How To Choose Snowshoes You’ll Love: Off The Wall And Onto Your Feet
Hmmm..how to choose snowshoes you’ll love? Step right up to the “snowshoe wall” at your favorite outdoor store! A floor to ceiling morass of bindings, decks, heel lifts, blue, black, gold, lime green. Personal taste lets you eliminate the baby pink ones right off the bat—you prefer fuschia?—but other than that, how do you pick out snowshoes you and your mortal frame can enjoy for years?
Let’s keep it simple and do a little comparison shopping to narrow down your choices. As you will see, much of this is common sense.
But before we get to that, just so you can see there are options for snowshoe fun with a group, read up right here: I’d Love To Go, But….How Do I Find Snowshoeing Groups Near Me? And if you’re altogether unsure about the snowshoe thing, get your questions answered here: Get Started With Snowshoes: Q&A For Outdoor Seniors.
How to choose snowshoes: onwards!
#1 Traditional vs. current
Skip the days-of-yore birch wood and rawhide models, okay? Bulky, awkward, heavy…
#2 Too little snowshoe vs. too much snowshoe
This one’s easy. With 6″+ of snow, there’s no such thing as “too much” when it comes to choosing snowshoes. There is such a thing as “too little snowshoe”. A snowshoe designed for challenging terrain will be great on a golf course as well as a backcountry trail. A basic snowshoe can bring challenges—in the form of a broken ankle, shrapnel wounds from flying snowshoe debris, or facial abrasions from untimely face plants—on anywhere but flat or gently rolling terrain or packed snow.
#3 A little grip vs. a lotta grip
Grip is created by the spiky things on the bottom of the snowshoe. How much grip do you need? Flip a couple of snowshoes over and look. If you’re mostly going to putter around your yard or on a snowed-in street, you need grippers in the ball of the foot area, a couple of points protruding forward from under your toes, plus cleats under the heel, so your heel doesn’t slip around. [The 3 young folks above are proudly showing off their awesome fun basic snowshoes.]
If you’re going up a mountain trail and planning to come back down in one piece, you’d do better with a more aggressive and more robust version of all of these grippers, plus a few extras. Some snowshoes have grips along the edges of the snowshoe as well. Icier conditions=more grip needed.
[Photo above. Left: too short, duh! The snowshoes are barely bigger than the boots! Right: too long. The young woman is having to move a lot of snowshoe for her build and doesn’t need the extra flotation of a longer shoe since the trail is groomed. Note, she’s also wearing men’s snowshoes, which are a mismatch for her narrow hips: she has to swing her legs wide to avoid hitting the inner calf with a snowshoe whenever she steps. This is very hard on the body. Middle: perfect. The ranger is wearing largish shoes, but they’re commensurate with her stature, and she’s leading the way and packing down snow. The folks behind her have much shorter snowshoes, which are easy to move around in, as well as more fun.]
#4 Short vs. long
Snowshoe length corresponds to the weight of you and your stuff. When you’re choosing snowshoes, keep in mind that the purpose of a snowshoe is to float you on top of the snow. Longer snowshoes mean more float. Shorter snowshoes mean more sink.
Major HOWEVER. Longer snowshoes are more difficult to maneuver and overkill on a packed trail. So, if you’re on the borderline of one size and the next, tend towards shorter if you’ll be using them on packed or low-fluff snow (eastern US), longer if you’re in fluff (western US) or un-trampled snow.
[Photo right and featured image, blue, red, black MSR EVOs. These are special short snowshoes frequently loaned out by organizations such as the National Park Service and Sierra Club. They are BOMBER. They have hard decks, good grip and can be lengthened for deep snow with the addition of a tail. Although EVOs make great loaners, individual purchasers have many other options to choose from that may be more relevant to their needs.]
#5 Men’s vs. women’s
Does this even matter? Yup! Most women need a women’s snowshoe. This has to do with gait. Men use a wider, more parallel stance than women do. Women in men’s snowshoes? That was the days of yore: waddle and step on the tails of the snowshoes. Face plant! Women’s snowshoes are narrower and more tapered than men’s towards the tail.
[Left photo. Two Atlas snowshoes, men’s on left, women’s on right. Note the shape difference.]
#6 High tech vs. low tech bindings
Truism when it comes to outdoor gear: the more complicated an item, the more likely it will fail. This could seriously mess up your day and a few other things.
Keep it simple
SO. Keep it simple when you’re choosing snowshoes. High tech knobs, wires, laces, push buttons, binding frou frou of any kind, can be TROUBLE. You’ll want to plunk your booted feet on the snowshoes, pull to tighten with mitten-hands, snug fore, aft, and over the top, and off you go. No messing. And do all of that in reverse, so you can make tracks to the nearest homemade pie café.
#7 Heel lift vs. no heel lift
The heel lift is a wire bail underfoot that minimizes stress on your Achilles as you go uphill. You pop it back down with your ski pole when you get to the flat or a descent. If you’re snowshoeing up any substantial hills, be nice to your legs, bite the bullet, and get a heel lift.
#8 Hard vs. soft decking
Mostly this is a matter of personal preference. Comparisons #1 through #7 are more important factors in snowshoe choice than hard vs. soft decking, IMBHO.
[Photo right. Putting on MSR snowshoes. The binding is uncomplicated and has no moving parts at all. The straps are simply tugged into place, no dexterity needed. There’s a significant crampon peeking from the ball of the foot. Underneath and invisible, there are 2 or 3 rows of steel grips; in addition, the frame is ridged for increased traction. There’s a heel lift—the burgundy bail—that this snowshoer will pop up to support the foot during climbs, and lower again at the top. These snowshoes can be easily stacked for storage.]
#9 Store bought vs. online
Store bought, every time for technical equipment. You want to try stuff on, make sure you can work the bindings, and get a really good look at features (using the guidelines here) with your own eyes.
Some favorites are Tubbs, Atlas, Crescent Moon, and Redfeather. MSR snowshoes are in a class by themselves, however. They are a go-to brand for the military and US-made of very high-quality materials. MSR has a range of snowshoes from novice to extreme.
How to choose snowshoes is one thing, but where d’you get the poles?
A thrift store.
Sometimes no amount of float lets you float a whole heck of a lot. At least this Lassen National Park Ranger broke a trail for her group!
Photo credits for How to Choose Snowshoes. Featured image, Snow!!: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Laurel F via Flickr. Top, Snowshoe wall at MEC: CC BY-ND 2.0 by Eva via Flickr. Snowshoe fun panel…Snowshoes!: CC BY 2.0 by Ethan Lindsey via Flickr; Overcome by snow euphoria: CC BY 2.0 by KCXD via Flickr. Size panel, Snowshoes too small, Josh: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Joe Goldberg via Flickr; Snowshoes just right, Snowshoe hike in Denali with ranger: CC BY 2.0 by Lisa Pietralia at NPS at Denali via Flickr; Snowshoes too long, Uphill: CC BY 2.0 by Kirybabe via Flickr. Young group wearing MSR EVO’s, Snowshoeing on Mount Seymour, 2012: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Jenny Lee Silver via Flickr.
More photo credits. Men’s and women’s Atlas snowshoes: screenshots from Amazon.com. Parking lot to pie shop panel… Snowshoers, Gatineau MW: CC BY-ND by Gordon Bell via Flickr; Zooming Subaru: CC BY 2.0 by Blair Cook via Flickr; Mom’s Pies: CC BY 2.0 by Rick Obst via Flickr. Putting on MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes, DSCN0644: CC BY 2.0 by Kirybabe via Flickr. Ranger talk on snowshoes, Lassen National Park, 2004_0101March2011: CC BY 2.0 by Lassen National Park via Flickr.