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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
The most popular and most common type of snowshoes are hiking or recreational snowshoes. Their designs vary, but they share several common features:
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Backcountry snowshoes are for more challenging expeditions off the beaten track. They are the most technical snowshoes available and will have more advanced features at a higher pricepoint than other types of snowshoes.
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.
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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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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Also known as climbing bars, these wire bails can be flipped up under your heels to make ascending steep terrain easier.
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:
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)
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!