Why use Snowshoes?
Snowshoeing is an incredibly fast-growing winter sport. Each winter, thousands of people experience the freedom and enjoyment of winter travel by using this type of flotation. Three season hikers may extend their hiking into a fourth season by traversing snow-covered trails and many hiking trails are accessible and even maintained in the winter for snowshoeing and skiing. They are a great alternative to skis for winter backpackers traveling to backcountry huts and for snowboarders looking to access backcountry terrain. They provide an efficient means of travel for mountaineers looking to get deep into secluded basins and atop mountains. They are versatile, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive. Adventure and exploration beckon after a few feet of fresh snow!
Snowshoes are suitable for a diverse range of winter applications. Whether you enjoy walking along packed snow trails in the park or seek out a more adventurous outing in the backcountry, there is a design to fit your style.
Recreational models are designed for traveling on beginner (flat) to intermediate (rolling) terrain. They are not sufficient for steep, difficult, or technical terrain. The frames are wider than racing models yet similar or narrower in width to backcountry models. The deeper the snow and the heavier your pack load is, the wider and longer the frames need to be in order to keep you floating on top of the snow.
Recreational snowshoeing on trails that are packed down, well-traveled, or groomed demands less flotation and therefore require narrower, shorter frames, although they are offered in a range of sizes for matching your size and intended use. Crampons on recreational models are semi-aggressive. Depending on the incline or presence of ice, semi-aggressive crampons have a wide range of terrain applications equipping you with maintained traction. They have a wide range of applications well suited for leisurely outings. Models for recreational use should focus on comfort, security on foot, ease of use, and a traction system suitable for the terrain.
For deep snow, steep terrain, and technical and off-trail travel, consider a backcountry model. Suited for mountainous intermediate and advanced terrain that may be demanding, backcountry models are best for people hoping to travel far from groomed trails. Advanced hikers, winter backpackers, and mountaineers will appreciate the technical features such as aggressive crampons, long tails, and wide frames. In the backcountry, durability cannot be compromised as replacement or repair of gear may be hours or days away. The construction is sturdy, utilizing rugged materials. For mountaineering, some models are compatible with climbing crampons so that you may interchange between having the flotation and having the extra secure grip of a crampon on technical terrain.
While in the backcountry, the flotation and traction are key - these models have larger surface area for increased flotation and traction systems that exceed the standard under-binding crampon, such as side rails and long tail designs.
Racing and Running
While recreation and backcountry models can sometimes cross over between the two styles, running and racing models are uniquely designed for maximum efficiency on packed snow. They are lightweight, have shorter tail lengths, and narrow frames. Flotation is not a main concern for running and racing as this typically takes place on packed or groomed trails. The crampons are semi-aggressive for maintained traction while in stride. None of the models in our current review are designed for racing and running. If you intend to run in snowshoes, seek out a lightweight frame, compact size, and adequate traction for no-slip movement.
Historically, frames were made of wood formed into large ovals or tear drop shapes. Now, almost all modern designs are framed with metal, such as aluminum, carbon fiber, or steel. Some modern designs are constructed entirely of composite plastic. The frame determines the shape and size of the snowshoe. It will be oval shaped for maximum flotation or tapered to accommodate a natural stride and contribute to efficient movement. Women's specific frames and racing frames are commonly tapered at the tail. The shapes and sizes will vary by manufacturer, but the two basic distinctions of symmetrical or tapered will offer insight into the best applications.
Simply put, the tail is the back part where the oval or taper comes to a close directly behind the heel. For fast movement, running, aerobic activity, or racing, seek out a tapered or even pointed tail. As a beginner or for travel in deep snow, seek a wider tail or oval frame for better flotation and stability.
The decking is the material that fills in the space inside the frame. Historically, the decking was made of rawhide webbing or rawhide panels. Modern decking is constructed of plastic, composite materials with PVC coated polyester, urethane-impregnated nylon, thermoplastic urethane, synthetic leather, or synthetic rubber. These modern materials require less maintenance than rawhide and are durable over the long-term. Synthetic materials are designed to withstand puncture and impact. Cold resistant materials add durability and flexibility as well. Some models, like the MSR Evo, are made of a large, sturdy piece of plastic where both the frame and decking are molded as a single component.
Crampons and Traction Systems
Traction systems are found the bottom. Crampons under foot, teeth along the outer frame, or a combination of both, are designed to manage the terrain beneath you while remaining stable and secure. These pieces can be made of plastic, aluminum, or steel. In icy conditions and steep terrain, an aggressive crampon design is necessary. Most models have an integrated crampon beneath the ball of your feet and toes while some designs have crampons beneath the heel as well.
Take notice of the angled orientation of the rows of cleats- are they angled to prevent downhill slipping while moving uphill, or are they angled to assist in downhill traction? Or both? The most aggressive crampons mimic ice crampons with teeth underfoot and lateral rigid teeth. Groomed or packed snow trails on beginner and intermediate terrain will require less traction than steep inclines or icy, slick terrain. Traction is what keeps you on your feet and moving forward. It is important to select models with compatible traction systems for your objectives.
Bindings secure your feet to the snowshoes. Hiking boots, winter boots, and mountaineering boots are all compatible with snowshoe bindings, but not all bindings will accommodate all types of boots. Snowboard boots may be too big for small binding systems and hiking boots may not feel securely fastened in roomy bindings. Like the fit of any footwear, compatibility between the two parts is essential to your comfort and support.
Bindings systems diverse, and none of the models in our review had the same binding method. Some resemble the ratchet designs common on snowboard bindings while others are unique and offer step-in, quick fastening designs. Most are constructed of sturdy plastic, although some have rubber band-like straps or nylon straps with buckles. All of the bindings cross over the top of the foot and behind the heel, with the heel free to move up and down while secured into the binding. Some bindings cup the toe area for a secure fit.
There are two primary styles of snowshoe bindings: fixed rotation and full rotation. Fixed rotation bindings are designed to reduce drag while lifting the tail with each step. When looking at the underside, a fixed rotation binding will have a strap of rubber or elastic running horizontally beneath the forefoot to secure the binding in place. This strapped junction on fixed rotation snowshoes allows for greater shock absorption with each step, but is less precise in steeper terrain.
Full rotation, or hinged bindings are designed to offer a wider range of motion in stride. The bindings are attached on a pivot so the foot may move forward of the tail. This is ideal in backcountry applications where steep terrain requires steps to be kicked in. The flexibility and versatility of the full rotation bindings surpasses the limits of a fixed rotation binding. For running and racing and firm-snow travel, fixed rotation bindings are preferred, and while full rotation bindings are preferred in other applications.
A few considerations when determining if a binding system is compatible with your boots and your style of travel:
- How easy is the binding system to use? Can you easily tighten and loosen the straps for personalized adjustments out on the snow? Your bindings should be easy to use, especially with gloves on and in inclement weather. There should be minimal fussing with the binding yet they should be easily adjustable throughout your outing.
- Does your foot slip forward or backward? Does your foot shift side to side? Selecting proper footwear to use in your bindings assures that you will be securely fastened. You may need to experiment with tightening or loosening different buckles and straps on the bindings, or you may consider choosing a different type of footwear if looseness persists. Your boots should not shift around once the bindings are securely buckled and tightened.
- There should be zero pressure points where the bindings contact your boots. If there are pressure points or tightness when trying them on, it will only persist and worsen on the trail.
The heel lift is a metal bar that lays flat beneath the foot against the decking when inactive or can be lifted to add support beneath the heel while heading uphill in steep terrain. The benefit of a heel lift is that it puts your foot in a more natural position when heading uphill. Heel lifts reduce strain on calf muscles and tendons in the ankle.
Add-on Flotation Tails
Flotation tails are separate pieces that can be attached on to the back of some models for added length. If you spend most of your time in beginner to intermediate terrain where the snow is packed out or groomed, you will be fine with a short length. Then when you want to explore off-trail in deep snow, you can attach separate flotation tails to enhance your flotation. This allows for a wider range of use with a single pair. Another proper application for flotation tails is winter backpacking when weight load exceeds the optimal weight load and more flotation is needed. Usually our Editor's Choice and Best Buy Winners have floatation tails options.
The main considerations influence sizing are terrain, conditions, weight load, and gender.
Terrain encompasses all of the locations you anticipate encountering on your outing and in your snowshoeing pursuits. You should select snowshoes based on the terrain you anticipate spending the most amount of time in while also considering the most difficult terrain you expect to encounter. Steep terrain rewards excellent traction, hinged bindings, and compact size. Off-trail use demands greater flotation. Well-traveled trails are best traversed with smaller, shock-absorbing shoes.
Deep snow or light snow requires wide frames with long tails for optimal flotation. Groomed trails or packed snow are best with frames that are wide enough to keep you on the surface of the snow but not so wide that it will become a hindrance to your stride.
Weight load is determined by your actual weight plus the weight of any gear you plan to carry such as a backpack, water, food, layers, etc. It is important to be as accurate as possible when figuring this weight, as it will effect how they perform. Every model and length has a range of weight loads that are optimally supported so that they float and offer stability. Wider and longer models should be chosen for backpacking and narrower models can be worn for leisurely day hikes. In short, use the manufacturer's recommendations for weight load as it pertains to the suitability of their particular snow shoe models and sizes.
Men's vs. Women's Models?
Gender is an important consideration, but only so far as the sizing relates to your needs. Snowshoes come in men's, women's, and unisex models. The distinguishing features of women's specific models are the frame shape and binding size. Women's specific models accommodate a narrow stride with a tapered tail at the back of the frame. The bindings of women's models are designed for smaller feet, and therefore smaller boots. Petite women will benefit from women's specific models, but most women will be able to comfortably wear men's or unisex models. Men's versions have wide frames, long tails, and bindings suitable for larger boots and shoes.
Depending on your personal preferences and the terrain you anticipate traversing, focus on the shape, size, and design features to find a suitable match. While reviewing six pairs, we found some female reviewers preferred men's specific models while some men preferred unisex models. Experiment with your options without adhering too closely to gender specifics but consider the sizing features that will best suit you.
Keep in mind that if they are sized too small, you will sink in soft snow. If they are sized too large, they will feel cumbersome.
Putting snowshoes on your feet for the first time may feel involved. Below are step-by-step instructions on how to put them on your boots for the optimal fit. Starting on snow is best because the sharp crampons will damage indoor flooring and asphalt or dirt may damage the crampons.
- Start by opening all of the buckles and loosening all of the adjustment points on the bindings. Clear the binding foot bed of any snow or debris so that your foot will rest flat on the binding without any obstruction.
- Step into the binding with the ball of your foot directly centered over the crampon hinge. Check if your foot placement is correct by making a pivoting motion forward. The front of your boot should not have direct contact with the decking.
- Once your foot is in place, buckle or latch or attach the binding strap at your toes or the front most binding strap. Then attach and tighten the heel strap. Lastly, secure and tighten the instep strap that crosses over the top of your foot, nearest your ankles. (For some bindings, like the Tubbs, this step will look different because of the unique binding systems. You will follow step 1 and step 2 as mentioned above, but then you will go directly to the two tightening points for adjustment since there are no straps to tighten over the toes or forefoot.)
- Check the tightness and security of the binding straps by lifting your foot, taking a few steps, or hinging your feet on the pivot points. The bindings should feel secure around your boots but not so tight that movement is restricted. After a short distance, you may need to readjust your bindings for optimal fit.
- Check for any gaps between the bindings and your boots. The binding straps should embrace your boot in such a way that there is little to no space for snow to gather or collect. If snow gets into the spacing of your binding, it may result in cold and wet boots as well as discomfort and pressure points.
- Snowshoeing is just like walking or hiking except that your feet should be slightly wider than normal to accommodate the wide frames and keep them from colliding with one another.
Why Wear Snowshoes?
Most hikers find themselves on the trail from spring through fall, but what if you could extend your hiking season to encompass all months of the year? These shoes open up this realm of longer hiking seasons and allow you to enjoy all of the things you love about hiking, in the winter. Additionally, backcountry snowboarders, winter mountaineers, and ice climbers often need flotation that these provide.
Winter Hiking Footwear
Hiking boots in the winter will only allow you to comfortably access well-maintained trails that are packed by foot or groomed. They are designed with rubber soles that have deep lug patterns for maintaining traction in diverse trail conditions such as mud, gravel, wood chips, and grass. However, these boots do not grip as well on snow or ice. Hiking boots sink deeper into snow as a result of the small surface area; the deeper you sink into the snow, the less stable you will feel with each step. These are not the footwear of choice in deep snow. When dirt and rocks are still visible through the snow in early and late winter conditions, and flotation is not a huge issue, waterproof hiking boots are preferable.
Winter boots also work well on groomed trails, and because of the high ankle shafts, can be worn in deep snow, but they lack the surface area to keep the walker on top of the snow. Winter boots are warmer than hiking boots and will keep the wearer drier, but they are clunkier and less agile than hiking boots. Winter boots tend to have good traction in snow but can still be slippery on ice. These are ideal for wearing with snowshoes when flotation is needed.
Using this type of footwear accessory allows you to hike on the same trails that you can in hiking boots, but also expands the access to off-trail exploration, including deep snow. They can do this because the surface area is four to five times larger than hiking boots alone. Surface area correlates to flotation: the greater surface area, the greater flotation in deep snow, and they keep you as close to the surface of the snow as possible. They can manage some off-snow terrain but will be worn out quickly on dirt and rock and are best reserved for snow conditions of 1 foot or deeper.
They have metal crampons that are sharp and grip ice and snow well. The crampon designs mimic those for ice climbing and glacier travel and are specifically designed for winter use.
Bindings can accommodate a range of footwear selections. We recommend wearing waterproof hiking boots, winter boots, or mountaineering boots. Below are the pros and cons of each option:
Waterproof Hiking Boots
- Pros: comfortable, lightweight, relaxed fit, flexible upper, versatile in mixed terrain, breathable, supportive
- Cons: water will eventually soak in between upper material of the boot and the binding straps
- Pros: insulated and warm, removable liners for drying out later, height above ankles keep snow out, suitable for walking in deep snow without flotation.
- Cons: bulky, stiff soles, not intended for all-day wear, if you work up a sweat they are not very breathable
- Pros: insulated and warm, removable liners for drying, crampon compatible in mixed terrain
- Cons: stiff and can be uncomfortable, thick soles can be harder to move in, expensive
We recommend trekking poles or adjustable ski poles in addition to your gear set-up, especially with full-rotation bindings. During our review process, we tested each pair with and without poles. Without poles, the body has to work hard to carry the weight of each stride and any additional pack weight. Just as with hiking, trekking poles distribute the weight load and impact throughout the body so the knees and the back aren't responsible for all of the support. With poles, we experienced greater comfort in our back and easier motion with each stride. Full-rotation bindings offer more flexibility in your range of stride and poles stabilize you in this range. Using poles comes down to personal preference, although we found that overall stability and comfort was maximized with poles.
See our article for more insight into the benefits of using trekking poles and our Best Trekking Pole Review to find the best models.
Gaiters are another accessory that is recommended. Gaiters keep snow out of the top of boots and out from under the bottom of pants. The tails have a tendency to kick up snow, especially with full rotation binding systems. Gaiters will ensure dry socks and boots in deep snow, light snow, or in a snowstorm.
Though many shoes can be used for multiple applications, there are three main types tailored to specific winter outings.
Recreational use is classified by beginner to intermediate terrain with a balance of easy to moderate uphill and downhill travel. This includes groomed trails, park trails, easy to moderate hiking trails, packed snow, and off-trail travel in moderate terrain. Models for recreation should be comfortable and secure on foot. Choosing a pair based on the most difficult terrain you anticipate encountering will not necessarily offer the optimal comfort and enjoyment. When selecting a pair for recreation, consider the terrain you will spend the most amount of time in.
For this application we recommend the MSR Evo, Fimbulvetr Hikr, Tubbs Flex VRT, and TSL Symbioz Elite models.
Backcountry travel gets you out to remote mountain basins, valleys, and secluded summits and demands models that have rigid traction, secure bindings, and durable construction. Skiers and snowboarders will travel miles into the backcountry in search of untracked surfaces, and shoes specially made for deep snow can be a lightweight option for hiking to access these mountain wonders. Backcountry terrain is more advanced than recreational terrain and may require some technical skills for avalanche awareness, climbing, and mountaineering. Models intended for backcountry travel have aggressive traction systems and crampon designs as well as features such as heel lifts for steep ascents. Most backcountry models can be used on beginner to intermediate terrain but also offer technical features for advanced snow travel.
The top pair for backcountry snow travel is the MSR Lightning Ascent. Because of the nature of backcountry travel as compared to recreational use, the tools optimized for backcountry use are fine in recreational terrain, but the opposite is not true. Backcountry snowshoes are all-around performers, while recreational and trail-oriented 'shoes are more specialized. For this reason, our Editors' Choice Award goes to an all-around backcountry product, despite the fact that few users will actually require the technical performance they are capable of.
Running in these shoes allows trail runners to extend their training into the winter months. These models focus on agility, efficiency of stride, light weight, and tapered tails. Running in this manner is typically enjoyed on groomed trails or packed hiking trails. None of the models in our review are specific to this category.
Would you Rather Have Skis?
Getting outside in the winter offers a sense of adventure that extends outside of the ski resort boundaries. Backcountry travel in winter is popular amongst ice climbers, mountaineers, backcountry skiers and snowboarders, cross-country skiers, and those in search of solitude. Access into these remote landscapes can be attained by foot, on backcountry or cross-country skis, split board snowboards, and or shoes specially made for walking on the snow (as tested here).
Skis allow you to move into the backcountry at a quick and easy pace and they allow for a quick descent that requires technical skill. However, skiing can also be really fun. Many backcountry travelers will be heading into the mountains with the sole purpose of skiing. But, if you are simply looking for the best method of travel in the backcountry, cross-country skis or snowshoes are both viable options. If you wish to move quickly and efficiently, consider skis as a better option for backcountry access. Unless you have skins on the bottom of your skis, uphill travel can be difficult and there will be less traction than with the crampons found on snowshoes. Descending, with appropriate skill will be much faster.
If you seek to move leisurely, these shoes offer an opportunity to get where you need to go at a slower speed. Models intended for backcountry travel are designed with brake bars and aggressive traction systems to get you up inclines and these can provide superior traction to skis.
They are compact and lightweight, so when you get into terrain that no longer requires the use of flotation, you can simply take them off and put them in a backpack. For mountaineering, access into the backcountry is intended to take you to the base of a route for climbing or ascending a mountain. When it comes time to take off your flotation, snowshoes can be much easier to manage than a pair of long skis. They will not offer a quick descent, although the technical skills required are minimal to none.