Photo: Michael DeYoung Photography /Tandemstock

How To Choose the Best Snowshoes

Here’s how to assess your options to find the best snowshoes for you.

Ready to extend your hiking season year-round? Winter hiking lets you explore gorgeous landscapes without the crowds, see an entirely new side of your favorite places, and beat cabin fever like nothing else. But your regular hiking boots, or even winter boots, probably won’t provide the traction and floatation that you’ll need for hiking in snow. Solution: Upgrade to a pair of snowshoes.

Strapping on a pair of snowshoes distributes your weight over a wider area, helping keep you on top of the snow. The additional traction underfoot makes moving around the snowy landscape much easier and safer. Some designs capably deal with deep powder, while others work best on steep, packed slopes. You’ll find some pairs are light and maneuverable, while others are longer and floatier. Here’s how to assess your options to find the best snowshoes for you.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The pros and cons of different snowshoe styles
  • How to appropriately size your snowshoes
  • What traction features to choose to meet your needs
  • How bindings and heel bars work

Snowshoe Style

Snowshoes come in several different styles, each one optimized for a different use. Some have a frame paired with a different kind of decking—that is, the material that makes up the snowshoe’s surface area—while others are all the same material.

Tubular Frame + Decking

This design features a tube-shaped frame, often made of aluminum, with decking made from materials like plastic, polyester, or rubber. It’s the design that most resembles old-fashioned snowshoes made from wood frames and rawhide straps, and provides great flotation in deep, powdery snow.

Composite 

These one-piece ’shoes use the same rigid material for the frame and decking. They usually have excellent traction and are ideal for steep, hard-packed conditions. (Some snowshoes have a steel frame paired with rubber decking—though they look a bit more like the tubular frame design, they function more like composite snowshoes on packed snow.)

EVA Foam

Light, flexible, and soft, one-piece foam snowshoes are best for flatter terrain and less technical use.

Running Snowshoes

Built for speed, running snowshoes might use any of the above construction styles. But they’re all lightweight to reduce fatigue, narrow for a more natural gait, and shorter for maneuverability. This makes them ideal for running on packed snow, but you won’t get much flotation in deeper stuff.

Size

Long and floaty or short and nimble? Getting the right size in your snowshoes is important. For one, a model that’s not large enough to support your weight will have you sinking in deeper snow, but one that’s too large will be clumsy to walk in. Snowshoes typically have a recommended maximum weight: Check this stat as you’re shopping, and make sure to account for the weight of the gear you’ll be carrying, too. The heavier you (and your backpack) are, the more flotation, and therefore, surface area, you’ll need.

If you’re deciding between several models that can support your weight, remember that shorter snowshoes are easier to maneuver, but deliver less flotation. Longer snowshoes, on the other hand, float better in deep powder. Some snowshoes have extra tails that can be attached for powdery conditions and removed when you don’t need them.

Some ’shoes have men’s and women’s versions, too. Women’s snowshoes are typically lighter and narrower to account for the usual female gait.

Photo: Stephen Matera /Tandemstock

Traction

Besides flotation, traction is a snowshoe’s most important job. Sturdy crampons, bars, and/or serrated edges help your foot grip the snow under your feet. If you’ll be using your snowshoes on flat terrain, you won’t need much traction—but if you’re heading for steep alpine trails, multiple points of traction are key. Here are the main places you’ll get your grip.

Toe Crampons

Most snowshoes have toothy crampons made of steel or aluminum near your toe or the ball of your foot, and they’re all you need for mellow terrain.

Heel Crampons/Braking Bars

Durable crampons at the back of your foot will keep you upright on the downhills. Some snowshoes also have protuberances called braking bars at the rear for extra insurance during descents.

Edges/Side Rails

Composite snowshoes may have serrated edges along the sides, called side rails, that add lateral stability and make traversing slopes easier.

Bindings

The binding system is what attaches the snowshoes to your feet. No matter which style you choose, make sure your winter footwear fits in them! Running snowshoes often have bindings sized for running shoes, while more technical snowshoes accommodate larger winter boots.

Most snowshoes have rotating bindings that move independently of the frame, pivoting near the ball of the foot. These are better on powder and let you kick steps into slopes. Fixed bindings keep your foot even with the snowshoe frame and do better on flat, hardened snow (you’ll often see this style on running snowshoes).

Binding closures vary a bit. Adjustable nylon straps are affordable, but can stretch out when they get wet. Adjustable rubber or polyurethane straps, however, won’t stretch. You’ll also find ratchet straps and BOA closures, both of which are easy to adjust even when wearing gloves. Some models use a different type of closure on the toe and the heel.

Heel Bars

Also called climbing bars, this feature can be flipped up to give your heel a more level platform when you’re ascending steeper slopes, reducing calf fatigue. Look for them if you plan to take your snowshoes into alpine zones.

Putting it All Together

Still confused about the best snowshoes for you? Let your typical terrain be your guide. 

If you’ll be sticking to flat or mildly rolling landscapes and groomed or packed trails, look for:

  • Smaller/shorter snowshoes for easier maneuvering
  • Basic traction
  • More affordable models

If you expect lots of deep, powdery snow, look for:

  • Longer snowshoes for the best flotation

If you’ll be tackling steeper slopes in the mountains, look for:

  • Durable snowshoes (composites work well in this environment)
  • More aggressive traction
  • More expensive, technical models

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.