caption The right pair of snowshoes provides you with the traction and flotation you need for your preferred winter pursuit. Photo by iStock.

How to choose the right snowshoes

By Matt Heid

AMC Outdoors, November/December 2012

Winter is coming. Time to find your inner Yeti and gear up for a season of snow-tromping adventure. And like that fantastical beast, you’re going to need some oversized feet to travel the deep winter snows. The right pair of snowshoes provides you with the traction, flotation, and bindings you need for your preferred winter pursuit, whether it’s a short walk in the woods, a challenging mountain ascent, or a Himalayan quest.

The snowpack can be tricky and uneven. Hidden soft spots and hard objects lurk within. Use poles to enhance your balance—and to assist your recovery in the event of a tumble.

Get Traction on the Options
Snowshoe styles fall into three general categories, each designed for a particular variety of winter terrain—flat or nearly flat landscapes; rolling topography with occasional inclines; or alpine terrain with steep and sustained slopes. To quickly determine a snowshoe’s intended use, flip it over and look at the traction system, the metal “teeth” that provide grip on snow and ice. Styles designed for level terrain ($100 to $175) feature minimal traction, typically just a few aluminum points under the forefoot and a low-profile grip under the heel. In contrast, go-anywhere mountain snowshoes ($200 to $300) bristle with toothy steel fangs that grip in all directions for secure travel on steep slopes with variable snow and ice conditions. Styles intended for rolling terrain ($175 to $250) fall somewhere in the middle and generally work well for all but the most challenging adventures.

Be Size Wise
Snowshoes don’t allow you to magically skim across the surface like a water strider on a summer pond. They just reduce the amount you sink into the snow. How deep you sink depends on two primary factors: your total weight, including your clothing and pack, and the surface area of the snowshoe. Most models come in three lengths between 22 and 30 inches, with a few extending up to 36 inches for heavier individuals. Each size provides adequate “flotation” for a designated weight range, a specification usually listed on the label. The weight ranges of different sizes often overlap. Choose the longer option if you fall between two different sizes; the benefits of extra flotation are generally worth the extra weight, especially if you plan on traveling through unbroken snow.

Make a Binding Decision
When it comes to evaluating bindings—the attachment system that lashes your feet to the snowshoes—one feature is paramount: You must be able to easily secure, adjust, and remove the bindings while wearing gloves. The best styles can be manipulated even when wearing thick, bulky handwear such as heavy gloves or mittens. Test this before you head into the frigid backcountry! Your fingers will thank you for it later. Good bindings also firmly wrap your feet and prevent them from shifting around as you move; styles designed for more challenging terrain typically feature beefier and more secure bindings. Bindings that lie flat allow you to nest the snowshoes on top of each other, making it much easier to strap them to your pack when not in use.

Author Matt Heid blogs about gear trends at equipped.outdoors.org.

Final Considerations
In general, women have a slightly narrower stride than men. As a result, women’s snowshoes are cut less wide than men’s versions to prevent the inner edges from catching on each other. Most manufacturers offer only fixed-length versions of their snowshoes, though MSR is a notable exception. You can add extra flotation to every MSR snowshoe by purchasing an additional tail, which attaches to the back of the snowshoe and provides increased flexibility for a range of snow conditions and snowshoer weights. If you have extra-large feet, or plan on wearing bulky snowboarding or mountaineering boots, make sure the snowshoe bindings are large enough to accommodate them. Finally consider a popup heel bar, which provides a raised support for your heel on sustained ascents and spares you from some serious effort and calf burn