What to look for when buying snowshoes
Don’t stop hiking when the snow falls! Trails look and feel completely different in the snow, and snowshoeing is a great way to see them. This snowshoe buying guide will help you pick types of snowshoes based on many factors.
Types of Snowshoes
Pretty much all snowshoe manufacturers separate their snowshoes into three groups:
- Trail Snowshoes. Entry-level, basic, cheaper snowshoes great for staying on trails or packed snow on flat-ish terrain.
- Backcountry Snowshoes. Include features for navigating deeper powder with heavier gear on more rolling terrain, mid-priced.
- Mountain Snowshoes. Much more robust, capable of tackling steep terrain and all conditions, usually the most expensive.
So you should first determine what kind of snowshoeing you’ll be doing the most – that’ll really narrow down your options.
There is a fourth category – racing/running snowshoes – those won’t be discussed here.
You may think that bigger is better – yes, the bigger the snowshoe the more it will float on powder. But you’ll be walking funny because you’ll be clanging them into each other, tripping over your feet while you’re turning (if you’re new to snowshoeing), and you’ll be adding extra weight to your feet. They also don’t provide as much traction on icy hills because your weight is spread out too much. So you should think about getting the smallest shoe you’ll need.
- 22″-25″ work well for beginners and folks with a combined person/gear weight of 180-200 pounds.
- 25″-30″ work well for folks with a combined weight of 200-220 pounds and going off-trail.
- >30″ are needed for anyone with a combined weight greater than 220 pounds in deep powder.
These are just general rules, you don’t need to follow them, but it’s a place to start. I’ve also found that many manufacturers recommend a size up, but I don’t think it’s necessary. That’s up to your discretion.
And MSR has “tails” available for their snowshoe models that will extend the length about 5″ for deeper snow.
Choosing the Right Snowshoe
This snowshoe buying guide is divided into the three groups. Click on the accordion tabs below for further guidance on the types of snowshoes available for the type of snowshoeing that you’ll be doing, taking into consideration the notes above.
Some notes on the links:
- I scoured multiple suppliers and the cheapest snowshoes I found are linked, current as of January 2017. If anything changes, or a link breaks, I’d love a notification.
- Some of these snowshoes come in women’s designs too, adapted to a different gait. These sellers also have the woman’s snowshoe if available from the manufacturer, and can be found at the links.
Prices current as of winter 2016/17. Subject to change as new models come out.
Explore the appropriate tab:
- RECREATIONAL SNOWSHOEING ON BROKEN TRAILS
- BACKCOUNTRY AND OVERNIGHTERS
- SERIOUS BACKCOUNTRY AND MOUNTAIN TERRAIN
So you’re a beginner. Or you’ll be snowshoeing on gently rolling terrain, heavily-used trails, and/or on short trips without carrying an overnight pack.
The type of snowshoe you should be buying will generally be smaller and lighter. Sometimes you’ll hear them referred to as “recreational” or “trail” snowshoes. Here’s what to look for when buying these snowshoes:
- A smaller snowshoe (less than 25″) will keep you more maneuverable during those clumsy 180-degree turns.
- Stay away from anything in the 30″ range unless you’re over 220 pounds and hiking in fresh, deep powder most of the time.
- Simple bindings will keep the weight to a minimum and easier to operate.
- Crampons (spikes) on the bottom will keep you from sliding around.
The MSR snowshoes below also have “tails” available. Tails allow you to extend the length to increase flotation if needed in powder or for heavier weight. This helps keep your base snowshoe more maneuverable and lighter.
My Pick. MSR Evo Snowshoes. Average Review 4.6/5. These classic 22″ plastic-molded snowshoes are great for sticking to the trails. The bindings are simple for quick entry & exit at the trailhead. The traction is great and you won’t feel them on your feet at just 1.2 pounds each.
Cheapest purchase: SunnySports, $114.95, 28% off MSRP. Also available at REI for $139.99.
Tubbs XPlore 25″ Kit. Average Review 4/5. Tubbs make great entry-level snowshoes, and this kit comes with everything you need – shoes, collapsible poles, carry case, and gaiters. Older bindings had a tendency to loosen up; their 2016 design has fixed that problem. 25″ & 30″ available. 2 pounds each (25″).
Cheapest purchase: SunnySports, $149.95, 17% off MSRP.
Atlas Rendezvous Kit. Average Review 4.5/5. Here’s another kit similar to Tubbs but without the gaiters. The Atlas Rendezvous snowshoes are a very minimalistic snowshoe, saving weight and effort required for long hikes. 25″ & 30″ available. 1.7 pounds each (25″).
Cheapest purchase: SunnySports, $154.95, 18% off MSRP.
MSR Revo Trail Snowshoes. Average Review 5/5. The unisex 22″ will work for most people, although MSR also makes a woman’s snowshoe that’s shaped slightly different. These Revo snowshoes have durable plastic decking like the Evo, but the frame is metal. The bindings are just as easy. They’re slightly heavier than the Evo, weighing 1.9 pounds each.
Cheapest purchase: SunnySports, $139.95, 22% off MSRP. Also available at REI for $179.95.
If you’re seeking out new routes on fresh snow, you’ll generally need more flotation. Especially if you’re carrying a pack for an overnighter. More flotation comes from bigger shoes. Bigger shoes means you’ll be less maneuverable but you won’t sink as much.
Now I say you’ll generally need more flotation because this also depends on where you live and the type of snow you get.
- Here in the Sierras we generally have light powder up at the higher altitudes I explore (25″ or greater required).
- Other areas, like the northeast, usually have a harder, crusty snow that won’t give as much (25″ or less is fine).
- Wet, heavy snow will also compact better as you step on it (for a smaller snowshoe).
- And what’s the tree cover? Densely forested areas typically have a crustier snow and you won’t need as much flotation. Big open areas will have deeper powder, requiring a larger snowshoe.
Generally a 25″ snowshoe will work just fine in all of these conditions. If the weight of you and your gear will be exceeding 220 pounds, it’s best to look at something slightly larger or get the MSRs and flotation tails.
You’ll also want to look for heel lifts. A heel lift (televators with MSR) is a metal bracket under your heel that you can flip up with your pole, putting your heel higher than your toe when you’re climbing up hills. This takes the strain off your calves and achilles during climbs.
My Pick. MSR has a snowshoe for this purpose called the Revo Explore (Average Review 4.3/5). The Revo Explore is similar to the Revo Trail except it has a televator. It also has a cradle binding that will help keep your foot more secure in steeper terrain, making for more comfortable long hikes. The Revo Explore comes in either 22″ or 25″ and has 5″ flotation tails available.
Cheapest Purchase: SunnySports, $159.95, 20% off MSRP. Also available at REI for $199.95.
The Atlas Endeavor (Average Review 5/5) comes in 24″ & 28″ options, but no tails are available. These snowshoes feature a flexible PVC decking (MSR is solid plastic) with a tubular frame and metal heel lift. The Endeavor has a lot more traction than the more basic models, featuring more crampons and sawtooth spikes along the perimeter of the frame. Out of all the snowshoes here, they probably have the trickiest binding to operate with thick gloves.
Cheapest Purchase: SunnySports, $184.95, 20% off MSRP.
Tubbs Wilderness. Average Review 4.3/5. Available in both men’s and women’s, and in 25″, 30″, & 36″ options. This snowshoe is an advance on their XPlore snowshoe, featuring a more robust binding, a heel lift, and better traction. The binding straps are super-easy to operate with thick gloves. Tails not available.
Cheapest Purchase: SunnySports, $169.95, 15% off MSRP.
If you’re out in terrain that you normally wouldn’t be able to easily hike during the summer, you’ll have difficulty on snowshoes as well. Here are some things to look for when buying snowshoes:
- Heel lifts (televators) to take the strain off your calves and achilles during cilmbs (see previous section for an explanation).
- Maneuverability – buying snowshoes on the small side will help with this. MSR tails are available for added flotation when needed. Larger snowshoes are just too clumsy when navigating tricky terrain!
- Large, sturdy bindings that will keep your heavy-duty boots secure. Recreational bindings won’t last here. They should also be easy to manipulate with heavy gloves.
- In addition to heavy-duty crampons, snowshoes with teeth on the frame perimeter will assist with traction while traversing slopes. Crampons or teeth under the heel will help with the descents.
You’re probably out in this terrain to seek out some fresh turns, and smaller snowshoes will strap to your pack easily while you’re skiing down.
The MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes (Average Review 4.1/5) are the most minimal, simplest design. They’re just under two pounds each and only come in a 22″ size, so if you’re pushing 200 pounds with gear, or are in any kind of powder, you’ll need the flotation tails.
Cheapest Purchase: REI, $199.95.
My Pick, current setup. A step up from the Evo is the MSR Revo Ascent (Average Review 4.5/5). These snowshoes feature a steel perimeter frame and reinforced nose for kickstepping up hard slopes. The Revo Ascent snowshoes come in 22″ and 25″ sizes; I have the 25″ and can comfortably hike in them, with gear, and without needing flotation tails (I weigh 180 and typically carry 40 pounds of gear). I do sink a little when running in them and carrying my gear. I’d rather sink a few inches further than have an excessively large shoe.
Cheapest Purchase: SunnySports, $189.95, 21% off MSRP. Also available at REI for $239.95.
The newest mountain design from Atlas is the Atlas Montane (Average Review 4/5). These snowshoes feature a new lightweight decking material, heel lift, and toe/heel crampons. They don’t have lateral traction or tails, however. They do have some size options – 25″, 30″, & 35″. Simple strap wrap bindings keep your boot secure without wrestling it.
Cheapest purchase: SunnySports, $159.95, 20% off MSRP.
Tubbs has quite a few mountain snowshoes, but all except the Tubbs Flex Alp (Average Review 4.7/5) have bindings that can be difficult at times. They can be difficult to operate with really thick gloves and the ratcheting mechanism can get stuck in ice. The simple, highly-recommended Flex Alp, however, only comes in a 24″ size and that may be a problem for you heavier folks in fluffy powder.
Cheapest Purchase: SunnySports, 189.95, 21% off MSRP. If you do need a larger shoe, you can check out the Tubbs Mountaineer, without the ratcheting mechanism, available up to 30″ & 36″. SunnySports, $199.95, 26% off.
More selections for buying snowshoes
This snowshoe buying guide isn’t supposed to be your be-all end-all. But I hope it gives you an idea of what to look for when buying snowshoes. Some of these manufacturers offer different models; I’ve selected the ones listed due to their features, reviews, and personal use.
Don’t just stop at the snowshoes!
- You’ll need poles with baskets (I prefer telescoping poles for portability).
- A carrying case will ease transport.
- MSR flotation tails are specific to each model of snowshoe.
- Maintenance kits will keep you operational in the backcountry.
- Avalanche gear is a must have for every snowshoer in the backcountry. REI has a selection of kits that include a transceiver, probe, and shovel.
Now get out there and enjoy nature a completely different way!