If you’re itching to explore snow-covered forest and mountain trails this winter, there are two nonmotorized modes of transporting yourself, and only one of them is really easy: snowshoes.
In fact, in the Northeast mountains, where trails tend to go straight up and down too steeply for skis, the only way to get around in winter is often on webbed feet. But whether in vertical terrain or on gentle trails, snowshoeing is hands-down fun. And this age-old technology can carry you to corners of the backcountry smothered under powder and wrapped in a silence you’ll rarely discover in any other season.
Finding the right snowshoes, however, can pose a greater challenge than the act of walking around on them. Since the sport’s boom in the 1990s, the number of models on the market has mushroomed. Simultaneously, the technology has greatly improved: bindings are easier to operate yet more secure; frames are lighter, stronger, and more streamlined; and cutting-edge materials are being used in everything from the frame to the decking. There’s also a huge range in prices.
When picking out snowshoes, think about the steepness of the terrain and quality of the snow (wet and firm vs. dry powder) where you will typically go, how far you’ll usually hike, how much weight you’ll carry, and how many days per year you’ll use the snowshoes. Just as important, consider how far into the backcountry you intend to walk and the consequences of equipment failure. Snowshoe models differ in binding design and other details, but your first decision in shopping for a pair has to be how rugged a snowshoe you need — and the price goes up as you get into models intended for harder use.
Snowshoes broadly fall into the following categories. The first two — from which most consumers are buying — include numerous models, and some manufacturers have more than one model for each category.
Recreational or hiking snowshoes are often made with the same or similar materials as rugged hiking snowshoes — although you may see slight differences, like frames made of 6000 series aluminum in this category instead of the tougher and more expensive 7000 series aluminum. Bindings and decking also may be identical or similar to higher-priced models. But these snowshoes are built to specifications that assume the user is heading out only occasionally, on packed snow on flat ground and gentle hills. They’ll last many years of that kind of use, but could fail under harder wear. Expect to pay roughly $99 to $150 for these.
Rugged hiking snowshoes feature bindings, frames, decking, and other parts that are built to endure the stresses of frequent use on long, steep trails such as those found in the White Mountains. Some of the differences compared to recreational snowshoes may be noticeable, like larger teeth on the cleats or a little more weight to the snowshoe; but the real difference is in stronger frames, bindings, and the myriad little parts that hold a snowshoe together. You’ll pay anywhere from $150 to $250 for a pair.
Racing or trail-running snowshoes are short, lightweight, and narrow, with sharply tapered and/or asymmetrical tails and a secure binding. They are about two-thirds the weight of snowshoes in the above categories, and offer less flotation, but optimal agility for the niche sport of running or racing on trails covered with packed (usually groomed) snow. You’ll pay $230 to $290 for many of these, or up to $400 for racers made of durable, superlight materials like titanium cleats and a carbon fiber frame.
Children’s snowshoe models are designed for kids weighing up to 80 or 90 pounds (including their packs). These snowshoes measure roughly 7-by-18 inches, are typically made of basic, fairly durable aluminum or plastic, have features comparable to recreational adult snowshoes, and cost anywhere from $25 to $65. They are not built for hard backcountry use; if your child is gunning to snowshoe up a 4,000-footer, get him or her into a good pair of small men’s or women’s snowshoes.
Once you’ve decided the type of snowshoes you need, consider these details:
While some manufacturers still make traditional snowshoes with a wooden frame and rawhide decking, most snowshoes are made of more durable modern materials. Frames usually consist of lightweight aluminum, and the decking a solid piece of either plastic, which relies on an underside pattern for traction; rubber-like Hypalon, which grips snow best and is tough; or polyurethane-coated nylon, which is slippery but durable.
The binding is a snowshoe’s most important component, and bindings vary in design, security, and durability. Most fit a wide range of men’s and women’s boot sizes. Look for flexible yet tough rubberized or nylon straps and buckles that won’t loosen or freeze up and are easily manipulated in mittens. The binding should hold your boot securely and prevent your heel from sliding side to side even when traversing across a slope.
The bigger the cleats beneath your toes and heel are, the better the traction. Aluminum is lighter than stainless steel but ices up more easily. A de-icing pad beneath the toe cleat prevents snow from balling up, which feels like you’re walking on baseballs and puts you in danger of a bad fall. Side teeth on the snowshoe’s underside provide lateral traction for traversing a slope.
Below the ball of your foot, the binding pivots on either a thick rubber strap or a rod. These come in two types: fixed rotation, which lifts the snowshoe tail up with your foot to keep it from dragging, and free rotation, which allows the tail to drag. Fixed shoes throw more snow onto your back and butt, but offer better agility. Free rotation bindings won’t throw snow onto your back, but the droopy tails can get hung up in vegetation or downed trees. I’ve seen at least one binding system that allows you to switch between free and fixed rotation, depending on conditions.
If possible, rent and try out snowshoes before buying, to see whether you like the operation and security of the binding, the overall shape (which can affect, for instance, whether you’re consistently kicking one foot), and how well the cleat grips snow. This is equally important for kids’ snowshoes.
Now that you know what to look for in snowshoes, you just have to know how to walk to get started. But that part’s up to you.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.