Snowshoes 101: How to Choose and Use
Snowshoes can be used to hike in snow-covered terrains during winter. They provide flotation, which allows hikers to evenly distribute their weight over a large, flat surface area and avoid sinking or struggling in the snow.
When choosing snowshoes, consider these three things:
Terrain: Snowshoes are designed for flat, rolling or mountain terrain, so choose accordingly.
Weight: Look for snowshoes that can support your weight and any gear you'll be carrying.
Snow type: Choose a larger size for dry, fluffy snow, and a smaller size for hard-packed snowshoe trails.
Types of Snowshoes
Flat Terrain: Good for flat terrain with packed snow. They are lightweight and easy to move in. They are designed for casual users and have a simple binding system, modest traction features, and no heel lift for steep slopes. Typically priced between $50 to $150.
Rolling Terrain: Made for moderately sloped terrain and have moderate crampons for better traction. They usually have an easily adjustable binding system and a heel lift feature for steep slopes, although not all styles have this feature. Additionally, they are priced moderately. Priced between $100 to $250.
Mountain Terrain: Expensive but having a robust design with features such as an aggressive crampon system for traction, a sophisticated binding system that can accommodate thicker boots, and a heel lift for steep slopes. Typically range in price from $150 to $300.
Backcountry/Expedition: Made for difficult terrain with deep snow and dense forests. They have a wider surface area to distribute weight, which helps prevent sinking, and they can carry heavier loads. Prices typically range from $150 to $300.
Trail-Running: Designed for speed and agility on packed snow, these snowshoes are lightweight, have a narrow profile and come with built-in crampons for better grip. Prices are generally between $100 to $200.
According to a survey conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association, snowshoeing is a popular winter activity in America, with over 4.5 million participants in 2018. The majority of these participants were from the western and northeastern regions of the United States.
In terms of the types of snowshoes used, the most common type is flat terrain snowshoes, followed by rolling terrain and mountain terrain snowshoes. Backcountry/expedition snowshoes and trail-running snowshoes are less commonly used, as they are more specialized for specific types of terrain and activities.
Size Chart for Snowshoes
Snowshoe Sizing by Load
Snowshoe Size (inch)
Up to 80
Snowshoe Sizing by Conditions
Recommended user weight
Recommended snow conditions
Up to 120 lbs
Packed snow or groomed trails
Packed snow or moderate terrain
Deep snow or backcountry terrain
Deep snow or heavily loaded backpacks
Snowshoes Based on Age and Gender
1. Smaller frame and narrower shape to accommodate a woman's stride and gait.
2. Lighter weight to minimize leg fatigue.
3. Traction that is designed to work with women's winter boots.
Smaller sizes: 21-22 inches
Recommended user weight: Up to 150 lbs
Features: Narrower frame and bindings, tapered tails for easier maneuverability
1. Larger frame and wider shape to accommodate a man's larger foot size and stride.
2. Sturdier construction to handle heavier weight and rougher terrain.
3. Traction that is designed to work with men's winter boots.
Larger sizes: 25-30 inches
Recommended user weight: 150-220 lbs
Features: Wider frames and bindings, larger surface area for more flotation
1. Smaller size to accommodate smaller feet and lighter weight.
2. Lightweight construction to reduce leg fatigue.
3. Easy-to-use binding system that kids can operate on their own.
4. Bright colors or fun designs to make snowshoeing more exciting.
Sizes: 14-21 inches
Recommended user weight: Up to 100 lbs
Features: Lightweight materials, simple bindings, easy-to-use designs
Sizes: 22-30 inches
Recommended user weight: 120-220 lbs (depending on the size)
Features: Durable construction, good traction, and versatile bindings that can accommodate different types of footwear.
1. Lighter weight to minimize leg fatigue.
2. Smaller size to accommodate smaller feet and lighter weight.
3. Easy-to-use binding system that is easy on the hands and wrists.
4. Traction that is designed for maximum stability and grip to prevent falls and slips.
Sizes: Varies depending on weight and ability
Recommended user weight: Up to 220 lbs
Features: Lightweight materials, easy-to-use bindings, durable construction, good traction
Material Types of Snowshoes
Frame Materials of Snowshoes
Aluminum-frame snowshoes: Lightweight, durable, and corrosion-resistant, making them suitable for moderate to advanced snowshoeing and a variety of snow conditions. They are also relatively affordable compared to other types of snowshoes. The snowshoes feature a supportive decking material that can be made of various materials such as plastic, coated nylon, urethane, PVC-coated polyester, or synthetic rubber. Entry-level snowshoes made of aluminum can cost around $80-$150, while more advanced models can cost $150-$300 or more.
Composite snowshoes: Constructed with materials such as plastic, carbon fiber, and/or fiberglass, making them lightweight and strong, with suitability for a wide range of snow conditions. They tend to be more expensive than aluminum-frame snowshoes, but offer higher performance and advanced features. They feature a hard decking material which also forms the outer frame and can be a bit "noisier" than other materials when used on hard-packed snow. Prices can range from around $150 to $400 or more for a pair of composite snowshoes.
EVA(ethylene vinyl acetate) foam snowshoes: Lightweight and flexible, providing good flotation on snow, making them ideal for beginners and occasional users. While less expensive, they may not be as durable or perform well in challenging snow conditions. They have a quiet walking experience and keep feet warm, but may have less traction. Suitable for dog owners due to less risk of stepping on their pet's tail. Priced range from around $50 to $150 or more.
Decking (Webbing) Materials of Snowshoes
Nylon: A durable and lightweight synthetic material that is commonly used in snowshoe decking. It is resistant to water and abrasions, making it suitable for a variety of snow conditions.
Polyester: Another durable and lightweight synthetic material that is often used in snowshoe decking. It is also resistant to water and abrasions, and can provide good traction on the snow.
Neoprene: A synthetic rubber material that is sometimes used in snowshoe decking. It is flexible and waterproof, but may not provide as much flotation as other materials.
Mesh: Made of mesh material, which allows for snow to fall through the deck and reduces the amount of snow that accumulates on the snowshoe. Mesh decking is typically lightweight and suitable for less challenging snow conditions.
Lacing Materials of Snowshoes
Rawhide: Made from the skin of an animal, usually a cow or deer, that has been treated and dried. It is a traditional and durable lacing material that can provide good traction on the snow.
Synthetic cord: A more modern lacing material that is often used in snowshoes. It is typically made from nylon or polypropylene and can be strong, lightweight, and resistant to water and abrasions.
Stainless steel wire: A strong and durable option that can provide good traction on the snow. It is often used in more advanced snowshoes, particularly those designed for backcountry or mountaineering use.
Binding Types of Snowshoes
Rotating (or floating) bindings: Having a pivot point near the balls of the feet which reduces fatigue and strain on ankle and knee joints. These bindings can accommodate different boot sizes, pivot well for climbing and allow kicking steps on steep slopes, and shed powdery snow easily.
Fixed bindings: Holding the foot firmly on the snowshoe without allowing movement, making them more secure but less comfortable for some users. They are adjustable for different boot sizes and may attach the full length of the foot to the deck. While they may not be as efficient in challenging snow conditions, they offer a more natural walking movement on flat and hard-packed terrain.
Binding closures: Including ratchet buckles, cam buckles, and Velcro straps. Ratchet buckles offer an easy and secure fit, while cam buckles provide a more precise fit. Velcro straps add adjustability and security, and can be used with other closures. There are various types of closures, ranging from basic nylon straps to more advanced systems that adjust and tighten quickly and easily.
Traction and Climbing Features of Snowshoes
Toe or instep crampons: These are spikes or teeth located under the ball of the foot on snowshoes that provide traction when climbing uphill. They pivot with your feet and dig into the snow, making them the primary source of traction on most snowshoes.
Heel Crampons: Located under the heel of snowshoes and provide traction when descending or traversing steep slopes. They are located roughly as far back as the heel of the wearer's boots on the underside of the snowshoe decking.
Side Rails or Traction Bars: Raised ridges on the edge of a snowshoe that provide additional grip and lateral stability when walking on side slopes or in icy conditions, reducing the risk of side-slipping.
Braking Bars: These are metal bars located on the underside of the snowshoe that can provide braking and control when descending steep slopes. They are particularly useful under composite-deck snowshoes as they can help prevent backsliding on slopes.
Heel Lifts: These are adjustable platforms located under the heel that can be raised to reduce calf fatigue and provide additional leverage when climbing steep slopes. These devices, which are sometimes referred to as climbing bars or Televators depending on the brand, can be raised up under your heels to alleviate stress on your calf muscles and conserve energy when ascending steep terrain. When not in use, they can be flipped down and stowed out of sight.
Footwear Types of Snowshoes
Winter Hiking Boots: Designed for hiking in cold and snowy conditions, and often have a waterproof and insulated upper to keep feet warm and dry. They provide good support and traction for snowshoeing.
Mountaineering Boots: Designed for technical winter mountaineering and can provide excellent support and warmth for snowshoeing in more extreme conditions.
Trail Running Shoes: Some snowshoers prefer lightweight trail running shoes, which can be more flexible and provide a more natural feel when snowshoeing on packed trails.
Snowboard Boots: Providing excellent ankle support and insulation for snowshoeing, but they may not have as much traction on the sole as hiking or mountaineering boots.
Waterproof Boots: It is important to wear waterproof boots while snowshoeing to keep your feet dry and warm. Look for boots that are insulated and have a sturdy sole with good traction to provide grip on snowy and icy terrain.
Gaiters: Protective coverings worn over your boots and lower legs to prevent snow and moisture from entering your boots. They also provide an extra layer of insulation and protection against the cold. Gaiters are especially useful when breaking trail in deep snow or snowshoeing in wet or slushy conditions.
Snowshoe bindings can accommodate various types of winter footwear, including hiking boots and snowboard boots. Comfort is the most critical factor for footwear, and waterproof boots are recommended. Gaiters are a useful accessory to prevent snow from getting inside your boots.
Tips for Using Snowshoes
1. Properly adjust your snowshoes before use to ensure a secure and comfortable fit.
2. Choose the right size and shape of snowshoe for the terrain and snow conditions.
3. Use the correct walking technique, lifting your feet high to avoid tripping over the shoes.
3. Dress in layers and wear waterproof clothing to stay dry and warm.
4. Carry extra gear such as a map, compass, and emergency supplies in case of unexpected weather or accidents.
5. Avoid steep or icy terrain and always stay aware of your surroundings.
6. Respect the natural environment and follow Leave No Trace principles.
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