Snowshoes: How to Choose
If you've never experienced the beauty or serenity of hiking in freshly fallen snow, you're in for an adventurous treat. Snowshoeing is easy to do and fairly inexpensive.
Snowshoes allow you to travel across snow-covered ground without sinking or struggling. This is much easier than walking with regular snow boots.
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, the more snowshoe surface area is required.
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Video: Snowshoes: How to Choose
Types of Snowshoes
Most snowshoes fall into 3 categories: flat terrain, rolling terrain and mountain terrain. A few models are designed specifically for trail-running, fitness or climbing
Flat Terrain Snowshoes
Best for beginners. These are designed for easy walking on flat to rolling terrain and are ideal for families and casual snowshoers.
Flat-terrain snowshoes feature easy-to-adjust bindings and less aggressive traction systems. This category includes entry-level models that offer good value.
Rolling Terrain Snowshoes
Best for hikers and backpackers. Rolling-terrain snowshoes are designed for hiking on rolling to steep terrain off the beaten track and are suitable for all but very steep or icy conditions.
Rolling-terrain snowshoes are designed with more aggressive crampons and beefier bindings. This category is a step up from entry level.
Mountain Terrain Snowshoes
Best for advanced hikers, mountaineers and backcountry snowboarders. Mountain-terrain snowshoes are designed for icy, steep terrain. They are aimed at snowshoers who want to blaze their own trails.
They’re made with climbing-style crampons and rugged bindings that can withstand harsh conditions and terrain.
Snowshoe size is a key factor in getting the right amount of flotation. Generally, the heavier the person or the lighter and drier the snow, the more snowshoe surface area is required.
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.
Sizing by Gender or Age
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.
Sizing by Recommended Load
Your weight, including equipment, is referred to as the recommended load or carrying capacity. You can find the recommended load for different snowshoe lengths on the Specs tab on snowshoe product pages on REI.com. 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.
Sizing by Terrain Type and 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.
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.
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.
Snowshoe Frames and Decking
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 a 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:
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.
Snowshoe 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.
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.
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. For long hikes, avoid loose-fitting boots with removable liners as the liners eventually pack down and leave your feet cold.
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