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How To Buy Snowshoes

How To Buy Snowshoes

February 27, 2017 10 Comments

Snowshoeing is a great activity for everyone who wants to explore the beautiful winter landscape and get off the beaten path while doing so.  We get asked often at our various snowshoeing activities what to look for and how much should someone spend. There isn’t a simple answer as it depends on several factors and personal preferences but there are some key considerations in any purchase.  We’ll walk through all you need below to give you the knowledge necessary to ensure you end up with something you enjoy.

This blog will cover the following topics:

Understanding Your Needs

Before you start shopping for snowshoes it's a good idea to take some time to think through what exactly you are looking for as it will help you narrow down your search and ensure you are getting something that allows you to do what and go where you want.  The following questions are a great place to start:

  • What type of terrain do you want to explore?  Will you be sticking mostly to flat trails, march up and down more rolling terrain, or venture out to places with steep or long climbs?  Are you more into hiking on snow packed or groomed trails or do you like to forge your own path by bushwhacking?  The answer to these questions will determine the type of snowshoe (flat, rolling, or mountain terrain models) and the size.
  • How far do you plan to travel when you're out in the bush?  Will you be going 1-2 miles, 3-5 miles, or multi-day trips?  The farther you go the more important things like weight, durability, and field maintainability become.
  • Are these snowshoes just for you or do you plan on sharing them with others?  If you will be the primary user, then catering to your specific needs becomes paramount.  For example, if you're a female, you may want to get women specific snowshoes.  However, if you'll be sharing with your spouse or guests, then versatility and simplicity may become more important.
  • Have you used snowshoes before and if so, are there things you really liked or disliked about the ones you've tried?  This may lead you to prioritize certain features higher than others or narrow in on a specific brand.

    Understanding Cost

    We often get asked what is the difference between an inexpensive pair of snowshoes and a more expensive pair.  Snowshoes can vary across manufacturers and price points but generally more expensive models will give you:

    • Greater durability
    • Less weight
    • Easier to use bindings
    • Better comfort
    • More features

    It's important to note that higher prices do not alway equate to greater durability. High-end models must strike a delicate balance between durability and weight and thus are often less durable than their lower priced cousins.

    Making A Decision

    With so many snowshoe types and features how does one actually figure out which one to get?  Here's our advice on how to go about it.  Remember these steps as you read through the anatomy section below so you can highlight the features meaningful to you.

    1. Start by looking at snowshoe types that fit the type of terrain you want to explore (flat, rolling hills, steep/mountain).  Manufacturers typically categorize their models into these three or similar categories.
    2. Tryout the bindings on different models and brands to see what you like and what you don’t like. 
    3. Put the bindings on and off with gloved hands to understand what the real world application will be. 
    4. Once you find a binding you like then move on to the other features mentioned below and compare those to what you think you’ll need/want and your price range.  
    5. Finally select a size based on your total weight.  Remember this is your weight along with clothing and gear. 

    Anatomy of a Snowshoe

    Snowshoes are conceptually simple contraptions.  Basically, they are large platforms you strap to your feet to spread out your weight over a greater area so you don’t sink as far into the snow.  Advances in materials and technology have provided even greater benefits than those bulky snowshoes of years past.

    Anatomy of a Snowshoe

    Structural Elements

    Frame - The frame forms the perimeter of the snowshoe.  Years ago this was the portion made of wood.  Today they are typically aluminum tubing, aluminum bar, or molded into the composite/plastic deck.  The length of the frame from front to back is the “size” of the snowshoe.  

    Deck - The deck is the material that makes up the “platform” of the snowshoe and gives the snowshoe its “float”.  It is commonly a synthetic nylon or rubber stretched between the frame to keep the weight of the shoe as light as possible.  Some models have a deck made of a solid composite/plastic material making for a very durable snowshoe but they typically weigh more.  

    Tail - The tail is portion of the snowshoe is the area of the deck and frame behind the heel.  It is designed to give you more loft or float on the snow.  When you move to longer snowshoes the tail is where most of the length is added.  

    Traction Elements 

    Toe Crampon - The toe crampon is the “claw” under the ball of your foot that provides the most traction as you walk forward.  There are different styles of toe crampons and which style is right for you depends on the terrain you will be exploring.  Flat and rolling terrain snowshoes typically have downward pointed teeth.  Steep or mountainous terrain snowshoes have downward pointed teeth as well but also have spikes that point more forward allowing you to kick into steep or icy slopes to gain better traction.

    Rolling Hill Snowshoe Toe CramponMountain Snowshoe Toe Crampon

    Heel Crampon/Braking Bar - Heel crampons or braking bars are on the bottom of the snowshoe near where your heel lands are to provide traction when going downhill. 

    Side Rails (AKA Traction Bars) - Side rails are metal bars or “teeth” mounted on the underside of the snowshoe decking or frame rails to provide lateral traction.  This is needed when walking across a hill or slope to prevent your feet from slipping sideways when you weight your step.  Some manufactures integrate the snowshoe frame and the side rails into one piece which provides superior traction but may add additional weight.

    snowshoe side rail examples

    Foot Attachment Elements

    Binding -The binding is the mechanism that attaches your foot to the snowshoe.  These are typically rubber straps, nylon webbing, or a synthetic partial boot that surrounds your snow boots.  Bindings can either make or break your snowshoeing experience and are typically the difference between an inexpensive and expensive snowshoe so spending some additional time here is warranted.

    snowshoe binding styles

    The most important part of a binding is whether it works FOR YOU!  Bindings should be easy to put on and take off, even with gloves on, and they should not need constant adjusting when you are out or fall off as you walk.  They should also be comfortable.  Other considerations are durability, field maintainability, weight, and whether the footwear you want to wear will fit within the binding itself.  All bindings try to balance these pieces but will typically cater to only a few.  This is why it’s important to get bindings that fit what is important to you yet fit within your budget.  


    Binding Behavior - The way in which the tail of the snowshoe responds when you lift your foot off the ground.  There are two basic styles:

    Rotating/Pivot -  Tail will hang limp and when you walk the tail of the snowshoe will slide on the ground as you move forward.  This is good for shedding heavy snow on the top of the snowshoe but can make it more difficult to step over things (e.g. downed tree) or to walk backwards.

    Pivot Snowshoe Binding

    Fixed - Tail will raise off the ground when you lift you foot (notice how the tail doesn't drop as much).  This fixes the issues mentioned above but does tend to flick snow up on your behind as you walk.  We prefer the fixed bindings as we are always walking over things and backing up to pick up a dropped glove, adjust someone’s binding, or shuffle backwards to sit on a park bench overlooking a great view.

    Fixed Snowshoe Binding

    Heel Lift - A “U” shaped bar that you flip up if you are going to be walking uphill for an extended period of time.  This will make your calves happier.  Typically only found on more expensive models.  We have found this feature to be one we seldomly use here in the midwest but would be nice for long extended uphills.

    Snowshoe Heel Lift


    Choosing The Correct Size

    When it comes to choosing snowshoes, size does matter.  The snowshoe size you get is based on how much you weigh, what type of snow you’ll be walking through, the terrain, and your gender.  Larger snowshoes provide more float but at the expense of added weight and being more cumbersome.  Therefore, you should get the smallest snowshoes that will do the job to balance the best of both worlds. 

    Sizing By Weight

    Manufactures each have a size chart for helping you pick the right length snowshoe for your weight.  When using these charts remember to use the total weight that will be carried by your snowshoes (you + clothing + backpack + accessories).  This is the primary method to determine what size to get.


    Sizing By Snow Conditions

    Size charts are based on dry unpacked snow.  If you will be walking through powder most of the time you may need a larger snowshoe.  If you’re primarily walking on groomed or packed trails, you may be able to get away with a smaller snowshoe.  You can use an undersized snowshoe in deep powder.  It will just be more work.  You can use an oversized snowshoe on a packed trail.  It’s just overkill and more weight with every step.

    Sizing by Terrain 

    You may want to alter the size of snowshoe you have based on terrain features.  For example, if you are trekking through the woods and walking over logs and through thick brush, you would be happier with a shorter version.  If you’re in an open prairie, then extra float is key.

    Sizing by Gender

    Believe it or not, women’s bodies are different than men’s.  For example, they have different strides and hips.  For years women have complained about hip pain after snowshoeing as a result of using snowshoes designed for a man.  Manufacturers are finally starting to take notice and are putting a lot of R&D into analyzing a woman’s stride and designing snowshoes specifically for women.  Typically they are narrower and the tail may be shaped slightly different.  If you’re a woman buying snowshoes for just yourself, we’d highly recommending giving them a try.  We have a pair so next time you’re with us, just ask to use them.

    Sizing for Variability

    If you think you may share snowshoes, walk lots of different terrain, different snow conditions, or sometimes wear a backpack, what is one to do?  MSR has a unique solution to this.  They allow you to add six inch tail extensions to your snowshoes so they can quickly morph from one size to another.  For example, you could buy a 25” snowshoe and then add the tails making it now float like a 31” snowshoe.  Pretty cool.  You’ll want to weigh this option against other things like bindings, weight, …  We have two models of MSRs with this feature so if you want to try out using tails, let us know.  We’ll set you up!

    MSR snowshoes with tail extensions

      What Snowshoes Does DIRO Use and Why?

      • MSR Lightning Explore 30" with optional tail extensions - We wanted to carry a snowshoe for heavier hikers and offer a model with a state of the art binding and excellent traction
      • MSR Evo 22" with optional tail extensions - Needed a snowshoe that was ultra durable, easy to understand bindings, could accommodate a wide array of boot sizes, and were unisex.
      • MSR Shift Youth - Needed a full featured, durable snowshoe for youth under 120 lbs with an easy to use binding for small hands.
      • MSR Tyker - Simple, safe, infinitely adjustable snowshoe for little kids.
      • Atlas Elektra 23" Women's Specific - Perfect for small to medium sized women who want the benefits of a snowshoe built for a woman. Excellent easy on and off binding and very lightweight for those longer treks.
      • Atlas 1230 MTN 30" - Awesome one pull bindings, built for steep, long slopes, very aggressive crampons, extremely lightweight which is perfect for heavy loads and long distances.

      Additional Topics


      Most snowshoes will accommodate a wide variety of footwear from hiking boots to more traditional winter boots.  Large ice fishing type boots like some of the Sorels can be too large for many snowshoes but some manufacturers offer longer straps for their bindings to accommodate these larger boots.  Ideally, you want stiffer, comfortable, and warm and waterproof boots with a “bump” on the heel to help retain the heel strap of the snowshoe.

       Poles or No Poles

      There’s a big debate on whether you should use poles or not when snowshoeing.  The benefits of using poles is they make your travels easier by reducing the stress on other areas of the body and give you added balance.  The downsides are they are extra weight with every step, extra expense, and if you don’t want to use them, you need a backpack to strap them to.  Darren loves to use poles.  Oie hates it.  Shoot us an email before attending one of our events and we’ll bring a set for you to try out.  If you decide to purchase your own, we would recommend getting summer trekking poles and replacing the summer baskets with winter ones.  That way you can use them in the summer as well.  Also get ones where you can adjust the length with gloved hands.  We prefer models with a thumb-lock rather than the twist-lock variety.  Finally, you’ll need to make the wrist loop bigger in the winter to fit over your gloved hands and wrists.


      Buying snowshoes can seem like it’s complicated based on all that is mentioned above but it doesn’t have to be.  Remember to start with getting the correct length, a binding that works for you (even with gloved hands), and then add the features you want until you reach your price point.  If you still have questions, we'd love to help so send us a message or ring us on 651-233-6059.






      10 Responses

      Henry Killingsworth
      Henry Killingsworth

      October 01, 2021

      I’m glad you mentioned that it is a good idea for women to try out snowshoes before purchasing them. My wife and I want to get some snowshoes that we can use this winter. We are hoping that they will help us get outdoors more often and get more exercise.

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      Jeff Dobier
      Jeff Dobier

      March 13, 2017

      Interesting article. I had no idea there was so much to think about when buying snowshoes.

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