OUTDOOR BASICS

How to Choose Snowshoes: Keeping your Feet Comfortable

Hiker in the winter forest wearing snowshoes
Jessica Bayne
Written by Jessica Bayne

Are you cooped up indoors in the middle of winter? Are you looking for that alternative form of exercise or outdoor adventure in winter that will keep you fit and healthy and still be enjoyable at the same time? Do you know how to choose snowshoes that benefit you the most in your outdoor escapades? Do you know what snowshoes are?

Snowshoeing is the latest and fastest growing winter sports in Europe and the USA. Combining the rustic adventure and thrill of the outdoors with the opportunity to stay fit and healthy in the winter months, it offers every participant the challenge and adventure of outwitting the elements with sheer human effort, while hiking over mountains of snow.

These shoes are particularly designed footwear to assist you when hiking in the snow-laden wilderness. You walk over the snow, gone are the days of submerging yourself chest high in 20 feet of snow, now you can walk over it in the blink of an eye.

It distributes a person’s weight evenly over an area larger than your foot and ensures that your feet do not sink into the snow but “float” on top. Modern snowshoes are made of metal, synthetic fabric and plastic, are very lightweight, and are raised at the toe for movement.

Modern snowshoe floating on snow

Here is a guide and all you need to know about choosing the correct snowshoes for your choice of activity and so much more…

The Most Important details when purchasing!

The Most important details to remember when choosing your snowshoes:

  1. What will your activity entail? Choose your activity, then your shoe!
  2. The size of the snowshoe is dependent on your activity and the weight it will carry, including clothing, backpacks, et cetera.
  3. What Binding System do you need?
  4. What winter boots will you wear?

Different Types of Snowshoes

The first and most important decision in choosing snowshoes will be based on your preferred activity. There are 3-4 types of shoes specifically designed for the various types of snowshoeing activities.

Flat Terrain

The most popular and commonly available “Flat Terrain” shoes are the best for beginners. So if you are venturing into the unknown wilderness for the first time, these are a definite must for you. Their design allows you to walk easily on rolling and flat terrain, so you can do light walks and hikes.

two guys wearing flat terrain snowshoestwo guys wearing flat terrain snowshoes

Flat terrain shoes have bindings which are much easier to adjust, they are often webbing-based, and the traction systems are fairly simple. There are a variety of entry-levels in this category that offer very good value.

They usually are ideal for easy terrains with little to no climbing or descending. As these shoes are more entry level they tend to have lower pricing than the more advanced options.

Rolling Terrain

Backpackers and hikers use these shoes for hiking on steep or rolling terrain off the beaten track, and are suitable for all types of elements, weather and climbing obstacles with the exception of icy or steep conditions.

snowshoes for mountain hiking

If your ideal excursion is the freshly fallen powder and nature in all its serenity, rolling terrain shoes for hiking and backpacking would be the ideal purchase for you.

They are strong aluminium-framed shoes with durable flotation materials and tough bindings that secure all types of hiking and walking boots, they have more aggressive crampons and sturdier bindings.

Trail running

Runners and cross trainers will benefit the most from fitness and aerobic snowshoes. This shoe is much tougher than the others and has a very sleek design, particularly on groomed, packed down, rolling or flat terrain. Running is becoming very popular as more and more people discover the wonderful healthy benefits of snow workouts.

Snowshoe for running

There is much less impact on joints from running on the snow as opposed to the dry weather pounding on the asphalt, which makes snow running hugely beneficial to people with joint ailments.

Since the purpose of these shoes is more speed and agility than flotation, these shoes are narrower and will probably be shorter than other snowshoes, depending on the style and manufacturer.

Mountain Terrain

These are for more experienced and advanced snowshoeing extremists who want to challenge themselves and nature by blazing their own icy trails up mountains. Snowboarders, hikers and mountain climbers benefit greatly from these shoes. They can endure rough terrain and harsh conditions, and are designed and manufactured with aggressive climbing crampons.

snowshoes for mountain terrain

The bindings are more complicated and bigger to fit snowboarding boots or climbing boots. They are more durable to withstand the rugged conditions of the weather and the terrain. Mountain shoes are specifically designed for deep snow and steep icy terrain, they are the most technically advanced snowshoes and will cost more than most of the other types of shoes.

How to Size your Snowshoe

The second most important consideration when choosing snowshoes is sizing and weight capacity. Once you have chosen your preferred snow activity and you know what different shoes are available, it is time to decide on the size of your snowshoe. Measured in inches, the lengths commonly available are 25, 30 and 36 inches. The proper size of the shoe is dependent on 2 things:

  1. The weight being carried, including equipment and gear.
  2. The conditions of your chosen activity

Body Weight, Gear and Packing

Without proper flotation you will sink straight down into the snow. Snowshoe size is a pivotal factor in achieving the correct flotation to keep you on top of the snow.

Snowshoes floating on snow

In general, each length of shoe has a particular weight range. They may vary slightly between manufacturers, but the figures below are the general rule of thumb.

  • 20 inches in length: 80-150lb
  • 25 inches in length: 120-200lb
  • 30 inches in length: 170-250lb
  • 36 inches in length: 220-300lb

Outdoor Conditions Determine Size

Terrain, snow and location will also determine the length of your snowshoe. Dry powdery conditions off trail in the wilderness, will require longer, wider shoes with more flotation than groomed or densely compacted grounds will require. Deep drift terrain also requires larger shoes.

Choosing snowshoes

Hiking shoes are required to have maneuverability in confined tighter areas. As a result, the shoes are more compact. Smaller shoes are best utilized in icy, steeper territory. It is always advisable to up-size if you are on the upper end of the weight range and you intend traversing through deep powdered snow.

Age and Gender Sizing

Men’s sizes conform to heavier loads and much larger boots. Women’s shoes have more contour and are narrower, and accommodate smaller sizes down to 8 inches x 21 inches. Bindings are able to secure over smaller boot sizes.

wearing snowshoes

Kids’ snowshoes are made according to age with the smaller sizes intended only for playing and the larger ones offering the same technical designs as adult shoes do.

Bindings

The incorrect bindings on a shoe can be the deciding factor between a really good or a really bad purchase. Always consider your footwear and how demanding your activity will be. For example, mountain hiking or climbing shoes must have stiff bindings which offer much more lateral support.

Running shoes require bindings which offer support and fast movement, and their sizing must be more flexible for running and hiking. Bindings feature numerous straps in various positions specifically designed for the excursion they are dedicated to.

Snowshoe running

Entry-levels commonly feature nylon webbing and straps which are adjustable and lightweight, however they are not as useful or supportive when they are wet due to stretching. Polyurethane or Rubber strapping is found on all makes of shoes, as they don’t have as much stretch when they are wet or when the conditions are freezing.

Ratchet straps are wonderful and offer the best ease of use and the most amount of adjustability. The newest member of binding is the Boa closure which has a wrap around fixture and is very user-friendly.

Types of Bindings

Bindings secure your snowshoes around your actual footwear, usually over your foot and around the heels. 2 types are available:

Floating or rotating bindings

Floating or rotating bindings pivot under your feet. This ease of movement allows a natural movement when you are climbing and walking. The pivot axis varies between manufacturers and models. Those that are attached with rods allow a pivot of 90˚ or more which causes the tail or end of the shoe to fall away while walking.

floating binding

That forces the snow to shed away from your body and clothes, and reduces fatigue in your legs. Rotating assists when you need to kick steps into steep slopes and helps your steering in very deep snow. The negative side of these bindings is their inability to help you when you are climbing obstacles or over tree limbs.

Fixed Bindings

Fixed Bindings do not pivot very much. They are heavy duty bands either made of rubber or neoprene. This binding does not allow the tail to fall away so it brings the shoe up with your steps, this gives a much more comfortable stride and makes climbing over obstacles and backing up much easier. These do kick snow up against your body and your clothes, however.

fixed binding

Bindings cannot be removed so it is imperative that the binding on your shoe gives you the exact performance you are looking for. The rule of thumb is the more straps you have, the more flexible maneuverability you have. Most straps should be adjustable with one pull. Most bindings allow for more flexibility than they used to, giving you a more natural stride.

Frames and Decking

The normal fabrication of a shoe is an aluminium frame tube with a flexible thin decking material, commonly a Hypalon rubber or nylon. Plastic and flat frames are making an appearance on the market and gaining popularity. Composite frames are now available with a hard integrated decking, these facilitate an extra tail attachment of up to 6 inches.

Frames and decking for snowshoes

Tail attachments are used in extremely deep snow, as they prevent snow build up or spray on your clothes. They are also very useful in drift scenarios where you’re faced with varying depths of snow.

Crampons

Steel composites, usually called crampons or traction steel, are the most commonly used. They have a rigid strong platform with an excellent grip. Crampons are metal extensions used at the toes and heels for better traction especially in icy conditions and to assist when stopping.

crampons for snowshoes

Some feature a two-prong design at the toes, while others have three for even better grip and holding.

  • Flat terrain shoes: crampons offer mild traction.
  • Mountainous and extreme hiking shoes: very aggressive crampons for extremely dangerous steep conditions and layers of ice.
  • Instep or toe crampons: installed under the bindings, pivoting with your foot and digging as you climb and travel. These are the primary sources of traction in all makes of snowshoes.
  • Heel crampons: have a “V” formation under the decking; they fill with snow and slow you down on a descent.

Heel Lifts

To make ascending steep terrain a bit easier, heel lifts, also known as climbing bars, can be flipped under the heel assisting ascension. They give the impression that you are walking upstairs, relieving strain on your calves and Achilles heels.

Don’t forget your footwear!

All makes and sizes of winter boots are accommodated by snowshoes, so be sure to either purchase your footwear before you purchase your snowshoes, or take your current footwear into consideration when purchasing them.

Snowshoe comes with footwear

It would be quite disastrous if you were in the wilderness about to start the great trek only to find your snowshoe doesn’t fit your hiking or climbing boot. A warm, stiff boot with good ankle support is very acceptable for snowshoeing.

Now you know what to look for!

There is no better way to start snowshoeing than just getting out there and doing it! However, there is much more involved than just taking a random leap into a gigantic heap of snow. Before you make any unwise investment decisions, learn everything that you need to know.

Remember that any type of excursion in winter and snow could be life threatening if done incorrectly. Equip yourself with all the knowledge you need to ensure a safe and successful outdoor experience.

Using snowshoes for hiking

What outdoor activity will you be taking part in? What weight will be involved with your clothing? Don’t forget to consider the shoes you choose to wear. What type of bindings will suit your needs, decide on your crampons, heel lifts, frames and deckings.

Once all of that is done, ensure you are dressed warmly and have all the other necessary safety equipment so you are ready to go! Snowshoeing is a wonderful activity for young and old, it keeps you fit and releases much needed endorphins in the miserable cold winter.

It is economical and you can do it anywhere there is snow. Get your new snowshoes on, jump right in and enjoy! Tell us about your best and worst snowshoeing experiences. Leave a comment below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jessica Bayne
Jessica Bayne

Jessica believes that the only things you need to explore the world are a good backpack and a bit of courage to make the first steps. She also loves the beauty of a sunset seen from the mountaintop and the delicious flavor of a meal prepped over the camping fire. Ready to start a new adventure at any given time, Jessica knows how to be prepared for any situation and understands how important is to find the right gear. She also knows a lot about the type of gear to have and how to choose the products you actually need.

  • Jamie Julian

    Thank you so much for this informative article Jessica. I have been reading about snowshoes because I am planning to get a pair and this is really helpful. Do you, by any chance, know any good brands? I have seen a couple already, but it is a little hard to choose.

    • Jessica Bayne

      There are too many great brands to list. Just do a little research and see what works for you!

  • Alberto Ross

    I have always preferred floating bindings because it feels more easy to use. Just like what you have mentioned, the ease of movement allows natural movement. I have tried fixed binding once, but I did not enjoy it so much. Maybe, it is all about preference. Kudos to you for writing this.

    • Jessica Bayne

      Thank you!

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