BACKPACKING BASICS

How to Choose Snowshoes: Getting the Right Fit for Fun in the Snow!

Home made snowshoes
Russell McCarty
Written by Russell McCarty

Snowshoes have been used by humans for centuries, with Native Americans being the ones who made snowshoes more advanced. Hunters, soldiers and those settling in harsh areas used snowshoes the most, to get around in the winter weather.

By the 1950s, snowshoes had begun to transform, becoming smaller, less heavy, and thus easier to use. Soon, snowshoeing became a popular activity for winter time, and is now known as a fun activity and great way to exercise outdoors when there is snow on the ground.

Modern snow shoes

When looking for the perfect pair of snowshoes, there are some things to consider. For instance, snowshoes have a user weight to adhere to, which means that the user must consider how heavy their gear is, as well as how dense the snow is.

One should also consider where they will be using their snowshoes, as that will depend on the style that is recommended. Learning the types and styles of snowshoes is important to determine how to choose snowshoes.

How Snowshoes Work

Snowshoes work by using equal parts of your body weight while on the snow and have better traction than your average boot or shoe in the winter time. All snowshoes have a frame (or deck) that allows you to stay on the snow, as well as bindings that keep your feet inside of the shoe, and crampons on the bottom of the snowshoe that help with traction while walking.

A little bit of history

Snowshoeing originated roughly 6,000 years ago in central Asia. However, considering the fact that nowadays it’s not limited to the Asian area, historians believe that it spread from Asia to North America via nomadic tribes who also brought along their own version of the snowshoes, made out of wood planks.

Now, we can definitely say that snowshoes showed up due to the need to survive the harsh winter conditions. People needed to hunt and trap animals for food in the winter too, and using snowshoes helped them get through the snow. Eventually, the snowshoe evolved into items made out of wood that was framed, which made it easier to trek through the snow.

Simple brown snowshoe

During the 1950s, with the modernization of the snowshoe, people started using them for enjoyment and exercise. And since we don’t hunt for food anymore, the snowshoe stuck with us for entertainment purposes only.

Types of Snowshoes

When considering which type of snowshoes to purchase, one must consider the type of terrain they will be encountering: mountainous, rolling, or flatter terrain. While you can find snowshoes that are great for climbing and going on trails and some fitness models, the majority of snowshoes are going to fit into three types of areas.

Flat terrain snowshoes

Better for those who are new to snowshoeing so they can become familiar with the activity and learn how to move about. They are also for those who like to casually hike and prefer less aggressive terrain. These types of snowshoes are easier to adjust, still have great traction systems, and are generally cheaper in price than other types of snowshoes.

Rolling terrain snowshoes

Made for more advanced terrain but not recommended for extremely steep areas or areas that are icy. Many people who like to snowshoe for exercise prefer this type for their workouts, and even snowshoe races! Those who do this for fitness purposes can burn a few hundred calories within an hour of doing this activity!

Snowshoes for rolling terrains

It can be a fun way to stay in shape while still being outdoors having fun! This type of shoe is shorter and narrower, which is great for speed. The crampons and bindings are more advanced on this style versus the flat terrain shoe.

Mountain terrain snowshoes

For those who are advanced in the activity, and are used for more aggressive hiking, going back country snowboarding, and backpacking. They are designed for those steep areas, deeper snow and areas with ice, and also feature gripped edges on the deck and more advanced bindings and crampons.

Finding the Correct Size and Fit

Finding the right snowshoes can seem daunting. There are a lot of things to take into consideration and to be educated about before you make your purchase. Here, you can find out about sizing and loads in order to make the right choice.

Gender and Age

There are snowshoes for men, women, and children. The male version is made for heavier loads and is larger in size. The female version is narrower with different bindings and has a more stylish look, with sizes that end at 8” x 21”.

The snowshoe fits

The snowshoes for children will depend on their age, with smaller ones that are basic, and the larger ones are more advanced like the adult versions.

Weight and Recommended Load

The capacity that your snowshoes can handle (which is your weight and the equipment) is the recommended load. This is one of the most important factors to take into account when purchasing snowshoes.

The bigger the person is, the larger the snowshoes must be to carry the entire load. Keep in mind that each shoe comes with a specific body weight range.

The chart is as follows:

  • 20-inch shoes: 80 to 115 pounds
  • 25-inch shoes: 120 to 200 pounds
  • 30-inch shoes: 170 to 250 pounds
  • 36-inch shoes: 220 to 300 pounds

Terrain and Conditions

Keep in mind that the recommended load is for lighter snow conditions. If you are on powdered snow, bigger snowshoes will be needed to stay above the snow, versus being on snow that is already compact.

If you are on trails that are packed, you will need shoes that are more compact. With icy or steeper areas with trees, you should have the smallest snowshoes you can get, but with areas that are open, you should have bigger shoes.

Features you shouldn’t ignore

There are four main features to consider when purchasing snowshoes, which are the frame, traction, binding system and heel lift.

Special snowshoe feature

While there are new models of snowshoes being released each day, these four things will remain the most important features.

Frame and Decking

Most of the time, you will find that snowshoes are made with a tube-shaped aluminum frame, and a type of decking that is thin but flexible to maneuver through the snow. There are:

  • Tubular Frames: This is a basic design that is made for soft snow, where there is not necessarily much traction.
  • Flat Stock Frames: This type of frame is made from metal and has rubber decking. This type of snowshoe is for advanced users, as it is made for steep and icy areas.
  • Plastic Decking: This type of decking is very light weight and is made from plastic. The board can seem stiff, so it is more slippery on icy surfaces.
  • Plastic Decking with Tubular Frames: This is a new sort of decking that uses both the tubular frame as well as decking made of plastic.

Crampon and Traction

The most well-known types of crampons are those made of steel, but aluminum is next best if weight is an issue. Generally, you will find a design that has two prongs near the toe.

Traction on snow

Some snowshoes have “teeth” that help for better traction when going down a steep hill. Most types have a feature on the deck called traction rails that will help with the steep areas or areas with packed snow.

Binding System

The binding system is probably one of the more important features on a snowshoe, and choosing one must be done carefully and based on the needs you have. For instance, if you purchase running snowshoes, you will need to be able to have supportive shoes. If you are purchasing backcountry snowshoes, you need them to be stiff.

Thus, there are:

  • Nylon Webbing: Many beginner snowshoes will have nylon webbing, which is not heavy at all and can be adjusted over and over. They do not offer a lot of support for the foot, however, and if they get wet, they will stretch out, so keep that in mind.
  • Rubber and Polyurethane Straps: This is the most seen type of strap for a binding system. The main benefit from this type is that they do not stretch out when they get wet or face extremely cold temperatures.
  • Ratchet Straps: We have all seen ratchet straps and know how they work, thus they have many ways to adjust for your comfort, are easy to use, and are similar to the straps on snowboards, if you have ever partaken in that sport.
  • Boa Closure: This is a newer type of binding system that wraps around and is simple to execute. The only downside is that the entire system is constantly exposed to ice and snowy conditions.

Keep in mind: the binding system for your snowshoes cannot be changed out, as it is part of the snowshoe itself. This is why you must carefully select what will work for you.

Bindings on snowshoes

Also keep in mind that the more straps there are on your snowshoes, the easier you will be able to move around, and better distribute pressure on the feet. The newer school types of bindings can easily pivot to be adjusted or give you a better experience in the snow.

Heel Lifts

Heel lifts are little bits of wire that are put up on the heels of your snowshoes to be able to easier climb steep areas. Also called climbing bars, these are easily put into use by lifting your foot and adjusting the bar.

Accessories for Snowshoes

Several accessories exist to enhance your snowshoeing experience. Besides your general snow pants and goggles, we have put together a list to get you accessorized before you slide on your new snowshoes!

  • Snowshoe Poles: The poles are adjustable and should be used to help with balance, and they really give you an upper body workout while doing this activity. Most poles are of the adjustable kind, but you will see some that are fixed poles, which are set to a certain size.
  • Gaiters: Because you will sink just a little when on the snow, using gaiters will help you keep snow from getting on your snowshoes and keep your legs not only warm, but dry as a bone! These can especially be worn on warmer winter days, when you do not want to wear snow pants. Gaiters also prevent scratching of your pants and will protect you from bushes and thorns.
  • Head Lamp: Do you enjoy snowshoeing at night? Using a headlamp, the fun does not just have to take place during the day! These headlamps use LED bulbs, which last a long time and will keep you with light for the entire time you are out.
  • Snowshoe Socks: Most people just layer their socks and wear two or three pairs. Snowshoe socks exist and will keep you warm and help to prevent blisters on your feet, because they are insulated and made to keep your feet beautiful!
  • Snowshoe Bag: A snowshoe bag will keep your shoes and other accessories all in one spot, and they can include an area where you can keep your adjustable poles! There is a handle to carry by hand, or you can use the strap to throw the bag over your shoulder! This is a must for snowshoeing lovers!
  • Snowshoe Maintenance Kit: This kit has things you need when you find yourself in a tough spot and need an emergency replacement on your snowshoes! The kit should include items like clevis pins, split rings, axis items, strap retainers, washers, screws, nuts, and a tool to help you fix what you need to be repaired.
  • Toe and Hand Warmers: These little lifesavers can keep you from freezing! Even if you are outside wearing mittens and warm socks, these warmers will ensure you stay super cozy while using them, as they provide enough heat to make you feel like you are on a beach in Florida!

Staying Safe

While in the wilderness, especially in winter, it is important to stay prepared and bring all the necessary items along with you to ensure your great time does not turn into a bad time.

Snow gears prepared

Besides wearing layers of clothing to go out, here is an overview of what you should bring with you to ensure a safe and fun adventure.

Clothing:

  • Hat and Gloves to prevent heat loss
  • Gaiters
  • Wear sunglasses to keep your eyes protected from the sun

Gear:

  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Poles that can adjust while you are snowshoeing
  • Sunscreen

Back Country Gear:

  • The above items
  • First Aid kit
  • Gear Ties
  • Map or GPS
  • Multi-tool
  • Matches or a way to start a fire
  • Shovel in case of avalanche
  • Transceiver in case of avalanche 

A few final words…

As you can see, snowshoeing is a great way to enjoy the winter weather and get in some exercise by hiking and more! You now know that choosing a pair of snowshoes is not easy, but with the information provided, you should be able to choose the perfect pair for you and then go enjoy the winter weather by snowshoeing with family and friends!

Snowshoes on thaw

Be sure to stay hydrated while outside and take proper precautions when out enjoying the activity. Remember that sizing of your snowshoes matters, along with weight and other factors. When choosing a new pair, have research on your side will help you enjoy the activity even more!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Russell McCarty
Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.

  • David Roberts

    I bought snowshoes only a few days ago. Some friends and I are heading up to Desolation Wilderness near South Lake Tahoe next weekend. I usually travel by my car in comfortable conditions. I hope that the hike with my new snowshoes will be comfortable too. Definitely, it will be an interesting experience!

  • Russell McCarty

    Have fun David and I hope you got those snowshoes that meet your needs? Just make sure you purchased from a trusted manufacturer since not all snowshoes are created equal. Take into consideration your weight, the kind of terrain you’ll be going to and of course, the traction and crampon, among other things.

  • Steven Spencer

    Hi Russell! I want to make a gift for my girlfriend. I would like to buy a pair of entry-level recreational snowshoes. She doesn’t go on hikes and I want to show her that it’s a very exciting and interesting activity. What snowshoes are better to choose for a beginner?

  • Russell McCarty

    When choosing snowshoes, make sure you know the correct weight of the person who’s going to use it. See the weight chart above to guide you further. Also consider what kinds of terrain you’ll be going to and take particular notice of the kind of frames and decking that a snowshoes possess.

  • Cynthia Carter

    Hi there! My husband loves snow and being outside. I live in Iowa, and I was thinking about getting us snowshoes for a wintertime activity. What very lightweight snowshoes can you advise us? Our backpacks should not be heavy because we will pass a long distance. Hope for your help!

    • Russell McCarty

      Hi Cynthia and thanks for dropping by. You can take a look at the list of my best snowshoes and choose which one meets all your requirements. So far, the The Chinook Trekker Snowshoes is the lightest at 3.9 lbs.
      Here’s the link: http://backpackingmastery.com/top-picks/best-snowshoes.html

  • Allison Myers

    I love spending time outdoors and go hiking at any time of the year. In a week’s time, I’m going camping with my family. It will be the first winter hike for our daughter. That’s why we have to buy different things for her. Is it possible to buy snowshoes for children?

  • Russell McCarty

    Yes, there are snowshoes for children that offers the same features as that of adults. Top ones include MSR Shift, Tubbs, Atlas and Louis Garneau. They have eye-catching colors and they are tough, too.

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