There are plenty of ways to get outside and enjoy nature during the winter. Many of us like to ski or snowboard; charting lines through tight trees or laying down clean turns on hardpack. Others enjoy the rhythm and physical exertion of cross-country skiing; moving quickly on a snowy track propelled by their own power. Yet one of the most beautiful and contemplative ways of enjoying nature in winter is simply taking a walk through snowy woods.
Snowshoes are a wonderful way to see the world around you in an unfamiliar setting. Winding trails are buried beneath a blanket of snow, green pines hold a delicate sugary dusting on their boughs, and the tracks of deer, bear and rabbits crisscross your path.
While snowshoeing is not as exciting as skiing, as technical as ice climbing or as intense of a workout as Nordic skiing, it is one of the most enjoyable winter pursuits because of its simplicity. Buying a new pair of snowshoes can seem complicated, since there are different sizes, features, binding styles and constructions to choose from. This guide will help you determine what pair of snowshoes is right for you, so that you can get outside and start experiencing the beauty of winter!
Types of Snowshoes
Traditional Wrapped Frame
Traditionally, snowshoes were constructed with a strong wood frame wrapped in rawhide strips to form a sturdy deck that floated on soft snow. This design has evolved to use a lightweight aluminum frame wrapped in plastic or a malleable rubber that is more durable and provides more float.
Most modern snowshoes, from expedition-style models to recreational snowshoes, use a traditional frame and deck style construction. Additionally, some brands like MSR and Atlas use variations on traditional design by integrating sharp rows of teeth into a thin steel frame and incorporating a hard, molded plastic deck.
With the introduction of the Denali Snowshoes from MSR, which featured a solid plastic deck that was lightweight, durable and flexible, an additional style of construction became popular, especially for expedition and hiking snowshoes. One-piece, composite frame snowshoes are great for recreational use and light hiking. Composite snowshoes often only come in one size, so they are great for rentals and for kids who are growing.
Polyurethane Strap Bindings
Old school and backcountry skiers will recognize the familiar polyurethane straps used on many snowshoe bindings. This style of binding uses 2 or 3 of these straps, which stretch for a very secure, custom fit and are easily replaceable in the field. The straps used in this type of binding won’t become brittle in the cold and style function when covered in ice and snow. This style is popular on many expedition style snowshoes. These are the most secure and versatile bindings, but also the least user friendly for entry and exit.
In an effort to increase ease of entry and exit, while continuing to provide a secure fit, some brands have opted for a wrap style binding, which has a piece of plastic and padding that wraps the instep of the foot and latches on the top. It can be tightened and made secure on the foot, but is easy to release and step out of without undoing the adjustment.
Webbing Strap Bindings
This style of binding features a pieces of nylon webbing that crosses the foot and is woven through the binding to hug the foot for a secure fit. This style usually has a single pull tab and buckle to tighten the strap on the foot or release it when stepping out. This style is not as easy to use as a wrap style, but offers the most secure fit after the ski strap style.
Some companies have taken inspiration from snowboarding bindings and implemented ratchet style straps on their snowshoes. Ratchet style systems are easy to tighten and release, and allow for a snug fit. Ratchet style bindings are user friendly, but are heavy, prone to icing over and difficult to repair in the field. This style is ideal for recreational snowshoes or for those who need an easy-to-use binding.
One of the most innovative and high tech binding styles utilizes the Boa Closure system. By turning a wheel, a cable tightens evenly throughout the entire binding and heel for a secure fit. The binding also releases easily, making snowshoes with a Boa closure system one of the most user-friendly styles.
Crampons & Traction
One distinguishing factor that makes it easy to narrow down your snowshoe search is the level of traction you’re looking for. If you’re mainly using your snowshoes for casual hiking over flat or gently rolling terrain, then you won’t need substantial crampons. However, if you’re using your snowshoes for backcountry hiking, or for steep approaches to ice climbs or alpine routes, then an aggressive toe and forefoot crampon as well as additional sharp teeth along the frame and deck are essential.
Most snowshoes have sharp toe and heel crampons. These can handle flat ground and most moderate ascents, but when things get steep they will begin to slide and climbing will become difficult. More technical models, like MSR snowshoes and high-end models from Atlas and Tubbs have tooth patterns all around their frames as well as aggressive toe crampons, making them ideal for hiking and traversing steep, icy ascents and descents.
In addition to more aggressive traction patterns, most modern snowshoes designed for steep ascents will also feature a climbing bar. On a steep slope, it is necessary to apply downward pressure to the rear of the snowshoe in order to engage heel and tail teeth. Without a climbing bar, this means you’ll have drop your heel to gain traction, which is unnatural and saps energy.
A climbing bar snaps into place to support the heel and allow downward pressure on the tail of the snowshoe without dropping the foot. The bar is easy to engage and snaps back into place on flat ground and descents. For people snowshoeing on steeper terrain, a climbing heel bar is a necessary feature.
Flotation tails are an accessory exclusive to MSR snowshoes, that allow the user to extend the length of the snowshoe for additional surface area and, by extension, flotation.
These tails are primarily used in backcountry conditions for hiking through deep snow. They add 5-6″ to the length of a compatible snowshoe, which increases the range of conditions that your snowshoes are suitable for. If you are buying MSR snowshoes and you want to own a single pair for a variety of conditions, from packed snow to deep powder, a pair of tails are a great accessory to own.
While running snowshoes are still a small segment of the snowshoe market, they are growing in popularity and are a great way to continue running when winter hits.
Running snowshoes are usually smaller, with a thinner width to accommodate fast movement. Additionally, running snowshoes feature bindings that are designed to fit running shoes, as well as bindings that rebound with each step to keep the deck closer to your foot.
Sizing can be a confusing aspect of the snowshoe buying process. Different brands have different lengths, some offer two sizes while others offer three, and there is often some overlap among sizes. In spite of appearances, finding the proper size is fairly straightforward. Snowshoe length is directly correlated to user weight, so you can find the right size in a particular shoe by looking at the recommended weight ranges on a manufacturer’s size chart.
Generally, lighter adult snowshoe users who weigh roughly 80-160 lbs need a shoe that is around 21″-23″ long. This size is usually available in women’s models only, with a few exceptions. Men and women who weigh between 120-220 lbs can go with a snowshoe in the 25″-27″ range. This is one of the most common sizes and most women’s and men’s snowshoes come in a 25″, 26″, or 27″ size. Snowshoe users who weigh 160-260 lbs will need a 30″ snowshoe, while those who weigh 180-300 lbs will need a snowshoe between 35″ and 36″ or an MSR snowshoe with flotation tails.
Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap between these size ranges, and if you fall towards the end of one weight range, you are likely in the middle of the weight range for a size up or down. Ideally, you want your weight to fall into the middle of a weight range so that you get the flotation that you need without excessive length under your feet. Also, if you are backpacking on snowshoes, be sure to account for the weight of your pack when choosing a size, since this may push you into a different weight range.
Here is a basic reference chart for snowshoe sizing: