Selecting the Right Snowshoes
Selecting the right snowshoes can be an overwhelming task if you are starting from scratch. Once you read through all the logic regarding shape, size, style, materials, intended use, etc. you will realize that the selection is actually quite easy to sift through.
When I walk someone through the snowshoe selection process, the first question I always ask is, “what will you be using your snowshoes for?” The answer to this question usually eliminates ¾ of the snowshoe selection.
So, ask yourself first:
How and where will I use my snowshoes?
“I plan on snowshoeing for fun with my family, and don’t intend to use them regularly or on difficult terrain.”
If your answer sounds something like this, you are probably in the market for a recreation snowshoe. This snowshoe is designed for the casual/beginner/all around snowshoer. The shoe has comfortable, easy-to-adjust bindings and conservative traction systems for gentler terrain, for example the park, golf course, or field in your neighborhood. This snowshoe category is also a good value for you if you are not sure you will use them often or year after year.
“I plan on snowshoeing frequently and may go off trail from time to time or on steep slopes. I probably won’t be climbing peaks, or backpacking, but I want a high quality, durable shoe.”
If your answer sounds something like this, you are probably in the market for a hiking snowshoe. This snowshoe is designed for the casual to frequent snowshoer and is the largest category of snowshoes on the market. This snowshoe will be the best value, as you will see a step up in decking material, crampon quality and frame design. This snowshoe is a great all around shoe for the person who may be snowshoeing in the park one day and on the local mountain trails the next.
“I plan on snowshoeing on challenging terrain. I might be carrying a heavy pack or ski/snowboard equipment, and I often wear bulky boots when I snowshoe. I could be in deep snow or on an icy slope on the same day.”
If your answer sounds something like this, you are probably in the market for a backcountry/mountaineering snowshoe. This snowshoe is designed for the backcountry enthusiast/aggressive snowshoer. The shoe has a heavy-duty binding, (often ratcheted) to accommodate a bulkier boot. The traction system is more aggressive with larger crampons for icy and steep terrain. The decking material is highly durable for varying weather and terrain conditions.
“I plan on running to stay in shape during the winter and want to hit some of the local trails in the area. I might even enter a snowshoe race this season.”
If your answer sounds something like this, you are probably in the market for a racing/running snowshoe. This snowshoe is designed for the fitness enthusiast. It typically has lighter-weight construction and bindings than your average snowshoe. The bindings are designed with running shoes vs. boots in mind. They lace up and cup athletic footwear well. There is typically an extra cleat under the toe for additional traction while running on packed trails.
Once you have chosen your intended activity, the rest of your decision making process is pretty easy.
The next question is two fold: What is your total weight while snowshoeing? Where you will be snowshoeing, (conditions/terrain)?
What size snowshoe do I need?
Snowshoes typically come in three sizes: 8″ x 25″, 9″ x 30″, and 10″ x 36″.
There is also a slightly smaller shoe built with women in mind: 8″ x 21″, and even smaller shoes intended for children: 6″ x 15″ and 7″ x 18″.
These measurements are often stated, in some form or another in the snowshoe name, and are the width of the snowshoes in inches by the length of the snowshoe in inches. This will help you visualize the snowshoe when it is not sitting in front of you.
There are general sizing charts associated with all snowshoe brands, but don’t use these as a strict guide to your final sizing decision. IN GENERAL, an 8″ x 25″ snowshoe fits snowshoers weighing 120lbs – 180lbs. A 9″ x 30″ snowshoe fits snowshoers weighing 160lbs – 220lbs., and a 10″ x 36″ shoe fits snowshoers weighing over 200lbs.
Again, these are not hard and fast rules, so let’s consider some different scenarios.
I weigh 170 pounds, but I typically use my snowshoes in the backcountry with a 20-pound pack.
If your answer sounds something like this, you need to consider your total weight with gear. It is important to first determine how much you will typically weigh when you are ready to hit the trail. This includes excessive weight linked to footwear, hydration, a loaded pack, extra clothing, etc. If you will typically weigh an extra 20 pounds when you hit the trail, you will be more likely to sink if you are wearing a snowshoe that only holds your weight.
I weigh 170 pounds, but I never venture off packed trails.
If your answer sounds something like this, you need to consider your snow conditions and terrain. These are very important considerations, because of the link between snowshoe size and flotation. The purpose of a snowshoe is to keep you afloat and provide traction when you are walking on snow. If you typically stay on packed trails, you will be a lot less likely to sink with each step than you would if you were walking off the trail into deep snow.
Once you get off the trail, what type of snow are you stepping into? If you live in an area with thick, heavy, wet snow, you will be a lot less likely to sink deep into the snow, than if you are stepping into dry, light, powder. The general rule to take from this scenario is the harder the snow pack, (a packed trail being one of the hardest), the less likely you are to sink, and therefore the less flotation you need.
So, you have decided on your activity and snowshoe size, what’s left? Not much. Now, you have to decide what types of features you want your snowshoes equipped with. This will help you narrow down your choices further to a specific brand. Snowshoe brands tend to have similar features among their entire line. These features consist of frame and decking materials, binding materials and types, crampon materials and types and snowshoe shape.
What snowshoe features are best for me?
Aluminum, wooden, rubber, plastic, steel, titanium, rounded, pointed, symmetrical, asymmetrical, fixed, pivot… so many materials, shapes and styles – it’s hard to know what’s best for you. Let’s see if we can narrow it down a bit.
How do I know which type of decking material is the best?
The decking material is what wraps around the frame of the snowshoe and gives you your flotation. Speaking objectively, there is no “best” decking material – they all have their own strengths. Hypalon decking is a rubber material found in river rafts and tends to be flexible, forgiving, cold resistant and lightweight. Composite plastic decking is rigid, stable, cold resistant and strong. Both decking materials can share all of these traits, but both are best known for their unique features. There are also certain compact snowshoes made without frames that have a plastic deck that supports weight on its own.
Are fixed or pivot bindings best for me?
Fixed Bindings are popular because they offer a natural, comfortable stride. The binding is connected to the snowshoe with a strong, neoprene rubber band, which gives the snowshoe a bit of spring while you are walking. Instead of dragging on the ground, the snowshoe follows your foot with each step. This makes it easier if you are traveling off a trail and have to climb over objects, maneuver through dense areas, or back up. Some people don’t like this type of binding, because when the snowshoe “springs” up, it can kick snow on the back of your legs.
Pivot Bindings are popular because they allow the tail of the snowshoe to fall away from your foot with each step you take. The binding is attached to the snowshoe with a metal rod, which allows the shoe to pivot 90 degrees. Since the shoes don’t follow your foot when you step, you shed snow from the tail with each step, reducing leg fatigue. Another feature that makes the pivot binding popular is that it allows you to kick your crampon into steep slopes when you are climbing. Your stride may not be as natural, and it is more difficult to back up with pivot bindings.
What kind of crampon do I need to have on my shoe?
There is not as much choice in this area. Snowshoe manufacturers have put the appropriate crampon on the shoe according to the intended use of the snowshoe, which you have already narrowed down. But, so you know what you are getting, here is a little information. Recreation snowshoes will have more moderate traction than climbing snowshoes. Climbing snowshoes typically have more aggressive talons that dig deep into the slope. Toe Crampons made of a variety of materials, but typically of stainless steel, are found underneath the binding and pivot with your foot to dig into the snow and provide traction.
Heel Crampons typically come on backcountry shoes. They are usually in a V formation under your heel and in addition to providing extra traction, slow you down on a descent as they fill with snow. Titanium Crampons found in few shoes are lightweight and extremely strong. This is the ideal crampon for a serious racer, or someone who wants to reduce weight when running on snow. Traction Bars are ideal for lateral stability. These are most often found on shoes without an aluminum frame. Traction bars are incomparable when crossing steep slopes, as they give traction along the entire edge of the shoe.
How do I know which shape snowshoe is best for me?
In the end, this decision is just one of personal preference – here are your choices:
Rounded Tail snowshoes are typically oval in shape and are symmetrical. The rounded tail is ideal for stability and flotation, as they don’t lose any surface area in their design. They do lose a bit in their maneuverability. Because you have to make your stride longer and your stance wider, you are more likely to struggle initially with your balance, since it is not your natural gait.
Pointed Tail snowshoes allow for a more natural stride since the tail tapers at the back. You don’t have to make your stride as long to clear the surface area of the other shoe. A bit of flotation is lost, because the back of the shoe does not cover as much surface area. They also tend to be a little less stable, since the front is significantly wider than the back.
Which snowshoe frame should I select?
Again, the frame selection is not much of a decision because manufacturers put the best frame on the snowshoe for its intended use.
Wooden Snowshoe Frames are hard to come by these days, but manufacturers are bringing them back for those who are looking for a traditional snowshoe.
Aluminum Snowshoe Frames are the most popular frame on the market. They are lightweight, strong and durable. Some shoes come with aluminum frames that are powder coated. Powder coated frames are nice because they come in a variety of colors and shed snow efficiently.
Powder coated frames can lose some of their visual appeal as the paint chips away with heavy use.
Frameless snowshoes are good for someone looking for a lightweight, compactable shoe. These shoes typically have traction bars along the length of the shoe to provide stability and traction.
It is important to remember that you don’t have to wade through a lot of these features when you are selecting your shoes because the manufacturer fits the best materials to the shoe’s intended use. It is nice to know what you are looking at, though, because it is easy to get bogged down with the technical jargon.
Snowshoeing is a great sport! Once you have selected the perfect snowshoe, you are in for fun, fitness and fresh air!