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How To Choose Snowshoes

Originally, snowshoeing provided means for me to get started on my quest of summiting the 48 4000-footers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire during the winter.

Now that I reside in Utah, exploring the Wasatch-Uinta-Cache National Forest is far easier and more fun thanks to my trusty snowshoes. If you’ve always wanted to get out into the outdoors in the middle of winter, a pair of snowshoes may be your ticket to getting away from it all. Here’s a guide for choosing the snowshoes that are right for you.

Working on the same general principle as skis, snowshoes spread your weight over a large, flat surface to enable you to travel over the snow without sinking in up to your knees (aka ‘post-holing’). Snowshoes have been around for thousands of years in the Old World, although Native Americans had the most advanced designs going. Their classic design, a bent-wood frame with a webbing of rawhide strips, was adopted by trappers, settlers and soldiers as the easiest, most efficient way to get around in the winter woods.

In the 1950s, designs began to evolve, becoming lighter and smaller; further innovations like the pivoting binding and crampons helped popularize snowshoeing as a winter activity. Part of the appeal is how easy it is; as the saying goes, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” For those for whom getting outdoors is a critical part of their fitness routine, snowshoes enable them to walk, hike, or even run on snowy trails that would otherwise be difficult to traverse.

Narrowing Your Options

Today, you can find a wide variety of designs. The one that’s right for you will depend on how deep and firm the snow is that you tend to be out in, how steep and/or rocky your usual terrain is, and even how much you weigh and how much of a hurry you’re in.

Hiking/Recreational Snowshoes

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The most popular and most common type of snowshoes are hiking or recreational snowshoes. Their designs vary, but they share several common features:

  • Terrain: Flat to rolling hills.
  • Features: Simpler, often webbing-based bindings and less aggressive traction systems.
  • Tend to be more entry-level (and therefore lower-priced).

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Backcountry Snowshoes

Snowshoeing in the Northeast US
Photo courtesy K2/Tubbs

Backcountry snowshoes are for more challenging expeditions off the beaten track. The most technical snowshoes available, they will have more advanced features and, overall, cost more than other types of snowshoes.

  • Terrain: Designed for icy, steep terrain and deep snow.
  • Features: Aggressive crampons, including in some cases grippy edges on the sides of the deck and rear crampons, and better bindings that are sized to accommodate burly winter boots or snowboard boots.
  • Used for day hiking, winter summiting, backpacking, or backcountry snowboarding.

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Running Snowshoes

snowshoe runnig
Photo courtesy Salomon

Snowshoe running is becoming increasingly popular as people discover the fitness benefits of workouts on the snow; those with joint issues also appreciate the lower impact relative to running. Snowshoe races are cropping up around the country, too, as runners seek to maintain the competitive edge in the winter months. Flotation is not a focus here, speed is.

  • Terrain: Flat or rolling, usually groomed or packed down.
  • Features: Tend to be shorter and narrower than other snowshoes to enable a more natural gait.
  • Flotation is not a focus here, but rather speed and the ability to walk or run easily.

Though snowshoes are designed to be activity-specific, for the most part, they are versatile performers and the user will easily be able to spear these lines.

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Comparing Snowshoes: Features

Frame Type

Typically snowshoes are built with a tubular aluminum frame with thin, flexible decking material. But new designs are gaining traction, including those with a flat metal frame and those made entirely out of plastic.

tubular snowshoes3Tubular Frames

This traditional design is good for softer surfaces, when you don’t need a lot of traction. This style is generally found on recreational showshoes as well as backcountry models designed for deep powder.

Flat Stock Frame SnowshoesFlat Stock Frames

This new type of design is exemplified by the MSR Lightning line. They feature a metal frame with serrated edges and durable rubber decking. This style of shoe becomes worth its weight in gold when you’re clinging to a steep, icy pitch.

Louis Garneau SnowshoesPlastic Decking

This lightweight design usually doesn’t feature a separate frame; decking is made from plastic or a rigid composite. Because of this stiffness, they can be a little slippery on slick surfaces. These are best when flotation is not the main issue, or when you’re looking to save space.

Partial-Tubular-Frame - MSR

Plastic Decking with Partial Tubular Frames

A new, emerging hybrid that offers more of the float of tubular frames and the grip of plastic decking.

Crampons/Traction

Steel or steel composites are the most common, offering a strong platform with good grip. Aluminum is also used as a lightweight alternative. Most crampons feature a two-prong design at the toe, although some have three for better grip. Backcountry snowshoes may also include a row of teeth on the underside under the heel for better downhill traction. Many, if not most, snowshoes with a plastic decking feature ‘traction rails’ along the side that can help you safely traverse steep, hardpacked surfaces.

12-Series_Elektra_Traction
Aggressive traction characterizes backcountry/mountain hiking snowshoes like the Tubbs Elektra 12 series snowshoes.

Binding System

Bindings can make or break a purchase on a pair of snowshoes. When looking at a snowshoe, consider the footwear you will most likely be using, and the demands you will be putting on the snowshoe. For example, bindings on backcountry snowshoes will be stiffer and offer considerably more lateral support, and are usually sized to accommodate bigger boots (including snowboard boots). Running snowshoes also need to be supportive and offer a good foot/snowshoe connection, but they are usually designed to fit running shoes or light hikers.

There are several different types of binding materials and designs; Sometimes a binding will feature multiple types of straps/fastenings (e.g. Boa in the toe and ratchet at the heel).

  • Nylon webbing straps: Generally found on more entry-level snowshoes, webbing straps are lightweight and can offer a lot of adjustability (and thus the ability to work with many different types of shoes/boots) but they are not as supportive as other types and they tend to stretch when wet.
  • Rubber/polyurethane straps: This is probably the most common type of strap, found on a range of bindings. These have the advantage of not stretching much when wet or freezing in cold temps.
  • Ratchet straps: Similar to straps found on snowboard bindings, ratchet straps offer a high degree of adjustability and ease of use.
  • Boa closure: This relatively new type of binding offers a secure, wraparound fit and extreme ease of use. Keep in mind, though, that its components are exposed to constant snow and ice.

Snowshoe bindings can’t be removed or swapped out, so when selecting a snowshoe, it is important to ensure that the binding meets your needs. The more straps, the greater range of adjustability and tensioning, and the better the pressure distribution on your boot. To make adjustments easy, some bindings will have a feature in which multiple straps can be tightened with one pull.

Unlike old-fashioned strap bindings, which firmly fixed your foot to the flat surface of the snowshoe, most modern bindings pivot to enable a more natural stride, especially in deep snow and on slopes. Sometimes you’ll find fixed bindings on running snowshoes since if you’re running on hard-pack snow you won’t need a whole lot of binding articulation. Plus, if you’re running you really don’t want the snowshoes flapping around on your feet.

Heel Lifts

Also known as climbing bars, these wire bails can be flipped up under your heels to make ascending steep terrain easier.

BCBenC_161130_1123Deploying the heel lift bar.

Sizing your Snowshoe

As noted earlier, snowshoes provide flotation by spreading your weight evenly over a large, flat surface area. Snowshoe size is a key factor in getting the right amount of flotation. Snowshoes come in a range of sizes from about 20 to 36 inches in length and the proper size depends on two things:

Weight (including any pack or gear being carried)

Every snowshoe comes with a recommended weight range for that shoe. These specs do vary from model to model, but in general, the ranges are as follows:

[20in] Lightweight, doing more on hardpack, or trying to travel light and fast: 80-150lb
[25in] 120-200lb (54-91kg)
[30in] 170-250lb (77-113kg)
[36in] 220-300lb (100-136kg)

Conditions

Your location and the type of snow and terrain you encounter should play a role in sizing. If you’re treading off-trail through deep, dry, powdery conditions, you will require more flotation than if you were crossing dense, compacted, or even groomed trails and snowpack.

If you’re on the upper end of a snowshoes weight range and/or you live in somewhere that you’re spending more time in the deep, dry powder, I suggest sizing up.

Now get out there, and enjoy!

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3Comments

Here's what the community has to say.

Jared Downs

Jared Downs

Hey Folks,

If any one has questions or wants to talk gear, drop me an email at jdowns@backcountry.com and I'll get your questions answered!

Jared D.
Expert Gearhead
801.736.4336
jdowns@backcountry.com

(0)

Lexi Dowdall

Lexi Dowdall

Lookin' good in that Ortovox jacket, Jared!
Thanks for the article - banger info!

(1)