Snowshoes

How to choose snowshoes

Snowshoes let you make the most of winter, whether that means hiking on your favourite trails, exploring in the mountains, or swapping your running shoes for running snowshoes. Snowshoeing is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other – and choosing snowshoes can be just as simple once you know what to look for.

When you’re buying snowshoes, use these factors to help you make your decision:

  • Where you plan to snowshoe: Will you be on mellow terrain, climbing steep slopes or running?
  • What size snowshoes to buy: Follow our guide to get the right snowshoe size.
  • Different materials and bindings: They each have their pros and cons.
  • Snowshoe add-ons and extras: Find out what other gear you might need.

Snowshoes for different terrain

At first glance, snowshoes might all look kind of the same. But there are actually a few main kinds of snowshoes, each with their own features that are designed for certain terrain or activities.

Snowshoes for trails and flat terrain

Group of women snowshoeing

If you’re dreaming of mellow winter walks on local trails or ambling along flat terrain, you won’t need specialized snowshoes. General purpose snowshoes have enough traction to get up the occasional steep or icy slope, but work best on gentle terrain.

General snowshoes are:

  • Best for beginners or casual snowshoers.
  • Great for established trails and flat terrain since they have moderate traction.
  • Ideal for snowshoeing in eastern and central Canada
  • Usually valued priced, since you won’t need fancy features.

Snowshoes for Mountainous Terrain

Snowshoeing in the mountains

If you’ll be exploring off-trail in the backcountry, crossing steep slopes, or moving through icy or thickly treed terrain, you need snowshoes made for mountains. To bite firmly into icy slopes, mountain snowshoes have spiky crampons under the toes and serrated traction under the heels. The most aggressive ones even have sharp teeth under the outer frames to chomp into slippery sections.

Mountain snowshoes are:

  • Best for intermediate and experienced snowshoers.
  • Great for using off-trail and on steep slopes since they have aggressive traction.
  • Usually more lightweight than other snowshoes because they’re designed to wear over long distances or to strap to a backpack.
  • Ideal for snowshoeing in western Canada.

“Bring a plastic bag or two on your snowshoe adventures: one for sliding down the mountain, and one for picking up litter to help keep our trails pristine.” – Laurence P., MEC Head Office

Snowshoes for Running

Running in snowshoes

Snowshoes for running are designed for moving fast on packed snow and on firm trails, so they have less flotation than other types. They’re narrower than other kinds of snowshoes and have an asymmetric shape that helps you run with an efficient stride and a natural gait.

Running snowshoes are:

  • Awesome for runners who want to keep going through winter.
  • Designed with a smaller footprint and asymmetrical shape to prevent you from kicking yourself as you run.
  • Great for packed trails anywhere there’s snow.

What size snowshoes to buy

Snowshoes work by creating more surface area than your boots alone. That extra surface area spreads out your weight so you don’t sink into the snow. Most snowshoe widths are quite similar, but where they vary is in length. You want to choose a length that has enough flotation for your weight and the snow conditions you’ll be in (deep powder versus packed trails, for example).

Follow these steps to find your snowshoe size:

1. Determine Your Fully Loaded Weight

The recommended user weight for snowshoes isn’t your normal, just-hop-on-the-scale weight. It’s actually the weight of everything the snowshoes will carry. So that includes you, your winter clothes, your boots, and your backpack loaded up with gear. If you’re heavier or carrying lots of gear, you’ll need a snowshoe with more surface area.

2. follow the Snowshoe size chart

The chart below provides general recommendations for sizing snowshoes. Check the manufacturer’s recommended user weight range in the specs for each snowshoe you look at on mec.ca.

User’s fully loaded weight
Snowshoe length 80lb. 100lb. 120lb. 140lb. 160lb. 180lb. 200lb. 220lb. 240lb. 260lb. 280lb. 300lb.
20–23in. Good Good Good Good Okay Okay
24–27in. Okay Okay Good Good Good Good Okay Okay
30in. Okay Okay Good Good Good Good Good Okay
36in. Okay Good Good Good Good Good

3. Consider the Snow Conditions

You’ll need more flotation in freshly fallen powder than in wet, heavy snow or on hard packed trails. So if your local snowshoe zone usually has lots of fluffy snow, choose a larger snowshoe for your weight to give you more surface area. On the flip side, if you usually snowshoe on hard-packed trails or in wet snow, you can get by with a smaller snowshoe for your weight.

4. Find the right fit

Once you’ve figured out what size snowshoes are best for your loaded weight and the snow conditions, it’s time to see how they feel. To get the best fit, bring the boots you plan to wear to your local MEC store when you try on snowshoes. Try different brands, like Atlas, MSR and Louis Garneau, and sample different binding styles to see which ones you like best. Stand up in the snowshoes and make sure you don’t have any uncomfortable pressure points. If you can’t decide, take advantage of MEC’s gear rental program to try before you buy.

Kids’ snowshoes

Snowshoes for kids come in small sizes that correspond to the weight of the child. They’re made of more durable and less expensive materials and have child-friendly traction that’s tough enough to tackle sloped terrain but not sharp enough to puncture snowsuits.

Women’s snowshoes

When it comes to fit, women’s specific snowshoes are generally designed to be:

  • Smaller, with less surface area since lighter weights often need less flotation.
  • Thinner and tapered, tailored to a narrower stride.
  • Made with narrower bindings with more arch support to fit smaller feet.
  • Made with crampons and traction rails that are placed to suit smaller feet and narrower strides.

Materials and bindings to choose from

Snowshoe design has come a long way from the days of wood and rawhide. Modern snowshoes are made of metal, plastic and high-tech textiles, and have lots of different ways to attach to your feet.

Metal and fabric vs. moulded plastic

Metal vs. plastic snowshoes

Metal frame with flexible deck (left) and moulded plastic without a frame (right).

A popular style of snowshoe construction is an outer metal frame with a lightweight and super durable flexible synthetic fabric deck (the deck is the part inside the frame). Traditionally the frames were made of aluminum tubes. Nowadays, some models, such as ones from MSR, use flat flames with serrations on the bottom to add more traction. This type of design is lightweight, quiet and feels natural when you’re walking, since they flex as you step.

Another option is moulded plastic snowshoes without an outer frame. These are very durable and inexpensive. However, the hard plastic decks can be noisy and they don’t flex, so your stride won’t be as fluid and natural.

Snowshoe bindings

There are many styles of snowshoe bindings that use buckles, straps or ratcheting closures. The one you choose usually comes down to personal preference and fit. Snowshoe bindings are made to fit over most hiking and winter boots. If you plan to wear snowboarding or mountaineering boots, make sure the binding will fit with the extra width or length.

There are two main types of bindings – hinged and floating:

  • Hinged bindings: Attach to the deck with a pivot near the ball of your foot. They’re great for kicking steps in deep snow or for climbing over trees. But because the tail drags, they’re not as nimble as other models and it’s difficult to move backward in them.
  • Floating bindings: Attach to the frame with flexible webbing. They’re tensioned so the tail of the snowshoe lifts with each stride. This adds efficiency (a good thing), but it can also fling snow on the back of your legs.
Hinged vs. floating snowshoe bindings

Hinged or floating bindings will look different between brands, but here are two examples. Hinged binding (left) shows the red crampon attached to the frame with a silver pin. Floating binding (right) has flexible yellow webbing to attach the binding.

Snowshoe add-ons and extras

Mom and son snowshoeing

Small details can matter when you’re out on a long adventure or trying to navigate a tricky traverse. Some of these features or snowshoe accessories can help:

Heel lifts

Wire bars that you flip up and rest your heels on. On long climbs, you can rest your heel on the bar to give your calves a bit of a break. It also helps with traction, since it pushes the back of the snowshoe down on steep terrain. You’ll usually see heel lifts on mountain snowshoes.

Snowshoe tails

Need a bit more float for an extra deep snow day? Planning to go out with a heavier pack than usual? Some snowshoes let you add tail extensions to give you more surface area. Tails are great for snowshoers who go out in all kinds of snow conditions or who occasionally head out with a big pack.

Trekking poles

Trekking poles or adjustable ski poles can help you stay stable and balanced. They’re especially helpful with steep ascents, powder-filled descents and sketchy side-hill sections. Choose poles with large baskets that won’t sink into the snow.

“Put some duct tape around your snowshoe poles – you never know when you’ll need to make a quick fix when you’re out!” – Shannon P., MEC North Vancouver

Avalanche Safety Gear

If you’re snowshoeing in backcountry, especially in the mountains of western Canada, avalanches can be a real concern. Learn more about the type of avalanche safety gear and training you need.