. She says that terrain types 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 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.
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.”
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 of 2020
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. Consider attending avalanche awareness training before you head out for a snowshoe trip, so you can be aware of the signs of of avalanche danger. For more information, check out our Avalanches Awareness series.
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.