If you've never experienced the beauty or serenity of hiking in fresh-fallen snow, you're in for an adventurous treat. Snowshoeing is easy to and fairly inexpensive. With a little knowledge, buying the right snowshoes is a walk in the park.
Know Your Terrain
REI categorizes snowshoes as follows:
While most snowshoes fall into these 3 categories, a few models are designed specifically for trail-running, fitness or climbing.
Shop REI's selection of men's snowshoes and women's snowshoes. Snowshoes can be viewed according to terrain, gender, brand, price or customer ratings. Choose your preference in the left-hand navigation column.
Here's another option: Many REI stores offer snowshoes for rent. Take a pair out for a test walk. (Please call first for availability. Snowshoes are not available at all REI locations.)
Find the Right Snowshoe Size
We will take a closer look at snowshoe parts in the next section in this article. If you're already familiar with snowshoe components, realize that one of your key shopping decisions involves selecting a snowshoe that is an appropriate size.
Aluminum-frame snowshoes come in multiple sizes, usually 8" x 25", 9" x 30" and 10" x 36" or something similar. Composite snowshoes come in 1 size (typically 8" x 22") and offer the option of adding 4" to 8" tails to help you stay afloat on snow. Why does size matter? It's a key factor in getting the right amount of flotation.
Step 1: Narrow by Gender (or Age)
Snowshoe sizes and shapes vary as follows:
Step 2: Consider Snow Conditions
Recommended loads are based on light, dry snow conditions. But consider that on powder snow you need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat than you would on compact, wet snow. In other words, a powder-happy Utah snowshoer may want a larger size than a same-sized snowshoer in the wet snow of the Pacific Northwest.
Packed trails, brush and forest call for more compact shoes, which are easier to maneuver in tight spaces. Steep or icy terrain is also best explored with smaller snowshoes. Open areas with deep drifts require larger snowshoes.
Tip: Get the smallest size that will support your weight for the snow conditions and terrain in your area. As long as you have adequate flotation, smaller snowshoes will be much easier to handle.
Step 3: Determine Your Weight with Gear
Your weight, including equipment, is referred to as the recommended load or carrying capacity on snowshoe specs. This is a major factor in determining the right size. In most circumstances, a heavier person or one with a heavily loaded pack will require larger snowshoes than a smaller person or one carrying gear just for the day.
Parts of a Snowshoe
Snowshoes allow you to travel across snow-covered ground without sinking or struggling. They require much less effort than walking with regular snow boots. To do so, snowshoes provide "flotation" by spreading your weight evenly over a large, flat surface area. This flotation allows you to hike, climb or even run. Generally, the heavier the person or the lighter and drier the snow, more surface area of a snowshoe is required.
Frames and Decking
Historians trace the origin of snowshoes to Asia sometime between 4,000 and 6,000 B.C. As recently as the 1950s, snowshoes were still constructed from wood and rawhide.
Today, most snowshoes have aluminum frames and synthetic decking. These decks usually feature nylon or Hypalon rubber so they can be light and responsive. Another style of snowshoe, popularized by MSR, features a frame with an integrated hard decking material. This composite (or, plastic) decking supports weight on its own and is stable and durable. You can attach a 4" to 8" tail to these for extra flotation in deep powder. Both frame styles work well.
Snowshoes secure to your boots with bindings, which usually consist of a platform and nylon straps that go over the foot and around the heel. Two types are common:
You don't need to buy special footwear to go snowshoeing. Most snowshoe bindings are built to accept a variety of footwear styles, from hiking boots to snowboard boots. A few are made specifically for running and lace up snugly, while others are made for plastic mountaineering boots and secure with ratcheting straps.
Although your weight provides some traction by pushing snowshoes into the snow, snowshoes feature tooth-like crampons or cleats for greater grip. Recreational-style snowshoes will typically offer moderate amounts of traction, while backcountry snowshoes will generally have more aggressive crampons for steep, icy conditions.
Also known as climbing bars, these wire bails can be flipped up under your heels to relieve calf strain on steep uphill sections and save energy on long ascents. This feature gives the feeling of walking up steps and prevents exaggerated calf and Achilles strain.
Q: What kind of boots should I wear with my snowshoes?
A: Any waterproof hiking boot or insulated winter boot should work just fine. For long hikes, avoid loose-fitting boots with removable liners as the liners tend to eventually pack down and leave your feet cold. Consider wearing knee-high gaiters, too, to keep snow out of your boots, especially in off-trail or deep snow conditions. For details, see the REI Expert Advice article about How to Choose Gaiters.
Q: Where do I place my foot in the snowshoe?
A: Your foot should be centered with the ball of your foot over the pivot point of the snowshoe. This placement gives you the most natural feel when you walk and helps you maintain a normal gait.
Q: What makes a "fitness snowshoe" different from other types of snowshoes?
A: "Fitness snowshoes" are generally made with lighter materials, minimal traction and a tapered tail. This creates a lighter snowshoe that is easy to run with and helps you to maintain a normal gait. Some women's snowshoes have these same properties and can be double as fitness snowshoes.
Q: Can I use my alpine ski poles for snowshoeing?
A: This is not recommended. For most snowshoeing outings, poles should be adjustable for your comfort and safety. Trekking poles outfitted with large snow baskets work fine. Snowshoe poles are essentially the same thing as trekking poles, but with snow baskets already in place. You can switch these out to smaller trekking baskets for summer hiking.