Some mountain enthusiasts use snowshoes to access frozen waterfalls or epic snowboard runs. For others, snowshoes are a way to go for a winter walk or run. The great appeal of snowshoeing is that it’s easy to do and extends your outdoor fitness opportunities into the snowy months.
When selecting snowshoes, consider the terrain you’ll encounter (things like steepness, tree cover and depth of snow) and the types of activities you plan to take on.
Trail or general use
These snowshoes are for flat or rolling terrain. They have enough traction get up the occasional steep slope, but are best for hiking on established trails. Best for beginners, they offer good value, are easy to adjust and work with a wide range of footwear.
If you plan on exploring the backcountry, crossing steep slopes or moving through icy or thickly treed terrain, these are the type of snowshoes to choose. They have serrated crampons on the base and traction that bites firmly into steep or icy slopes. Designed with decks and bindings that will resist extreme cold, they also often pack up flat so you can strap them to your back when they aren’t needed.
These shoes are built for running on packed snow and on firmer terrain, so they have less flotation than other styles. They are narrow and have an asymmetric shape that allows an efficient stride and a natural running gait.
Bindings and features
Snowshoe binding are designed to fit over most types of footwear and in particular, the sturdy, waterproof boots most snowshoers choose. If you plan to use snowboarding or mountaineering boots, make sure the binding will accommodate the extra width or length
Attached to the frame with flexible webbing, these bindings allow the toe crampon to flex and stay in contact with the snow as you walk or climb a slope. They are tensioned so the tail of the snowshoe lifts with each stride. This adds efficiency, but it can also fling snow on the back of your legs.
These bindings attach to the deck with a pivot near the ball of your foot. They are good for kicking steps in deep snow or for climbing over trees, but because the tail drags, they are not as nimble as other models and it’s difficult to move backward in them.
Heel lift/climbing bars
These are wire bails that you flip up and rest your heels on. During long climbs you can rest your heel on the bar and reduce calf strain. It also helps push the back of the shoe down on steep terrain to give more traction.
Most snowshoes use a frame with a synthetic decking material that’s tough and designed to resist cracking in cold temperatures. Frame-style snowshoes are very responsive and the way they flex helps you stay balanced on uneven terrain.
A solid plastic frame is inexpensive and versatile. If you sometimes travel with a heavy pack, you can usually adjust the flotation by clipping on an optional tail extension. They are not flexible as snowshoes with a frame and deck, so your stride won’t be as fluid and natural.
Flotation and size
When you select snowshoes, choose the size that offers the amount of flotation you need for your weight (in your winter boots and all your layers), the weight of your pack, and the snow conditions. You need more flotation in freshly fallen powder than in wet, heavy snow. Depending on conditions, there can be as much as 70kg of variation for the same shoe.
To accommodate anatomical differences, women’s snowshoes incorporate some specific design features:
- On average, women are lighter and need less flotation, so women’s snowshoes are smaller, with less surface area.
- Because women’s thighbones curve inward from the hips to the knees, their stride is narrower. Women’s snowshoes are thinner and tapered, so their gait feels natural and helps avoid strain.
- Bindings are narrower and designed with more arch support, as women are more likely to have arches that pronate.
- The angle, placement and size of toe and heel crampons, and traction rails suit smaller feet and a narrower stride.