With a wide and stable footprint and solid underfoot traction, snowshoes open up your favorite summer hiking and running trails for winter fun. Below we break down the best models for the 2017-2018 winter including recreational snowshoes, backcountry snowshoes, and running/racing models. The majority of people stay on groomed trails or moderate rolling terrain, and recreational shoes will do just fine for that. If you plan on getting off-trail in deeper snow, you'll want a longer and grippier backcountry shoe. The good news is that there are a number of great options across the board from brands like MSR, Atlas, Tubbs, Crescent Moon, and more. For background information, see our snowshoe comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Lengths: 22, 25, and 30 in. (5-inch tails optional)
Weight: 4 lbs. 3 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: Unmatched traction and low weight.
What we don’t: Pricey.
Mountaineers, backcountry skiers, and other hardcore winter explorers rave about the MSR Lightning Ascent. Why all the fuss? This snowshoe is lightweight, incredibly grippy, and tough. The design stands out in the industry with traction that runs the full length and width of the shoe and bites into hardpack and ice. And should you venture into powdery conditions, you can pick up the optional 5-inch tails for improved flotation.
Incorporating a light nylon decking brings the total weight to around 4 pounds for the 22-inch and 25-inch models, thereby reducing fatigue on big climbs and when covering long distances. And the Lightning Ascent is one case where we feel it’s okay to forgive MSR for not having the most comfortable binding system: the straps are decently comfortable and hold your feet well, and importantly for peak baggers, lay flat for storing in a pack. For a cheaper snowshoe option from MSR, see the Evo below.
See the MSR Lightning Ascent See the Women's MSR Lightning Ascent
Length: 32 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 15 oz.
What we like: Made in the U.S.A. and best-in-class binding comfort.
What we don’t: Traction falls a little short on steep inclines.
Crescent Moon operates a little differently than other gear manufacturers, and that's not a bad thing. First, they specialize in snowshoes—that's pretty much the only thing the company makes. Second, they really focus on the manufacturing process: all shoes are made in the U.S.A. with materials that are free of PVC, VOCs and other harmful chemicals, and the Gold Series comes with a lifetime warranty. Finally, they have a great formula and don't feel the need to make drastic changes year after year based on current whims.
We think the Crescent Moon Gold 10 is one of the best overall snowshoes on the market. With five more inches of length compared to the popular Gold 9, you also get an extra set of claws near the ball of your foot. The Gold 10 isn't quite as grippy or light as the MSR Lightning Ascent above, but it handles a wider variety of terrain from trails to powdery rolling hills and moderate ascents. For last winter, Crescent Moon added an optional “climbing bar,” which is a nice feature for those that like the steeps.
See the Crescent Moon Gold 10 See the Women's Crescent Moon Gold 15
Category: Trail/backcountry (with tails)
Length: 23 in. (6-inch tails optional)
Weight: 3 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: A nice balance of price and performance.
What we don’t: Binding system isn't very comfortable on long hauls.
MSR has a solid reputation in the snowshoe industry, and their basic Evo is a very capable recreational shoe for beginners and intermediates. For under $150, you get durable hard plastic decking, impressive traction with solid toe crampons, and side rails made of steel. The snowshoes are on the short side for powder at 23 inches, but optional 6-inch tails can be attached to the back to improve performance in softer snow.
Complaints? Spending more can get you a better strap system with more than two straps across the top of the foot for superior holding power and comfort. And although the hard plastic decking is tough enough to handle most scrapes, it's noisy when walking on hardpack and can break if someone steps on it the right (or wrong) way. But all in all, the Evo's are light, capable, and reasonably priced—it's no wonder they remain a top seller year after year. For a similar shoe with better traction, try the MSR Revo Trail.
See the MSR Evo Snowshoe
Lengths: 20.5, 23.5, and 27 in.
Weight: 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 10 above in deep snow (opting for the 27-inch model does help with that). More, 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’s 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: 25, 30, and 35 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 6 oz. (25 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 was new last year and 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. 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 Elektra Montane
Lengths: 25, 30, and 36 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 11 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: Awesome grip and flotation.
What we don’t: Getting a little heavy for long distances.
Of any snowshoe on this list, the Tubbs Mountaineer is the best for breaking new trails. 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 ball of your foot. And the 36-inch version can handle up to 300 pounds (depending on snow conditions), the most in the backcountry category.
Weight is starting to creep up with the Mountaineer model: both the 30 and 36-inch models are over 5 pounds, which can make for some tired legs during longer treks. If weight is a significant concern, we suggest checking out the Lightning Ascents above. But for those that venture deep into the fluffy stuff, the Tubbs Mountaineer is in a class of its own.
See the Tubbs Mountaineer See the Women's Tubbs Mountaineer
Length: 24 in.
Weight: 3 lbs. 8 oz.
What we like: Lightweight and affordable foam construction.
What we don’t: Unproven long-term durability.
By a wide margin, the biggest news in the snowshoe industry for 2017-2018 is Crescent Moon’s new Eva 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 foam to provide cushioning, while the bottom is a denser and tougher variety for traction and durability. The flexible construction, lack of metal, and Velcro binding system make these snowshoes lightweight and easy to handle. Add in the rockered shape and shoe-like cushioning underfoot, and it’s easy to understand all the hype.
The biggest question mark of the Eva is durability. Not only is this a brand-new design, but its unique foam construction adds another layer of doubt about long-term performance (the EVA in your running shoes breaks down over time, for example). A season of testing will give us more insights, and there are promising signs like a panel of plastic under the ball of your foot for traction and added toughness. Another thing to note is that the Eva is best on relatively flat terrain and lacks the bite you get in hard snow with a traditional crampon. But we applaud Crescent Moon for this innovative and surprisingly affordable new model that likely will hit home with a good portion of snowshoe buyers.
See the Crescent Moon Eva All-Foam Snowshoe
Length: 21, 25, and 30 in.
Weight: 3 lbs. 15 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 Snowshoe
Length: 24 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 6 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 means 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
Length: 27 in.
Weight: 3 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: Lightweight and a quality build.
What we don’t: Aluminum crampons.
Crescent Moon has two main lines of snowshoes, Gold and Silver, with the biggest difference being that the latter uses aluminum crampons instead of steel. There’s a good argument that $185 is a lot to pay for an all-aluminum snowshoe, but Crescent Moon hits everything else just right with the Silver 9. This snowshoe is light at just 3 pounds 9 ounces for the pair, fits well with a comfortable footbed and single-pull binding, and should be durable enough to last you many seasons to come.
Keep in mind that the Crescent Moon Silver 9 is best for lighter loads and on-trail use. Despite being 27 inches in length, flotation isn’t ideal for deep snow or heading into the backcountry (there is a Silver 10 for that or even a Silver 17). But for those who value quality and an environmentally friendly build, the Silver 9 is a great choice. One final consideration: the Silver Series has a 2-year warranty whereas the Gold is lifetime.
See the Crescent Moon Silver 9 See the Women's Crescent Moon Silver 13
11. Atlas Run ($250)
Length: 22 in.
Weight: 2 lbs. 9.3 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 it has an aggressive stance that feels natural at speed (or at least as natural as you can be while running in 22-inch shoes). The Atlas Run also is a decent value, undercutting the carbon Crescent Moon Rocket below by $150.
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 your running season into the winter months, this Atlas deserves a serious look.
See the Atlas Run Snowshoe
Lengths: 22 and 25 in.
Weight: 3 lbs. 14 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 Revo was released a few years ago as a hybrid that combined the traction of their high-end Lightning with the price-conscious plastic decking of the Evo. Right off the bat, we’ll admit this isn’t our favorite design from the Seattle-based company. The Lightning Ascent above is more comfortable and a stronger performer in the backcountry, and the Evo is a better match for casual users and those on a budget. But 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 under $200.
As we mentioned above, we think there are more well-rounded mid-range options than the MSR Revo. The Atlas Montane, for example, is a little more expensive at $200 but comes with worthwhile upgrades like flexible decking with superior shock absorption, a more comfortable binding, and a heel lift. It’s worth noting that the Trail is the entry-level version of the Revo, but stepping up to the Explore and Ascent models pushes them too close in price to the superior Lightning lineup.
See the MSR Revo Trail See the Women's MSR Revo Trail
Length: 23 in.
Weight: 2 lbs. 7 oz.
What we like: Lightweight and a good value for a running shoe.
What we don’t: Limited flotation.
For those who want to continue running long after the snow starts falling, give the Transition from Louis Garneau a serious look. Made with a thin yet high quality aluminum frame and Boa cinch system, the Transition is a great option for aspiring snowshoe racers. Impressively, it comes in at less than 2.5 pounds for the pair, which is lighter than the Atlas Run above and The Rocket below.
What do you sacrifice by going cheaper? At 23 inches in length and with a heavily tapered tail, these snowshoes don’t offer quite as much flotation as The Rocket from Crescent Moon. But what you lose in flotation you gain in mobility: these shoes really move on hard pack. And if you aren’t ready to separate from the nearly $400 it costs to get into the Crescent Moons or even the $250 Atlas Run, the Transition is an excellent choice.
See the Louis Garneau Transition
Length: 24 in.
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz. (with bindings)
What we like: Carbon everywhere!
What we don’t: Super pricey and heavier than the Transition above.
Boulder, Colorado, is a land of ultra runners and aspiring Olympians, so it's no surprise that Crescent Moon makes the most serious racing snowshoe on the market. At the pinnacle of snow running is the The Rocket (previously referred to as “The Composite Kilo Run”). Made up mostly of beautiful carbon fiber that you have to see to appreciate, these snowshoes are purpose-built to move fast over snow, ice, or whatever else winter throws at you.
The Rocket is the longest and widest running snowshoe we recommend, which helps with overall flotation, but they remain reasonably lightweight thanks to the advanced (and pricey) materials. To cut weight even further, you have the option of ditching the binding and connecting the snowshoes directly to your go-to winter trail runners. It's important to note that there are risks in having a carbon snowshoe: landing the wrong way on a rock or other debris can damage that lovely structure beyond repair. But for the serious racer that’s trying to trim precious minutes or seconds off a PR, it may be worth the risk.
See the Crescent Moon The Rocket
Length: 24 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 12 oz.
What we like: Great in powder.
What we don’t: Limited grip on steep and icy terrain; wide shape.
You won’t be finding anything like the Fimbulvetr Hikr in your parent’s basement. These strikingly unique snowshoes were first released a couple of years ago out of Norway (Fimbulvetr means “great winter” in Old Norse). The goal was to recreate and not simply improve on snowshoe design, and recreate they did. Right off the bat, you’ll notice the all-thermoplastic decking, which is a highly durable material found in things like shock absorbers. The floating all-direction hinge is great for agility and these snowshoes are streamlined with only 18 total components.
But how about their performance? The consensus is that the Fimbulvetr Hikr do well in powder—the open design is great for displacing weight and movement. However, the grip on the Hikr is disappointing with only two small claws plus any additional traction provided by the thermoplastic bottom itself. And the design overall struck us as incomplete—the wide platform had us walking at a funny gait to avoid hitting the snowshoes, the binding straps are far too long and prone to flopping around while hiking, and the flexible hinge turns your ankle in uncomfortable directions while traversing a slope. We love the flotation and the snowshoe works for flat and deep snow conditions, but this is a far cry from our favorite all-around model on the market.
See the Fimbulvetr Hikr Snowshoe
Length: 25 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 13 oz.
What we like: Boa closure system at a reasonable price.
What we don’t: Plastic decking is so-so.
For recreational snowshoers, we think the Boa closure system is the easiest to use on the market. You simply slide your foot into the bindings, turn the nob, and the binding tightens down evenly over your foot. And the cheapest snowshoe with Boa to make this list is the Boreal II from cycling specialist Louis Garneau (the Boa-equipped Tubbs Flex VRT is $260, for example).
Aside from Boa technology, the rest of the Boreal II isn’t much to write home about. The plastic decking performs decently but isn’t up to the standards of the cheaper MSR Evo above. It’s also heavier at 4 pounds 13 ounces for the pair, while the Evo is 3 pounds 9 ounces. But if you like the clean design and Boa closure—we can’t blame you—the Boreal II is a decent trail option for $150.
See the Louis Garneau Boreal II See the Women's Louis Garneau Boreal II
Lengths: 19, 22, 25, 30, and 36 in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 5 oz. (25 in.)
What we like: Cheap price tag.
What we don’t: Questionable build quality, particularly the bindings and crampons.
For those on a budget, we heartily recommend going with a superior entry-level snowshoe like the $140 MSR Evo above. Yes, it costs quite a bit more, but will perform significantly better and last longer. However, you can’t argue with the price of the Chinook Trekker, which has a low $75 MSRP and often is available for even less. These are basic, inexpensive snowshoes that will work fine for short jaunts in the snow. If you’re new to the sport and want to give it a try, the Chinook Trekker is just about the cheapest viable option you’ll find.
As expected, virtually all of the components on the Trekker are of the budget variety. The bindings in particular don’t offer a lot of comfort, and particularly on long winter hikes. And the crampons on the bottom are aluminum instead of steel, which will bend and break more easily. We would grab the Evo and have them for years to come, but the Trekker is a decent value option.
See the Chinook Trekker
|MSR Lightning Ascent||$300||Backcountry/trail||22, 25, 30 in.||4 lbs. 3 oz.||Steel||Yes|
|Crescent Moon Gold 10||$269||Backcountry/trail||32 in.||4 lbs. 15 oz.||Steel||Optional|
|MSR Evo||$140||Trail/backcountry||23 in.||3 lbs. 9 oz.||Steel||No|
|TSL Symbioz Elite||$299||Backcountry/trail||20.5, 23.5, 27 in.||4 lbs. 5 oz.||Steel||Yes|
|Atlas Montane||$200||Trail/backcountry||25, 30, 35 in.||4 lbs. 6 oz.||Steel||Yes|
|Tubbs Mountaineer||$270||Backcountry||25, 30, 36 in.||4 lbs. 11 oz.||Steel||Yes|
|Crescent Moon Eva||$159||Trail||24 in.||3 lbs. 8 oz.||N/A||No|
|Tubbs Xplore||$130||Trail||21, 25, 30 in.||3 lbs. 15 oz.||Steel||No|
|Tubbs Flex VRT||$260||Trail/backcountry||24 in.||4 lbs. 6 oz.||Steel||Yes|
|Crescent Moon Silver 9||$185||Trail||27 in.||3 lbs. 6 oz.||Aluminum||No|
|Atlas Run||$250||Run||22 in.||2 lbs. 9.3 oz.||Aluminum||No|
|MSR Revo Trail||$180||Trail/backcountry||22, 25 in.||3 lbs. 14 oz.||Steel||No|
|Louis Garneau Transition||$200||Run||23 in.||2 lbs. 7 oz.||Aluminum||No|
|Crescent Moon The Rocket||$399||Run||24 in.||2 lbs. 13 oz.||Aluminum||No|
|Fimbulvetr Hikr||$269||Trail/backcountry||24 in.||4 lbs. 12 oz.||Steel||Yes|
|Louis Garneau Boreal II||$150||Trail||25 in.||4 lbs. 14 oz.||Steel||No|
|Chinook Trekker||$75||Trail||19, 22, 25, 30, 36 in.||4 lbs. 5 oz.||Aluminum||No|
- Snowshoe Category
- Snowshoe length
- Frame and Decking
- Snowshoe Features and Accessories
- Women's-Specific Snowshoes
- Snowshoes for Kids
The most important decision you make when purchasing a snowshoe is the category: trail, backcountry, or run. Trail or recreational snowshoes are great for most moderate hiking trails that fall somewhere between groomed and knee-deep in powder. These shoes are shorter than backcountry models and have simpler traction because you will be tackling rolling hills and not mountains.
Backcountry snowshoes, like the Crescent Moon Gold 10, are longer in length for more float in deep powder, and light enough that you can cover serious ground without feeling like you're wearing a ton of bricks. You'll also see increased traction and features like heel lifts for steep terrain. Run or race snowshoes are self-explanatory: they are used for trail running or jogging in the winter. Running snowshoes place a premium on lightweight materials, comfortable bindings, and special traction designed to keep you moving. Below is a quick rundown of the type of terrain and the corresponding category of snowshoe.
Groomed and flat terrain: Trail (entry-level) or Run
Moderately sloping terrain: Trail/backcountry (mid-range)
Deep snow or steep terrain: Backcountry
Once you get an idea of the snowshoe category you want (trail or backcountry), choosing a length is the next step in making a successful purchase. This will allow you to stay afloat and avoid sinking too deeply into the snow with each step (known as “postholing”).
The adult snowshoes on the list range from 23 inches at the short end (MSR Evo) up to 36 inches at the long end (Tubbs Mountaineer). Generally, shorter snowshoes are best for on-trail use and longer models are ideal for deep snow and the backcountry. However, your weight plays an important role in the decision too. Snowshoe manufacturers often list a recommended weight range for each shoe, also called “recommended load” (this means body weight plus anything you’ll be carrying, such as a backpack). Heavier people need longer snowshoes to stay afloat, so try to pick a length that best hits your weight with gear. Some snowshoes have optional tails to add length depending on the user and conditions
A final pitfall in choosing the proper snowshoe length is relying purely on the weight ratings without taking snow type into account. In the United States, the crusty hardpack you’ll find in the East contrasts sharply with deep powder in the West. Then there are areas like the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, which get a mix of the two. 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.
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 re-adjustments. 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 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. 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 high-end 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 traditional 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, Louis Garneau, and more. Getting a snowshoe like the Atlas Run 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 two) you can’t fine-tune the fit should you need to cinch down in one place and loosen another. It’s all or nothing. 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 traction varies dramatically 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. While reasonable for casual walking on flats, it can be overmatched on hills or snowy conditions.
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 in icy conditions 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. It’s a very functional design, with a strong frame protecting you from trail hazards and a pliant but tough 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. More, the decking materials are more vulnerable to tears and the occasional rivet can come out of the nylon decking. But those 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—and the ability to more easily incorporate traction along the sides. The MSR Lightning Ascent is an exception to this rule, as this snowshoe has a nylon decking but the aluminum outer frame has traction all around. The downsides of plastic are that it can break—we’ve had an unfortunate front lip of an MSR Evo 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.
Heel Lift (Climb) Bars
Most high-end recreational and nearly every backcountry and mountaineering snowshoe come with a heel lift. 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, so Crescent Moon has acquiesced and has added the functionality to their lineup.
From our use, 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 on 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 get back to the hard pack. 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.
Do I Need Poles?
The short answer: yes. Poles make uphill and downhill travel on snowshoes much easier and increase stability. Even though snowshoes themselves have a wide base, it’s easy to get off balance and take little tumbles. 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, it's easy to pick up separate 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 our favorite is the Alpine Ergo, 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.
What about Footwear for Snowshoeing?
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-runners 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 alterative is an insulated winter boot. The men's and women's Columbia Bugaboot is a fine choice for these purposes. We don’t recommend using a full-on winter boot like the Sorel Caribou for anything except covering very short walks. They’re too cumbersome and often far too warm.
Don’t Forget Gaiters
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 favorites are the Outdoor Research Verglas for their tough and waterproof yet lightweight design.
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. But take heart: these models have undergone some changes. First and foremost, women’s snowshoes are shorter. Rather than a 25-inch being the standard starting length for a snowshoe, women’s models are 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.
Thankfully, snowshoeing is an easy activity to pick up, so there are a number of great kid’s snowshoes on the market to make sure the little ones don’t miss out. Kid’s snowshoes are low on features but plenty capable for short walks and exploring around the cabin. We recommend the MSR Tyker (which is essentially a shrunken MSR Evo). It's relatively cheap but should last and is easy to take on and off. As with the adult models, you’ll find weight recommendations for picking a size.
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