With a long platform for floatation and added traction underfoot, snowshoes open up your favorite terrain and hiking trails for all kinds of winter fun. Below we break down the best models for winter 2021, including top trail/recreational snowshoes, backcountry models, running designs, and even those for kids. The good news is that there is no shortage of quality options from brands like MSR, Atlas, Tubbs, TSL, and more. For more background information, see our snowshoe comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Lengths: 22, 25, 30 in. (5-in. tails optional)
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 5 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: A well-rounded design that offers best-in-class traction and comfort.
What we don’t: Expensive and overkill for easy terrain.
MSR is an industry leader in snowshoes, and their impressive Lightning Ascent puts it all together. Built on a quality steel frame with nylon decking, this snowshoe feels light, is nimble underfoot, and can take on anything from packed trails to powder and challenging mountain terrain. Its traction system is best-in-class with a sturdy crampon and rails running both length- and width-wise that confidently bite into anything from ice to soft snow. And last winter, MSR addressed our primary complaint with the old model: the binding system. With one large piece of rigid mesh covering the foot, the design is more modern without compromising foot hold or comfort (just make sure to fasten down the straps tightly so they don’t pop out in use).
The biggest downside of choosing the Lightning Ascent is price. At around $320, recreational and occasional snowshoers certainly can go cheaper with models like the MSR Evo Trail and others below. That said, performance and build quality are top notch and you won’t find a more versatile model. In terms of lengths, the Lightning Ascent is offered in 22-, 25-, and 30-inch variations. Your local snow conditions and weight will dictate which version is best (go longer for more flotation), but we prefer the shortest option. Its trimmed-down shape and reasonable weight make it well-suited for everything from quick walks over rolling terrain to winter peak bagging (flip the heel bars up on extended climbs to help with calf fatigue). And for deep snow, you can throw on the optional 5-inch Lightning Tails ($60) for a boost in flotation... Read in-depth review
See the MSR Lightning Ascent See the Women's MSR Lightning Ascent
Best Budget Snowshoe
Category: Trail/backcountry (with tails)
Length: 22 in. (6-in. tails optional)
Weight per pair: 3 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: An excellent value for a well-built snowshoe.
What we don’t: Binding system isn't super comfortable on long hauls and the plastic decking can be noisy.
The Lightning Ascent above may be MSR’s top snowshoe in terms of performance, but the Evo Trail is an outstanding value and remains a favorite year after year. For $140, it’s a very capable recreational option and what we often recommend to friends and family interested in mostly casual use. You get durable hard plastic decking, impressive traction with solid toe crampons and side rails made of steel, and rubber bindings that are relatively easy to put on. The Evo Trail is on the short side for powder at 22 inches, but optional 6-inch tails can be attached to the back to improve performance in softer and deeper snow.
What complaints do we have about the MSR Evo Trail? The plastic decking is fine for shorter winter jaunts and reasonably tough, but can be noisy when walking on hardpack, isn’t as flexy as some of the pricier options on this list, and potentially can break if someone steps on it the wrong way. In addition, spending up can get you a more advanced binding system for superior comfort and holding power (it’s worth noting that the Lightning Ascent and Revo Ascent now have MSR’s new Paragon binding, which offers superior hold and makes donning your snowshoes a breeze). That said, we love the combination of price and quality of the Evo Trail, and it should be more than enough snowshoe for most people... Read in-depth review
See the MSR Evo Trail Snowshoe
Best Backcountry Snowshoe for Powder
Lengths: 25, 30, 36 in.
Weight per pair: 5 lbs. 5 oz. (30 in.)
What we like: Awesome flotation and grip.
What we don’t: A little heavy for long distances.
Of any snowshoe on this list, the Tubbs Mountaineer is perhaps the best for breaking new trails. The frame and decking are burly and wide, and if you opt for the long 36-inch model, you can make your way through some pretty deep powder. Looking underneath, it may not appear the crampons and traction are much of an upgrade from standard Tubbs models, but trust us, there’s real performance there. The deep and strong (and appropriately named) Anaconda crampons feature 8 teeth under your toes and the ball of your foot. And the 36-inch version can handle up to 300 pounds (depending on snow conditions), which is top-of-the-pack in the backcountry category.
Keep in mind that the Tubbs Mountaineer is less versatile than other models on this list. Both the 30- and 36-inch models are quite hefty at over 5 pounds, which can make for some tired legs during longer treks (if weight is a significant concern, we recommend checking out the MSR Lightning Ascent above). And the large frame size and aforementioned traction system are overkill for easy winter hikes. But for those who like to venture deep into the fluffy stuff, the Tubbs Mountaineer should provide maximum flotation and is in a class of its own.
See the Tubbs Mountaineer See the Women's Tubbs Mountaineer
Best Snowshoe for Running
Length: 21 in.
Weight per pair: 1 lb. 7 oz.
What we like: A great design for those who like to move fast.
What we don’t: Limited versatility.
The majority of snowshoes on this list are built for everything from casual winter hiking to getting off-trail in more serious terrain, but there is another category altogether: running. When the snow starts falling, that doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite pastime, and that’s where the TSL Hyperflex Racing comes in. With a trimmed-down build and ultralight design (the total combined weight of both shoes is a feathery 1 lb. 7 oz.), the Hyperflex is built for moving fast. Don’t expect serious flotation here—the minimalist frame performs best over packed snow and the narrow tails aren’t meant for powder, but for runners and racers, it’s our top pick for this winter.
It’s worth noting that the market for running snowshoes isn’t huge. In addition to the TSL Hyperflex Racing listed here, other options include the Atlas Run below as well as the Crescent Moon Luna, an all-foam design modeled after their popular Eva (below). In the end, the TSL is nice and flexy while offering more rigidity and grip than the Luna, and is lighter than the more traditionally shaped Atlas. This Hyperflex Racing certainly isn’t your typical all-rounder, but it’s purpose-built and excels at winter running.
See the TSL Hyperflex Racing
Best Snowshoe for Kids
Length: 20 in.
Weight per pair: 2 lbs. 5 oz.
What we like: Family fun for less than $100.
What we don’t: It’s something they'll eventually grow out of.
Snowshoeing makes for one of the best family adventures you can do in the winter, and no pricey downhill ski pass is required. For kids, the Atlas Spark is a quality option with a straightforward aluminum frame, nylon decking, and importantly, an easy-to-use binding system with foam for comfort and a simple strap design. The result is good floatation and grip along with a lightweight feel that won’t weigh your little ones down. Keep in mind that the Spark is intended for kids between 50 and 120 pounds—for smaller tykes, their Mini is rated for 30 to 80 pounds and costs $20 less.
On the other side of the aisle, MSR has some interesting snowshoe options for kids in the Shift and Tyker. Starting with the Shift, this “youth” snowshoe is designed very similarly as the adult Evo Trail above with hard plastic decking. The Shift is rated up to 125 pounds, which is a small bump up from the Spark and a viable option for bigger kids. The smaller Tyker goes up to 80 pounds, but the kicker for us is the bindings. From our experience, the style that Atlas incorporates holds the foot better and is less likely to come undone (plus, the MSR's plastic decking can be louder).
See the Atlas Spark Kid's Snowshoe
Best of the Rest
Length: 27 in.
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 6 oz.
What we like: Great price for what you get; intuitive binding system.
What we don’t: Average traction and heel lifters cost extra.
Crescent Moon operates a little differently than most outdoor gear manufacturers, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. This Boulder-based company specializes in snowshoes, assembles them in the U.S.A. with top-end materials, and has a standout repair and warranty policy. From their lineup, the Gold 9 offers solid versatility for trail hiking: its rockered shape and 27-inch length balance walkability with flotation in soft snow, the binding system provides a secure and comfortable hold, and the steel traction is sturdy and reliable. Tack on a reasonable price of $200—a significant $69 drop for this winter—and you get a very well-rounded snowshoe.
What are the limitations in the Gold 9’s construction? First, its claw-like crampons grip reasonably well in soft snow and hardpack, but for steep slopes or sketchy traverses, they lack the aggressive bite that you get from MSR’s Lightning Ascent above. Second, a heel lifter for reducing calf fatigue on extended climbs is not included, although you can purchase one as an accessory directly from Crescent Moon for $25. Finally, online availability varies throughout the season and it occasionally can be difficult to track down a pair. That said, the Gold 9’s compelling mix of price, build quality, and on- and off-trail performance earn it a high spot on our list.
See the Crescent Moon Gold 9 See the Women's Crescent Moon Gold 13
Lengths: 20.5, 23.5, 27 in.
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 5 oz. (23.5 in.)
What we like: Impressive combination of comfort, traction, and stability.
What we don’t: Narrow profile isn’t great in soft snow.
France-based TSL still is a relative unknown in the U.S. market, but their Symbioz snowshoes should change that. We have a season of use under our belt with the 23.5 and 27-inch models, and came away very impressed with the super stable feel, reliable traction, and high level of comfort. The plastic decking flexes naturally and absorbs impact very well, but where the TSL truly shines is its unique binding system. Like an alpine touring frame binding, there is a plate under your entire foot that moves with you as you walk. The result is rock solid support and fantastic technical abilities for steep terrain in a range of snow conditions.
What are the downsides of the Symbioz Elite? The 23.5-inch model has a narrow profile that doesn’t provide as much flotation as the Lightning Ascent or Gold 9 above in deep snow (opting for the 27-in. model does help). Further, the binding system takes some time to set up properly—we don’t recommend doing it for the first time out in the frigid cold like we did. And because the plate has to match the length of your boot sole, it can be a pain to adjust if multiple people share the snowshoe. But these are small complaints about an otherwise outstanding design that is both comfortable and performs extremely well.
See the TSL Symbioz Elite Snowshoe
Lengths: 23, 26 in.
Weight per pair: 3 lbs. 9 oz. (26 in.)
What we like: A similar concept as the MSR Evo Trail above but with a longer length and higher weight limit.
What we don’t: We have concerns about floatation in soft snow.
For years, MSR has dominated the simple plastic decking concept with its uber-popular Evo and Revo lines, which simplify the design and keeps cost low. But new for 2021, there is a direct competitor in the Atlas Helium Trail. Interestingly, Atlas has added a healthy amount of “gills” in the frame, which means less material overall and a total weight that is 2 ounces lighter than the Evo Trail. You also get a steel crampon for grip, a healthy 26-inch length for flotation, a higher 220-pound recommended load limit, and even a heel lift for big ascents (the standard Evo does not have a heel lift). At the exact same price as the Evo, it makes for a strong alternative.
Why do we have the Helium Trail ranked here? We’d like to get a full winter under our belt with the Atlas as the MSR is one of the most proven designs on this list. Moreover, the unique design leaves us with some concerns about flotation in soft snow—it seems decently likely that snow could penetrate upward and make movement more difficult. That said, the Helium Trail hits all of the features we look for in a recreational snowshoe including a quality build, easy-to-use design, and good price point.
See the Atlas Helium Trail
Lengths: 24, 28 in.
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 8 oz. (24 in.)
What we like: Nimble, light, and good fit with the Boa system.
What we don’t: Feels a little narrow underfoot.
Boa closure systems have become increasingly popular on snowboard boots and are now hitting the snowshoe market. The one-dial cable system tightens the entire binding with a few simple turns. Accordingly, the VRT is the easiest snowshoe on this list to put on (at least for us), and therefore a top pick for those who love simplicity. It’s also very comfortable and cinches evenly around the foot without creating any pressure points.
Aside from the binding, the 24-inch length of the Flex VRT and narrow footprint mean it doesn’t have great flotation in the deep stuff. The flipside is you get better mobility and the snowshoes don’t feel as clunky underfoot. For those who want easy-to-wear snowshoes or people that don’t venture into powder too often, the Tubbs Flex VRT is a terrific, albeit pricey, option.
See the Tubbs Flex VRT See the Women's Tubbs Flex VRT
Lengths: 25, 30, 35 in.
Weight per pair: 5 lbs. (30 in.)
What we like: Grippy and comfortable.
What we don’t: Binding can loosen over time.
We are big fans of Atlas—the brand offers solid snowshoes at reasonable prices. The Montane 25 lines up as a great mid-range option for everything from trail use to the backcountry. We like the traditional teardrop shape, and the Spring-Loaded Suspension is a nice technical inclusion that allows for added movement and stability (one downside is it's prone to flipping snow up your back when walking quickly). The bindings are relatively simple but tighten down evenly over the feet, and everything else feels high quality on this snowshoe.
One point of comparison between the Atlas Montane and other mid-range snowshoes are the crampons. Instead of one or two small claws, the Montane has a large claw under the foot and long traction bars down the sides. This makes it better at handling both steep and icy conditions than other shoes in the price range. But we do wish the binding system was more secure—it's not uncommon to have to re-tighten it during a long hike. For deeper snow and heavier loads, the Montane also is available in 30-inch and 35-inch versions.
See the Atlas Montane See the Women's Atlas Montane
Lengths: 22, 25 in.
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 3 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: Traction from the Lightning Ascent with a tough plastic build.
What we don’t: There are more comfortable options for the price.
MSR’s snowshoe lineup is extensive to say the least, and we’ve already featured their best-selling Lighting Ascent and Evo Trail above. But the Revo Explore is a nice hybrid concept that combines the traction of the high-end Lightning with the price-conscious plastic decking of the Evo. In practice, the Revo does a fairly good job mixing those two snowshoes’ strongest attributes—most notably, the rugged side rails provide more grip than any model in this price range. The result is a snowshoe that is more capable on rolling and challenging terrain but costs a significant $100 less than our top pick, the Lightning Ascent.
However, we think there are more well-rounded mid-range options than the MSR Revo Explore. The Atlas Montane above, for example, is $10 more expensive but comes with worthwhile upgrades like flexible decking with superior shock absorption and a more comfortable binding. And it’s worth noting that stepping up to the Ascent version of the Revo gets you MSR’s improved Paragon binding that is more comfortable for long days on the trail. All in all, we like the Revo Explore, but this portion of the market is crowded and it’s less of a standout than MSR’s other models.
See the MSR Revo Explore See the Women's MSR Revo Explore
Length: 24 in.
Weight per pair: 3 lbs. 8 oz.
What we like: Intuitive binding system and comfortable foam construction.
What we don’t: Does not excel on steep or technical terrain.
A couple years ago, the big news in the snowshoe industry was Crescent Moon’s Eva all-foam model. Unlike the hard plastic or aluminum-framed designs that dominate the market, the unique Eva is built with two layers of EVA foam. The top is relatively soft to provide cushioning, while the bottom is a denser and tougher variety for traction and durability. The flexible construction, Velcro binding system, and rockered shape make these snowshoes comfortable and easy to handle. With the addition of six small “Icespikes” on the bottom of each shoe, the current Eva technically adds metal to the mix, but we like the improvements and overall concept.
All thing considered, the Eva performs best on relatively flat terrain and for more casual snowshoeing adventures. The Icespikes are a positive change as the old model lacked bite, and we can’t help but appreciate the simplicity and ease of use, including the bindings. In addition, we were pleasantly surprised with the durability of the foam, which was one of our biggest initial concerns. However, the Eva isn’t as adept at tackling tough terrain or deep powder as many of the models above. Having said that, it’s a great snowshoe for easy to moderate terrain, and at a reasonable price to boot.
See the Crescent Moon Eva
13. Atlas Run ($250)
Length: 22 in.
Weight per pair: 2 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: Nimble, light, and fun.
What we don’t: Built for running and therefore not a true all-rounder.
The snowshoes above are bulky and cumbersome for jogging or moving fast on firm snow, which is where the Atlas Run comes in. This streamlined construction strips away any excess: the profile is narrow and relatively short at 22 inches, the BOA binding system has no frills but is easy to cinch around a pair of low-top waterproof shoes, and the Run has an aggressive stance that feels natural at speed (or at least as natural as you can be while running in 22-in. shoes).
The downside of a running snowshoe is that it can’t match a traditional design for hiking use. The narrow shape is optimized for hardpack or light amounts of powder, and the springy construction is prone to kicking up snow as you walk. If you want a single pair of snowshoes, one of the all-rounders above will be your best bet. But for those looking to expand their running season into the winter months, this Atlas deserves a serious look.
See the Atlas Run Snowshoe
Lengths: 20.5, 22.5, 26.5 in.
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 2 oz. (22.5 in.)
What we like: Aggressive traction and well-designed binding system.
What we don’t: Trimmed-down shape impacts flotation.
Building on the success of the Symbioz above, TSL has launched the Highlander for winter 2021. This mid-range collection is highlighted by a set of metal side rails—reminiscent of MSR’s Revo and Lightning Ascent models—which offer strong grip on icy and off-camber terrain. And like the Symbioz, the binding system is a standout, with reliable hold, plenty of cushioning around the foot and ankle, and a memory system that simplifies the on and off process. Tack on a heel lift, solid stainless-steel crampon, and reasonable $230 price tag, and the Highlander Elite adds up to a versatile and competitively priced option.
In saving $50 compared with the Symbioz Elite, you do miss out on that snowshoe’s flexible decking (the Highlander’s is stiff by comparison). The good news is that they’ve incorporated a rockered shape into the Highlander’s heel to provide a natural gait, but it won’t be as comfortable of a walker as the impressive Symbioz. And like most TSL designs, flotation is not a strong suit due to the pared-down shape and shorter length options (the longest build is 26.5 in.). But if you don’t need maximum floatation, the Highlander offers a great mix of binding comfort, all-around grip, and price.
See the TSL Highlander Elite
Lengths: 25, 30, 36 in.
Weight per pair: 3 lbs. 10 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: Boa binding is comfortable and easy to use.
What we don’t: Limited performance chops—this truly is a recreational snowshoe.
We’ll be honest: modern plastic decking is great, but we still have a soft spot for simple nylon that is quieter and softer on the snow. For recreational snowshoers with a traditional slant, the Tubbs Wayfinder Boa is a nice option. Most notably, you get the comfortable Boa binding system that we love—no more fumbling with a host of adjustment points that can come undone on the trail. Instead, simply turn the dial and cinch down the binding snug. With steel crampons and a nice selection of lengths ranging from 25 to 36 inches, the Wayfinder is a quality shoe for on-trail use and light winter adventuring.
To be sure, the Tubbs Wayfinder Boa is lacking in performance chops. Traction is rather limited with one crampon underfoot and two small bars below the heel—you get no rails along the side or bottom. The simple aluminum frame and nylon decking are fine for shorter jaunts but not built for challenging days or steep ascents. Of course, you don’t get features like a heel lift, but that wouldn’t match the casual intent of this shoe. Again, the star of the show here is the Boa binding, which is reason enough for some to choose the Wayfinder.
See the Tubbs Wayfinder See the Women's Tubbs Wayfinder
Length: 24 in.
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 11 oz.
What we like: Great in powder.
What we don’t: Limited grip, wide shape, and mediocre bindings.
You won’t find anything like the Fimbulvetr Hikr in your parents’ gear room. These strikingly unique snowshoes were released a few years ago out of Norway (Fimbulvetr means “great winter” in Old Norse). The goal was to re-create and not simply improve on snowshoe design, and re-create they did. Right off the bat, you’ll notice the bright, all-thermoplastic decking, which is a flexible and highly durable material found in things like shock absorbers. The floating all-direction hinge is great for agility and these snowshoes are streamlined with limited components (that’s a good thing). If one were to dream up a modern snowshoe, this would be it.
How about the performance of the Fimbulvetr Hikr? The large, open design is great for flotation and excels in powder. However, the grip is disappointing with only two small claws plus any additional traction provided by the thermoplastic bottom itself. And the Hikr has other notable shortcomings: the wide platform had us walking with a funny gait to avoid hitting the snowshoes, the thin lacing in the binding system doesn’t inspire much confidence over the long term, and the flexible hinge can turn your ankle in uncomfortable directions while traversing steeper slopes. If you prioritize flotation, the Hikr certainly is a viable option, but we think there are better designs on the market.
See the Fimbulvetr Hikr X
Lengths: 25, 30 in.
Weight per pair: 3 lbs. 10 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: Simple and inexpensive.
What we don’t: Limited traction and not made for steep terrain.
A lot of snowshoers like to stick to flat ground near the cabin or established trails, which makes all of the advanced traction and binding systems of the expensive designs above overkill. With the Xplore, Tubbs aims to please the casual crowd, and we think they have a winner. The snowshoe isn’t anything fancy, but it offers an easy-to-use binding system, a lightweight and reliable aluminum frame, and sufficient comfort for short winter walks. And at $130, the Xplore is priced right for people that only get out on occasion.
On the flip side, the Xplore falls short if you plan on venturing outside in a serious way. The binding system is very simple and won’t be super comfortable over long stretches, and the thin metal on the crampon and basic traction overall is not built for hanging onto steep slopes. For beginners that want a full setup, Tubbs also offers the Xplore in a starter kit, which includes the snowshoes, a pair of poles, and gaiters for $180.
See the Tubbs Xplore See the Women's Tubbs Xplore
|MSR Lightning Ascent||$320||Backcountry/trail||22, 25, 30 in.||4 lbs. 5 oz.||Nylon||Steel||Yes|
|MSR Evo Trail||$140||Trail/backcountry||22 in.||3 lbs. 9 oz.||Plastic||Steel||No|
|Tubbs Mountaineer||$270||Backcountry||25, 30, 36 in.||5 lbs. 5 oz.||Nylon||Steel||Yes|
|TSL Hyperflex Racing||$200||Running||21 in.||1 lb. 7 oz.||Plastic||Steel spikes||No|
|Atlas Spark||$85||Kids/trail||20 in.||2 lbs. 5 oz.||Nylon||Aluminum||No|
|Crescent Moon Gold 9||$200||Trail||27 in.||4 lbs. 6 oz.||Nylon||Steel||No|
|TSL Symbioz Elite||$280||Backcountry/trail||20.5, 23.5, 27 in.||4 lbs. 5 oz.||Composite||Steel||Yes|
|Atlas Helium Trail||$140||Trail||23, 26 in.||3 lbs. 9 oz.||Composite||Steel||Yes|
|Tubbs Flex VRT||$260||Trail||24, 28 in.||4 lbs. 8 oz.||Plastic||Steel||Yes|
|Atlas Montane||$230||Trail/backcountry||25, 30, 35 in.||5 lbs.||Nylon||Steel||Yes|
|MSR Revo Explore||$220||Trail/backcountry||22, 25 in.||4 lbs. 3 oz.||Plastic||Steel||Yes|
|Crescent Moon Eva||$159||Trail||24 in.||3 lbs. 8 oz.||Foam||Steel spikes||No|
|Atlas Run||$250||Run/trail||22 in.||2 lbs. 9 oz.||Nylon||Steel||No|
|TSL Highlander Elite||$230||Trail/backcountry||20.5, 22.5, 26.5 in.||4 lbs. 2 oz.||Plastic||Steel||Yes|
|Tubbs Wayfinder Boa||$190||Trail||25, 30, 36 in.||3 lbs. 10 oz.||Nylon||Steel||No|
|Fimbulvetr Hikr X||$270||Trail/backcountry||24 in.||4 lbs. 11 oz.||Composite||Steel||Yes|
|Tubbs Xplore||$130||Trail||25, 30 in.||3 lbs. 10 oz.||Nylon||Steel||No|
- Snowshoe Categories
- Snowshoe Length
- Frame and Decking
- Snowshoe Features and Accessories
- Do I Need Poles?
- Best Footwear for Snowshoeing
- Women's-Specific Snowshoes
- Don’t Forget Gaiters
Trail or recreational snowshoes are great for moderate hiking trails that fall somewhere between groomed hardpack and knee-deep powder. In short, they are built for flat terrain or rolling hills but not for steep mountain ascents or heading into the backcountry. In terms of build, these snowshoes are shorter than backcountry models because you require less flotation and have simpler traction. Some have heel lifts as this has become a popular feature, but we don't find it necessary for most moderate terrain (heel lifts are useful for extended climbs). Popular snowshoe designs in the trail category include the MSR Evo Trail, Atlas Montane, and Crescent Moon Eva.
Backcountry snowshoes are more performance-oriented than the trail category above and ideal for those heading out into powder, tackling challenging terrain, and spending longer days out. First, they are longer in length for more float in deep snow and have increased traction to handle a variety of conditions including steep terrain and ice. Backcountry snowshoes also are the most expensive of the bunch due to the burlier builds and more complete feature sets. Keep in mind that a true backcountry model like the Tubbs Mountaineer will be overkill for casual winter snowshoeing, but many of our picks are hybrids that can work well for both uses (and you can hone this in even further based on the length you choose). Leading models in this category include the Tubbs Mountaineer and MSR Lightning Ascent (in longer sizes).
A small but notable snowshoe subcategory is those built for running. Also known as racing snowshoes, a lot of people don’t want to quit their favorite pastime when the snow starts to fall, and regular winter traction devices can fall short. In terms of build, running snowshoes place a premium on lightweight materials, often have a trimmed-down frame that favors speed over floatation (it’s tough to run through powder so most are tuned for hardpack or small amounts of fresh snow), upturned noses, and special traction designed to keep you moving. Popular models in this category include the TSL Hyperflex Racing, Atlas Run, and Crescent Moon Luna.
Last but not least, a family winter adventure requires snowshoes for all parties including the kiddos. As expected, these models essentially are smaller versions of their adult counterparts and have similar designs overall, but with shorter lengths and smaller load limits. Depending on the size of your child, we like the Atlas Spark (80 to 120 lbs.) and Mini (50 to 80 lbs.), and MSR makes its own line of youth shoes in the Shift and Tyker. The bad news is the kids eventually will outgrow them and require an adult pair, but if chosen correctly, you should get many winters of use before that happens.
Once you get an idea of the snowshoe category you want, it's time to nail down the ideal length. This measurement is key to balance walking comfort with enough flotation to avoid sinking too deeply into the snow with each step (known as “postholing”). Most snowshoes above range from 22 inches at the short end (MSR's Lightning Ascent and Evo Trail) up to 36 inches at the long end (the Tubbs Mountaineer). As a general rule, shorter snowshoes are best for on-trail use and longer models are ideal for deep snow and the backcountry. In addition, the type of snow matters a great deal—in the United States, the crusty hardpack you’ll find in the East contrasts sharply with deep powder in the West. Longer snowshoes provide better flotation in soft snow, so if you’re planning on getting off-trail in Colorado or Utah, a longer snowshoe is better. If you’ll be primarily on hardpack, less flotation is required and you can go shorter.
Along with snow type and terrain, your weight also plays an important role in the length of snowshoe you choose. Snowshoe manufacturers often list a recommended weight range (or "recommended load") for each shoe, which includes your body weight plus anything you’ll be carrying, such as clothing and a daypack. Heavier loads need longer snowshoes to stay afloat, so try to pick a length that best hits your weight with gear. Finally, it's worth noting that some snowshoes have optional tails to add length depending on the user and conditions (including MSR's popular Lightning, Revo, and Evo lines)
The binding system is your link to trail comfort and also plays a significant role in stability. A good binding should comfortably hold your feet for hours on the trail without requiring constant readjustments. Interestingly, the various systems are one of the few places where manufacturers differentiate significantly from one another. One commonality you will find is that no matter the brand, comfort and adjustability improve as the price goes up.
Multiple Straps or Single-Pull
The most common binding styles are either a plastic wraparound binding that is secured by a series of crisscrossing webbing, or individual straps that are secured over the foot and around the heel. Atlas and Tubbs utilize the more traditional binding and webbing design for their core models, while MSR has primarily stuck with the strap systems. Crescent Moon has a binding system that shares characteristics of both, but its single pull loop system falls more into the traditional binding category.
What’s revealing in breaking down the systems is that, despite the vital importance of a comfortable design, the binding isn’t always directly correlated with overall snowshoe quality. MSR makes absolutely bomber snowshoes, but we think their bindings fall short (excluding the Paragon binding on the Revo and Lightning Ascent). Part of the reason is their commitment to a strap cinch system. The logic behind the design is that the bindings can lay completely flat to easily haul along in a pack, but the result is that everything from their entry-level to mid-range strapping systems are merely average in comfort and holding power. While it hasn’t kept them from being a standout in the industry, this weakness has always left us a bit perplexed.
A third binding design gaining some serious traction is Boa. This system utilizes a pretty traditional wrapped binding, but the standard webbing is replaced with wiring that is tightened with the turn of a dial (the entire system cinches down on you simultaneously for impressive evenness and comfort). The technology was made popular by snowboard boots, but nowadays you’ll find it on a growing number of models of snowshoes from Atlas, Tubbs, and more. Getting a snowshoe like the Tubbs Wayfinder on and off is incredibly easy and quick, particularly when compared with the 3- or 4-strap systems you’ll find with MSR. Their main limitation is that with a single adjuster (and occasionally 2) you can’t fine-tune the fit should you need to cinch down in one place and loosen another. For most folks, however, that’s a non-issue.
Needless to say, it’s important to check the bottom of the snowshoes you’re considering to make sure they’ve got real traction. The amount of grip and quality of the crampons and side rails can vary a surprising amount by model and price. Low cost models commonly have a small steel crampon under your toes, additional cleats around the middle of your foot, and that’s about it. On the other hand, ultralight models like the Crescent Moon Eva and TSL Hyperflex Racing will have lightweight steel spikes rather than crampons. While reasonable for casual walking on flat ground, these designs can be overmatched on hills or snowy conditions.
In addition to crampons, most backcountry snowshoes (and some recreational models) will feature frame rails for added traction on a variety of terrain. Frame rails run length-wise along the sides of snowshoes and are a source of excellent lateral stability should you find yourself traversing a slope. They’re also helpful when maximum traction is needed on an ascent or descent, biting in for that extra level of grip. You’ll most often find frame rails on backcountry snowshoes like the MSR Lightning Ascent, but folks that hike on icy trails will appreciate them as well.
Keep an eye on the material and depth of your snowshoe traction. Occasionally manufacturers will look to save some money and use lower grade aluminum teeth that aren't quite as burly or tough over the long haul. Stainless steel bindings are found on most shoes, and the deeper and more aggressive the teeth, the better the grip.
There are two general types of snowshoe: an aluminum outer frame with flexible nylon decking, and a frameless solid deck made of plastic or composite. Recently, hybrid models have popped up that use a partial aluminum frame toward the front of the snowshoe with a plastic tail.
Traditional aluminum-framed snowshoes are what most people are familiar with, seen in a variety of models above including the Crescent Moon Gold 9, Atlas Montane, and more modern-looking MSR Lightning Ascent. This is a very functional design, with a strong frame protecting you from trail hazards and a pliant but tough nylon deck that makes covering long distances comfortable. The disadvantage is traction. Although some high-end models do a great job of incorporating as much traction as possible, they still fall short compared to plastic, particularly relative to their weight (MSR's Lightning is one exception). Moreover, the decking materials are more vulnerable to tears and the occasional rivet can come out of the nylon decking. But these malfunctions are rarities from the quality brands we’ve listed in our picks above, and plastic can break too.
Plastic or Composite
The principle advantage of plastic or composite decking is cost—strong aluminum isn’t cheap—along with the ability to more easily incorporate traction along the sides. The downsides of plastic are that it can break—we’ve had an unfortunate front lip of an MSR Evo Trail get torn off when stepped on—and they’re noisy over crusty snow. Much more than with a traditional snowshoe, plastic has a harsher and louder heel impact when your foot comes down on hard pack. To summarize, plastic is cheaper and easier to attach traction to, but louder and slightly easier to damage.
Crescent Moon made waves with the introduction of its EVA foam snowshoe. Unlike hard plastic or aluminum frame models, the unique Eva is built with two layers of foam—a softer compound on the top for shock absorption and a firm layer on the bottom for toughness. We did have some initial concerns about durability, but our pair has held up well through more than a season of use. The design is geared towards beginners and the lack of a crampon underfoot does impact traction, but it has a nice cushioned feel that is noticeably quieter than a traditional snowshoe when walking on firm or icy snow. Overall, we think Eva’s foam build has a lot of promise and could be a sign of things to come in the industry.
Heel Lift (Climb) Bars
Most high-end recreational and nearly every backcountry snowshoe come with a heel lift, also known as a riser. The feature is exactly as it sounds: a single metal bar under your heel that can be raised and locked into place for climbs. The raised bar plays the role of a rigid mountaineering boot, keeping you from dropping your heel while climbing up a sustained grade. The benefit of this feature is reduced calf fatigue, but is it really worth it? Some companies like Crescent Moon were reluctant to include them in their lineup because they determined that most users don’t really need them. But customer demand has remained strong, and even Crescent Moon now offers a heel lift as an add-on for most models in their line-up.
In our experience, heel lift bars have come in handy a couple of times during long climbs, say a spring snowshoe to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier. But for most uses we don’t bother. Unless the hill is steep and will remain steep, it’s just not worth the effort to reach down to raise and lower the bar. A grippy snowshoe and poles play a much greater role in making climbing easier, and therefore we feel that this feature is overrated. Helpful on occasion: yes. Imperative? Certainly not.
One of our favorite snowshoe accessories—and an underrated one at that—are the additional snowshoe tails offered with MSR snowshoes. These add-ons are available for their Evo, Revo, and Lightning lines and are a great way to get all-in-one functionality out of a single pair of snowshoes: throw on the tails for greater flotation in the soft stuff and stuff them away in your pack when you're traveling over firm snow. They’re ideal for places like the Pacific Northwest or Colorado when snow conditions can vary dramatically throughout the season, so it's no surprise that Seattle-based MSR is leading the charge.
Many hikers choose to hit the trail without trekking poles, but what about snowshoeing? Our short answer to the "Do I need poles?" question is yes: in snow in particular, poles increase stability and make uphill and downhill travel much easier. Even though snowshoes themselves have a wide base, it’s easy to get off balance and take little tumbles. And the good news is that most snowshoers also hike, so it’s fairly common that they already own a pair of quality trekking poles for those purposes.
If you already have trekking poles, you'll want to pick up a pair of snow baskets that are specifically designed to fit with your make and model. If you need new sticks, we’re big fans of Black Diamond and MSR, and our favorite model for 4-season use is the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, which includes both trekking and powder baskets for year-round use. Should you want a more affordable option or prefer to do some further research, we’ve compiled a complete list of the best trekking poles here.
Most snowshoers will be comfortable with their regular waterproof hiking boots and a pair of warm wool socks (think medium thickness rather than your lightweight summer hikers). If you’re looking at the running models, then a pair of waterproof trail running shoes should do the trick. With high levels of exertion in moderate temperatures in the 20s and 30s Fahrenheit, these types of footwear are all that most people need. But if you’re snowshoeing in truly cold conditions (or are prone to running a bit cold), the alternative is a lightly insulated winter boot (the Salomon X Ultra Winter CS is a fine choice for these purposes). We don’t recommend using a full-on winter boot like the Sorel Caribou for anything except very short walks—they’re too cumbersome and often far too warm.
Most snowshoe manufacturers make a unisex model and a corresponding women’s version that may appear to be the same exact snowshoe with a splash of color (where applicable, we've listed these with our picks above). But take heart: most these models have undergone some changes. First and foremost, women’s snowshoes are shorter. Rather than a 25-inch length being the standard size "small," women’s models start at about 23 inches. The shape also is different, tapering in at the back of the snowshoe to accommodate a woman’s stride that typically is a little shorter. Finally, the bindings are designed to accommodate smaller footwear. It all adds up to a more customized fit that will suit most women better than opting for the unisex (men’s) model.
Outside of poles, one of the most common snowshoe accessories that folks overlook is the trusty gaiter. Typically associated with mountaineering, these waterproof and tough leg protectors are in fact great for snowshoeing. Not only do they keep snow from sneaking through the opening between your pant leg and your boots, they also help protect your pants should you catch a crampon or other sharp object. For most uses a mid-range model should treat you really well. Our favorite model is the Outdoor Research Verglas for their tough and waterproof yet lightweight design. And for serious backcountry use, look to OR's Crocodile gaiters.
Back to Our Top Snowshoe Picks Back to Our Snowshoe Comparison Table