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How to Choose Snowshoes For Trails and Deep Snow

In lining up our award winners  the size advantage of the Louis Garneau is obvious. All that extra surface area enhances the flotation beyond the other products.
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Monday February 10, 2020
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Snowshoeing has been a way of traveling on snow for thousands of years. These contraptions were designed to enable people to hunt, travel, and haul loads across snow. The designs mimic the footprints of successful snow travelers such as the snowshoe hare, bear, and beaver. In the 1900s this method of travel began to become popular for recreational purposes. Until the 1960s and 1970s, snowshoes were made predominately of wood and rawhide. Synthetic materials such as neoprene and polypropylene began replacing the rawhide to add stiffness, durability, and require less maintenance. Aluminum frames replaced the wooden frames. While they are still used for hunting and daily work, they are most commonly used as a form of winter recreation. To see which models will work for you, check out our full review of men's snowshoes.

When to Wear What


Hiking Boots
Hiking boots in the winter will only allow you to comfortably access well-maintained trails that are packed by foot traffic or groomed. Hiking boots alone do not provide good traction on snow or ice. Hiking boots sink deeper into snow as a result of the small surface area; leading you to expend more energy with each step. These are not the footwear of choice in deep snow. When dirt and rocks are still visible through the snow in early and late winter conditions, and flotation is not a huge issue, waterproof hiking boots are preferable.

Winter Boots
Sorel Caribou
Winter boots also work well on groomed trails, and because of the high design, can be worn in deep snow, but they too lack the surface area to keep the walker on top of the snow. Winter boots are warmer than hiking boots and will keep the wearer drier, but they are clunkier and less agile than hiking boots. Winter boots tend to have good traction in snow but are still slippery on ice. These are ideal for wearing with snowshoes when flotation is needed.

Snowshoes
MSR Evo
Snowshoes allow you to hike on the same trails that you can in hiking boots, but also expands the access to off-trail exploration, including deep snow. They can do this because the surface area is four to five times larger than hiking boots alone. They can manage some off-snow terrain but will be worn out quickly on dirt and rock.

Waterproof Hiking Boots

  • Pros: comfortable, lightweight, relaxed fit, flexible upper, versatile in mixed terrain, breathable, supportive
  • Cons: water will eventually soak in between upper material of the boot and the binding straps

Winter Boots

  • Pros: insulated and warm, removable liners for drying out later, height above ankles keep snow out, suitable for walking in deep snow without flotation.
  • Cons: bulky, stiff soles, not intended for all-day wear, if you work up a sweat they are not very breathable

Why use Snowshoes?


Snowshoeing is an incredibly fast-growing winter sport. Three season hikers may extend their hiking into a fourth season by traversing snow-covered trails and many hiking trails are accessible and even maintained in the winter for snowshoeing and skiing. They are a great alternative to skis for winter backpackers traveling to backcountry huts and for snowboarders looking to access backcountry terrain. They provide an efficient means of travel for mountaineers looking to get deep into secluded basins and atop mountains. They are versatile, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive.

Types



Recreational Use


Recreational models are designed for traveling on beginner (flat) to intermediate (rolling) terrain. They are not sufficient for steep, difficult, or technical terrain. The frames are wider than racing models but similar or narrower in width to backcountry models. Crampons on recreational models are semi-aggressive. They have a wide range of applications well suited for leisurely outings. Models for recreational use should focus on comfort, security on foot, ease of use, and a traction system suitable for the terrain.

The MSR Evos (left) and the MSR Lightning Ascents (right) both reign from MSR's reputable outdoor gear. Similarities include the easy-to-use bindings and range of motion offered by the decking. Differences include the applications; the Evos are ideal for recreation and the Lightning Ascents are ideal in backcountry terrain.
The MSR Evos (left) and the MSR Lightning Ascents (right) both reign from MSR's reputable outdoor gear. Similarities include the easy-to-use bindings and range of motion offered by the decking. Differences include the applications; the Evos are ideal for recreation and the Lightning Ascents are ideal in backcountry terrain.

Backcountry Travel


For deep snow, steep terrain, and technical and off-trail travel, consider a backcountry model. Suited for mountainous intermediate and advanced terrain that may be demanding, backcountry models are best for people hoping to travel far from groomed trails. Advanced hikers, winter backpackers, and mountaineers will appreciate the technical features such as aggressive crampons, long tails, and wide frames. In the backcountry, durability cannot be compromised as replacement or repair of gear may be hours or days away.

While in the backcountry, the flotation and traction are key - these models have larger surface area for increased flotation and traction systems that exceed the standard under-binding crampon, such as side rails and long-tail designs.

The MSR Lightning Ascent (left) are best for backcountry terrain although the light weight and ease of use make them appealing for on trail use. The MSR Evo (right) are suitable for either recreational or backcountry applications and excel on or off-trail.
The MSR Lightning Ascent (left) are best for backcountry terrain although the light weight and ease of use make them appealing for on trail use. The MSR Evo (right) are suitable for either recreational or backcountry applications and excel on or off-trail.

Racing and Running


While recreation and backcountry models can sometimes cross over between the two styles, running and racing models are uniquely designed for maximum efficiency on packed snow. They are lightweight, have shorter tail lengths, and narrow frames. Flotation is not a main concern for running and racing as this typically takes place on packed or groomed trails. The crampons are semi-aggressive for maintained traction while in stride. None of the models in our current review are designed for racing and running. If you intend to run in snowshoes, seek out a lightweight frame, compact size, and adequate traction for no-slip movement.

Anatomy



Frame


Almost all modern designs are framed with metal, such as aluminum, carbon fiber, or steel. Tubular metal frames have been the norm for some time, but offer little in the way of enhanced traction. Some modern designs are constructed entirely of composite plastic. The frame determines the shape and size of the snowshoe. It will be oval-shaped for maximum flotation or tapered to accommodate a natural stride and contribute to efficient movement. The shapes and sizes will vary by manufacturer, but the two basic distinctions of symmetrical or tapered will offer insight into the best applications.

The clean and simple underside of the Aspect belies its incredible traction. The binding features steel crampons  while almost all of the blue perimeter is equipped with grippy serrations.
The clean and simple underside of the Aspect belies its incredible traction. The binding features steel crampons, while almost all of the blue perimeter is equipped with grippy serrations.

Tail


Simply put, the tail is the back part where the oval or taper comes to a close behind the heel. For fast movement, running, aerobic activity, or racing, seek out a tapered or even pointed tail. A tapered tail also allows for more agile foot placement on steep or technical terrain. As a beginner or for travel in deep snow, seek a wider tail or oval frame for better flotation and stability.

Deck


The deck is the material that fills in the space inside the frame. Modern decking is constructed of plastic, composite materials with PVC coated polyester, urethane-impregnated nylon, thermoplastic urethane, synthetic leather, or synthetic rubber. Synthetic materials are designed to withstand puncture and impact. Cold resistant materials add durability and flexibility as well. Some models are made of a large, sturdy piece of plastic where both the frame and deck are molded as a single component.

Crampons and Traction Systems


Traction systems are found on the bottom. Cleats under foot, teeth along the outer frame, or a combination of both, are designed to manage the terrain beneath you while remaining stable and secure. These pieces can be made of plastic, aluminum, or steel. In icy conditions and steep terrain, an aggressive design is necessary. Most models have integrated cleats beneath the ball of your feet and toes while some designs have cleats beneath the heel as well.

The most aggressive cleats mimic ice climbing crampons with points underfoot and lateral rigid teeth. Groomed or packed snow trails will require less traction than steep inclines or icy, slick terrain. It is important to select models with appropriate traction systems for your objectives.

Side-by-side comparison of the traction systems on the MSR Lightning Ascent (left) and the MSR Evo (right). Notice the different sizes of openings in the decking  underfoot crampons  and the lateral crampons on the frame of the Lightning Ascent versus the attached lateral crampon on the Evo.
Side-by-side comparison of the traction systems on the MSR Lightning Ascent (left) and the MSR Evo (right). Notice the different sizes of openings in the decking, underfoot crampons, and the lateral crampons on the frame of the Lightning Ascent versus the attached lateral crampon on the Evo.

Bindings


Bindings secure your feet to the snowshoes. Hiking boots, winter boots, and mountaineering boots are all compatible with snowshoe bindings, but not all bindings will accommodate all types of boots. Snowboard boots may be too bulky for small binding systems and hiking boots may not feel securely fastened in roomy bindings. Like the fit of any footwear, compatibility between the two parts is essential to your comfort and support.

Bindings systems are diverse, and none of the models in our review had quite the same binding method. Some resemble the ratchet designs common on snowboard bindings while others are unique and offer step-in, quick fastening designs. Most are constructed of sturdy plastic, although some have rubber band-like straps or nylon straps with buckles. All of the bindings cross over the top of the foot and behind the heel, with the heel free to move up and down while secured into the binding. Some bindings cup the toe area for a secure fit on the downhill.

The MSR Lightning Ascents have three binding straps that cross of the top of your boot. The tabs that secure the excess length move from side to side to keep the loose ends down.
The MSR Lightning Ascents have three binding straps that cross of the top of your boot. The tabs that secure the excess length move from side to side to keep the loose ends down.

There are two primary styles of snowshoe bindings: hinged and strapped.

Hinged - or full rotation - bindings are designed to offer a wider range of motion in stride. The bindings are attached on a pivot so the foot may move forward of the tail. This is ideal in backcountry applications where steep terrain requires steps to be kicked in. The flexibility and versatility of the full rotation bindings surpass the limits of a fixed rotation binding. For running and racing and firm-snow travel, fixed rotation bindings are preferred.

Strapped (or fixed rotation) bindings are designed to reduce drag while lifting the tail with each step. When looking at the underside, a fixed rotation binding will have a strap of rubber or elastic running horizontally beneath the forefoot to secure the binding in place. This strapped junction on fixed rotation snowshoes allows for greater shock absorption with each step, but is less precise in steeper terrain.

A few considerations when determining if a binding system is compatible with your boots and your style of travel:
  • How easy is the binding system to use? Can you easily tighten and loosen the straps for personalized adjustments out on the snow? Your bindings should be easy to use, especially with gloves on and in inclement weather. There should be minimal fussing with the binding yet they should be easily adjustable throughout your outing.
  • Does your foot slip forward or backward? Does your foot shift side to side? Selecting proper footwear to use in your bindings assures that you will be securely fastened. You may need to experiment with tightening or loosening different buckles and straps on the bindings, or you may consider choosing a different type of footwear if looseness persists.
  • There should be zero pressure points where the bindings contact your boots. If there are pressure points or tightness when trying them on, those will only persist and worsen on the trail. It's important to avoid both over and under-tightening the binding.

The full rotation bindings allow for unrestricted flexibility in each forward step.
The full rotation bindings allow for unrestricted flexibility in each forward step.

Heel Lifter


The heel lifter is a metal bar that lays flat beneath the foot against the decking when inactive and can be lifted to add support beneath the heel while heading uphill in steep terrain. The benefit of a heel lift is that it puts your foot in a more natural position when heading uphill. Engaging the heel lifter requires either squatting down/bending over - which can be strenuous with a big pack on - or using a trekking pole basket or handle. Not all trekking poles do this well.

Add-on Flotation Tails


Flotation tails are separate pieces that can be attached on to the back of some models for added length. Tails can be added any time you want to enhance your flotation. This allows for a wider range of use with a single pair. MSR has flotation tail options for some models. Be aware that adding the flotation tails will change the stride ergonomics of your snowshoe.

Sizing


To choose the right size, consider what terrain you'll be covering, the snow conditions you're likely to encounter, how much weight you'll be carrying, and your size.

Terrain encompasses all of the locations you anticipate encountering. You should select snowshoes based on the terrain you anticipate spending the most amount of time in while also considering the most difficult terrain you expect to encounter. Steep terrain rewards excellent traction, hinged bindings, and compact size. If you plan on heading into steep terrain and are on the cusp of the manufacturer's recommended size range, consider sizing down. Off-trail use demands greater flotation. Well-traveled trails are best traversed with smaller, shock-absorbing shoes.

Weight load is determined by your actual weight plus the weight of any gear you plan to carry such as a backpack, water, food, layers, etc. It is important to be as accurate as possible when figuring this weight, as it will affect how they perform. Wider and longer models should be chosen for backpacking and narrower models can be worn for leisurely day hikes. Use the manufacturer's recommendations for weight load as it pertains to the suitability of their particular snowshoe models and sizes.

Men's vs. Women's Models?


Snowshoes come in men's, women's, and unisex models. Choosing a men's, women's or unisex model comes down to your size and color preferences.

The distinguishing features of women's specific models are the frame shape and binding size. Women's specific models accommodate a narrow stride with a tapered tail at the back of the frame. Some men find this increased taper makes for easier walking. The bindings of women's models are designed for smaller feet and therefore smaller boots. Petite women will benefit from women's specific models, but most women will be able to comfortably wear men's or unisex models. Men's versions have wide frames, long tails, and bindings suitable for larger boots and shoes.

Depending on your personal preferences and the terrain you anticipate traversing, focus on the shape, size, and design features to find a suitable match. In the course of writing this review, we found some female reviewers preferred men's specific models while some men preferred unisex models. Experiment with your options without adhering too closely to gender specifics but consider the sizing features that will best suit you.

Keep in mind that if they are sized too small, you will sink in soft snow. If they are sized too large, they will feel cumbersome.

Finding an optimal range for snowshoe sizing is determine by your weight plus the weight of any additional gear you intend to bring. Plan for an additional 10 pounds for day outings and 30+ pounds minimum for multi-day outings. Consider the weight of water  extra layers  food  cooking/fire equipment  etc.
Finding an optimal range for snowshoe sizing is determine by your weight plus the weight of any additional gear you intend to bring. Plan for an additional 10 pounds for day outings and 30+ pounds minimum for multi-day outings. Consider the weight of water, extra layers, food, cooking/fire equipment, etc.

Fit


Putting snowshoes on your feet for the first time may feel involved. Below are step-by-step instructions on how to put them on your boots for the optimal fit. Starting on snow is best because the sharp crampons will damage indoor flooring and asphalt or dirt may damage the crampons.
  • Start by opening all of the buckles and loosening all of the adjustment points on the bindings. Clear the binding footbed of any snow or debris so that your foot will rest flat on the binding without any obstruction.
  • Step into the binding with the ball of your foot directly centered over the crampon hinge. Check if your foot placement is correct by making a pivoting motion forward. The front of your boot should not have direct contact with the decking.
  • Once your foot is in place, buckle or latch or attach the binding strap at your toes or the frontmost binding strap. Then attach and tighten the heel strap. Lastly, secure and tighten the instep strap that crosses over the top of your foot, nearest your ankles. (For some bindings this step will look different because of the unique binding systems. You will follow step 1 and step 2 as mentioned above, but then you will go directly to the two tightening points for adjustment since there are no straps to tighten over the toes or forefoot.)
  • Check the tightness and security of the binding straps by lifting your foot, taking a few steps, or hinging your feet on the pivot points. The bindings should feel secure around your boots but not so tight that movement is restricted. After a short distance, you may need to readjust your bindings for optimal fit.
  • Check for any gaps between the bindings and your boots. The binding straps should embrace your boot in such a way that there is little to no space for snow to gather or collect. If snow gets into the spacing of your binding, it may result in cold and wet boots as well as discomfort and pressure points.
  • Snowshoeing is just like walking or hiking except that your feet should be slightly wider than normal to accommodate the wide frames and keep them from colliding with one another.

Here the MSR Evo are worn with winter boots. The Posilock Binding system is easy to use but does require some adjustment beyond the initial fitting. The binding straps loosen out of the tabs in deep snow  but the main buckle remains secure.
Here the MSR Evo are worn with winter boots. The Posilock Binding system is easy to use but does require some adjustment beyond the initial fitting. The binding straps loosen out of the tabs in deep snow, but the main buckle remains secure.

Mountaineering Boots

  • Pros: insulated and warm, removable liners for drying, crampon compatible in mixed terrain
  • Cons: stiff and can be uncomfortable, thick soles can be harder to move in, expensive

The MSR Evo bindings are adjustable for a wide range of boot sizes and are suitable for use with waterproof hiking boots  winter boots  and mountaineering boots. (Shown here with mountaineering boots).
The MSR Evo bindings are adjustable for a wide range of boot sizes and are suitable for use with waterproof hiking boots, winter boots, and mountaineering boots. (Shown here with mountaineering boots).

Recommended Accessories


We recommend trekking poles or adjustable ski poles in addition to your gear set-up. Walking in snowshoes changes our natural gait and can disrupt balance. Trekking poles help maintain balance. Just as with hiking, trekking poles distribute the weight load and impact throughout the body so the knees and the back aren't responsible for all of the support. Hinged bindings offer more flexibility in your range of stride and poles stabilize you in this range.

Trekking poles are most beneficial with high surface area snowshoes. Although they offer incredible stability on their own  moving forward becomes more efficient when you distribute the weight between your legs and arms.
Trekking poles are most beneficial with high surface area snowshoes. Although they offer incredible stability on their own, moving forward becomes more efficient when you distribute the weight between your legs and arms.

See our article for more insight into the benefits of using trekking poles and our Best Trekking Pole Review to find the best models.


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