While a lot of the gear we test at OutdoorGearLab are fancy modern-day inventions, the snowshoe harkens back to a different era. No one is quite sure when they originated, but it's thought to be 4,000 to 6,000 years ago in Central Asia.
Snowshoes have come a long way since then. They were originally made by stretching rawhide over hardwood. Nowadays, improvements have been made in regards to weight, traction, durability, and comfort. It is believed that snowshoes were inspired by the large footprints of animals like the snowshoe hare. Humans discovered that distributing body weight over a larger area helped them float on top of snowdrifts, allowing them to work and hunt during extreme winter weather. Snowshoeing is also the best way to hike in snowy winter months.
Our full review discusses all the women-specific models we tested in depth.
Do you really need them?
You might be asking yourself, why do I need snowshoes when I already have winter boots and crampons? Well, let's think about that snowshoe hare for a moment. If your feet are the same proportions as theirs, then you're probably fine. But chances are the only person with feet that big is Bobo the Clown. While hiking boots and winter boots paired with spikes or crampons provide fantastic traction on icy terrain and snow-packed trails, they fail miserably on fresh deep snow. You simply post-hole and sink. Anyone who has tried to hike while post-holing knows how unpleasant and exhausting it is.
The right snowshoe will provide you with excellent traction on icy and uneven terrain, and the wide surface area — generally 4-5 times that of a hiking boot by itself — keeps you on top of deep snow. This combination gives a winter hiker access to both packed trails and unchartered territory into fresh snowfall, a true outdoor enthusiasts dream. However, if you don't live in an area that regularly dumps more than 6 inches of powder at a time before melting off, they are likely overkill.
What about skis, snowboards, and split boards, you ask? These are all fantastic options for navigating snowy backcountry terrain, but require considerable know-how and, unless you have skins, don't allow you to get uphill very easily. Snowshoes, on the other hand, are meant more for the avid hiker. If you find the perfect snowshoe, your stride will be much more natural than on a split board or skis. They are also drastically cheaper.
Types of Snowshoes
Snowshoes are pretty versatile by nature, but many are designed with a specific activity or terrain in mind. Take into consideration where you enjoy hiking, what kind of conditions you'll be up against, and the type of terrain. Generally speaking, each model is geared toward one of the following:
Flat Terrain/Trail Walking
These are your most basic snowshoes geared toward recreational use at a beginner to intermediate level. If you plan to stay on flat to moderately rolling terrain or groomed snow-packed trails, this is a great category for you. These models have less aggressive traction, easy to use bindings, and are usually sold at a lower price point.
Rolling Variable Terrain/Day Hiking
If your goal is to go as far off-trail as you can, then this is the category you'll want to pay special attention to. These models are a step up from the last category and are suitable for everything except the steepest and iciest terrain. Expect them to come equipped with more aggressive crampons and beefier binding systems.
Steep, Mountainous Terrain / Overnights
If long backcountry trips complete with perfect silence and the most stunning of views is more your cup of tea, then you'll need something a little more advanced. These models have the most aggressive crampons and bindings. They will serve you well on icy slopes and scary descents. Many of these shoes come with heel lifts to aid with steep ascents — a feature that makes a huge difference in regards to energy expenditure when climbing.
Owning this kind of snowshoe will mean you have the technical features for advanced snow travel but will, in most cases, still be able to enjoy beginner to intermediate terrain with ease. These models are also great if you are a skier or snowboarder seeking out that perfectly secluded run. Just realize that such outings will require additional training to stay safe in mountaineering and avalanche terrain.
The best shoes we tested for backcountry travel are the Editors' Choice-winning MSR Lightning Ascent.
Trail runners don't have to quit for the winter season any more than hikers do, thanks to snowshoes designed specifically for running. These models are created with speed, agility, and ease of stride in mind. They often have a tapered tail to clear snow more efficiently and are also lighter weight — sometimes a lot lighter. We did not test running models in our review, but the springy Crescent Moon Eva Foam inspired some light jogging. Most of the manufacturers featured in this review also make a shoe geared toward running if you're interested in trying it out in earnest.
To get a glimpse into how we tested each pair of shoes and in what kind of terrain, be sure to read the How We Test article.
Anatomy of a Snowshoe
In order to make an informed decision, you should probably know a little bit about the components and materials that make up a modern-day snowshoe.
Snowshoe frames have evolved from wooden oblong ovals to slender ergonomic designs made from lightweight metal and composite plastic. The frame is what determines the ultimate shape and surface area of the shoe, directly correlating to how well you will be able to float in deep snow. As a general rule of thumb, the wider and more oval the shape is, the better flotation you can achieve. Narrower tapered frames make it easier to walk and keep a normal gait, but keep in mind that narrow means less surface area, which in turn may affect float. Ideally, snowshoes perform well in both areas.
Women-specific frames often have a more pronounced taper to accommodate a narrower stride. Frames made for racing or running are also considerably more tapered to facilitate the quickest and easiest gait. If you are looking for speed, you should be seeking out a narrow design with a tapered tail. If you are a beginner or plan to hike in a lot of deep snow, seek out designs with a wider tail, or oval shape. Some models also offer add-on flotation tails to extend their length — and thus the surface area — of your shoe. Of the models we tested, both MRS models, the Lightning Ascent and Evo, offer this upgrade.
Decking is the material that stretches between your frame to hold it all together, and it also provides float. Back when wood and rawhide were the building materials of choice, rawhide was used for the decking. Early practitioners used it to make panels or weave a latticework, giving snowshoes that classic tennis-racket look we all know and love. Modern-day decking, however, has replaced the woven latticework with solid panels, which give the shoe more float. When this change was first introduced, people thought it wouldn't work, thinking that the holes were necessary to keep snow from collecting on top of the shoe. Turns out, that's not the case; solid decking will still clear away snow very effectively, though some designs are better at this than others.
Contemporary decking is constructed from various materials such as plastic, polyurethane, neoprene, synthetic leathers and rubbers, or a composite material like polyurethane coated with nylon. These materials are incredibly robust and cold tolerant, and they don't require constant maintenance the way rawhide and other natural materials do. Some designs, like the MSR Evo, are comprised of a single piece of sturdy molded plastic that makes up both the frame and decking as one integrated unit.
The traction system can be found on the underside of your snowshoe. Constructed from plastic (not recommended), aluminum, or steel (ideal), traction systems vary widely. As we mentioned earlier, it is best to take a moment to decide what kind of terrain you are looking to tackle. Steep hillsides and icy slopes will require a much burlier system than groomed packed trails.
The traction components that a shoe may or may not come equipped with include the following:Crampons
This is the main source of traction for any snowshoe, and the one component that every model will include to some degree. Crampons come in vastly different shapes and sizes and can be found under the toe or surrounding the ball of the foot. Because they are underneath the binding system, they are meant to pivot with the movement of your foot, helping you stick securely with each step. Some models meant for climbing and descending steeper terrain will also have a crampon at the heel of the foot (often in a V-shape), or an enlarged toe pick.Side Rails
Also known as traction bars, side rails run down the length of each shoe to provide extra grip and more lateral stability when traversing icy slopes. They look like little spiked teeth and can make a big difference when navigating dicey terrain.Braking Bars
Breaking bars are sometimes found on snowshoes made with plastic decking to prevent any backsliding and to help with overall traction.Heel Lifts
Snowshoes geared toward ascending steep terrain are sometimes equipped with a heel lift (MSR calls it a Televator on their models). This is a stiff wire bail that can be flipped up under the heel when climbing up hills to alleviate calf strain and overall muscle exhaustion.
The binding system is what keeps your feet firmly attached to your snowshoes. Women-specific models are designed with a smaller foot in mind, but bindings are generally able to accommodate a wide range of footwear and foot sizes. Be sure to look at the bindings with a critical eye. If you have tiny feet, or you're planning to wear minimal shoes, make sure the binding isn't overly roomy or unable to cinch down from all angles.
If, on the other hand, you want to wear something large and bulky like a snowboard boot, make sure the bindings are flexible and open up fully to accommodate this. Toe caps — meant for added security — can be problematic with very large or very small footwear. It may help to take a length, width, and height measurement of your boot and write to the manufacturer to make sure it will fit properly before purchasing.
There are two ways that bindings are mounted to a snowshoe, using a fixed rotation system or free or floating rotation (also called full) system. On a fixed rotation system, the tail of the shoe follows the movement of your heel closely. This allows the shoe to closely mimic the natural movement of your foot, making it easier to navigate obstacles. This style of mounting is better for packed trails and, especially, running. Backing up is also easier because the tail is less likely to get stuck. In deeper snow, fixed rotation is not ideal because the snow that falls onto the tail gets flipped up onto the back of your legs. Not only is this annoying, but constantly collecting and flipping up snow means an increased energy expenditure. If it's wet snow and your pants aren't waterproof, you can also end up soaked.
Free, floating, or full rotation bindings can, as the name implies, freely rotate around an axle under the ball of your foot. This allows the tail of the snowshoe to stay closer to the ground — it will drag instead of flip up — which means you will expend far less energy when walking through deep snow. Steep ascents are also easier because the tail can stay parallel to the terrain, thus opening up the toe claw for more effective gripping. With fixed rotation, it is harder to access your crampons on steep hills. The downside of this design is that, when you are on packed trails, the tail will drag behind you which can be loud and feel cumbersome. Backing up is also considerably trickier and requires more precise attention to your movements to not get stuck and trip.
We tried all the models tested across every type of snow and trail, and while you can use a fixed binding in deep snow and a free binding on a packed trail, you will have much more fun if you are using the right shoe for the job.
One contender in our review didn't fit into either of these categories. The Crescent Moon Eva has a static system much like a sandal that keeps your foot completely attached to the platform. The idea is that the rocker-shaped foam decking provides all the flexibility you need to walk naturally, just like being in a cushy tennis shoe. It's an interesting take on the snowshoe for sure, and while this model didn't float very well, it did allow for the easiest mobility of any shoe in our review. It also has a unique spring that helped propel our feet forward.
Some models are made to accept flotation tails. These attach to the back end of your snowshoe and provide another 5 to 6 inches of length, which will increase your load capacity by 60 to 70 pounds and drastically improve your flotation. This is great to have for trips out into remote terrain where you want to take a larger pack and be ready for deeper snow.
Having a snowshoe that allows for tails means you can expand the uses of one pair. Leave the tails off for modest days on beginner or intermediate trails and put them on for deeper snow and longer trips with a heavier load. Of the models we tested, only the MSR Evo and the MSR Lightning Ascent are flotation tail compatible.
Sizing & Fit
When choosing the size, shape, and design for your snowshoes, consider both the terrain and weight load. You should select a model that is able to perform well in the most advanced terrain you expect to encounter. If you plan to rendezvous with deep or very dry snow regularly, then look for a shoe that is wide and long (i.e., has a larger surface area dimension). If, on the other hand, you know that you will stay on packed trails, then pay attention to more compact models that allow for an easier natural stride.
The other factor to pay close attention to is weight load. You would be surprised how much weight all your snow gear can add, so take a moment to figure out your weight dressed for the cold and equipped with water, snacks, extra layers, etc. Then choose the length of your snowshoes accordingly.
Are Women's Specific Snowshoes Necessary?
While we are focusing on women-specific models for this review, keep in mind that women can wear men's or unisex shoes and vice versa! If the length is appropriate for your weight load and the bindings fit well, then you're good to go. In truth, the differences in design are more about height, weight, and bone structure than what sex you are.
The main difference with women's shoes is that the bindings tend to be smaller to accommodate a more petite foot, and the frame shape is generally narrower (and often has a tapered tail) to allow for a narrower gait. But maybe you're a woman with large feet and wide hips or a man with a small frame and foot size. Don't let marketing dictate more than is reasonable. Try to look at measurements and design features and think practically about what your specific needs are for your unique body type.
If you've purchased your snowshoes and are psyched to use them as much as possible, there are some fun and useful accessories you may want to consider.Snowshoe Bags
Most manufacturers make bags specifically designed to fit their snowshoes. These bags will often have space or features to store tails and trekking poles. A well-designed bag will also be ventilated to ensure that everything can dry properly, meaning you can store everything in your bag over the long term.Gaiters
Gaiters are like sleeves for your lower leg and foot. They attach near the knee and clip down at the bottom of your foot to help keep snow and other debris out of your boot. If you tend to end up with wet socks when out hiking in the snow, gaiters could make a world of difference for you and your feet.
Trekking poles help distribute the weight of each step you take, using more of your body and taking excess strain off the legs and knees. They can also help with balance and stability on tricky terrain, especially if you have full rotation bindings. If you're not convinced, have a look at our article on the top ten reasons for using trekking poles. Then, if you ARE convinced and want help choosing your poles, check out our Best Trekking Pole Review.
That just about covers the basics. We hope this article has answered all your questions about snowshoes and will help you find your perfect fit. Happy (snow-filled) trails!