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Taking a hike through deep snow is super fun, but it does require special gear: namely, snowshoes. Snowshoes are designed to distribute the wearer’s weight over a larger area evenly, so the foot does not completely sink; they also help you avoid getting stuck or fatigued. Snowshoes may not be necessary on tightly packed snow or super-popular trails, but they are great for trudging through uncharted territories and fresh snowfall. They’re durable, reliable, and relatively easy to use—though they will take some getting used to for first-timers. Snowshoeing is an excellent form of exercise, and appropriate for varying ability levels and intensity-seekers.

It’s important to pick a pair of snowshoes that fit all your needs on the trail. Here’s what to consider before buying snowshoes so you can keep your head above water—frozen water, that is.

Features to consider when shopping for snowshoes

The most important things to consider before buying snowshoes are your experience level and the type of terrain you plan to hike on. Are you a recreational hiker, true beginner, or expert mountaineer? Do you plan on running in your snowshoes or trekking through the backcountry? The answers are the key to your finding the perfect pair of snowshoes.

Let’s start with the basics: recreational snowshoes

First things first: It’s important to understand how snowshoes work. Snowshoes are composed of four main parts: the binding, frame, deck, and crampons (or teeth). Bindings attach your hiking boot to the snowshoe. The frame is responsible for flotation at the surface of the snow, and is typically made from aluminum, plastic, or wood. The deck is the material strung across the frame, making up most of the shoe’s area, which pushes on the snow underneath. (It’s essential to look at the recommended load of a snowshoe and consider whether or not you’ll be adding to your own body weight with a heavy backpack. The more weight, the larger you’ll want the deck to be.) And the crampons are the spikes at the bottom of the shoe that improve footing and grip.

The most popular form of snowshoe is used primarily for recreational use; this means hiking or walking on designated trails without running or climbing. If this sounds like your type of activity, then look for a snowshoe with easily adjustable bindings, moderate crampons, and potentially a heel lift, depending on the slope. Heel lifts are small bars that lay flat under the heel and can be flipped up to give extra support, creating a more natural foot position, lifting the Achilles heel, and reducing strain. This is only really necessary if you are going on a longer hike or if your trail is mostly uphill. If you’re primarily walking on wet snow that is slightly packed down on a popular trail, go for something shorter. The shorter the shoe, the easier it is to walk.

Best recreational/rolling terrain snowshoes: TSL Snowshoes 325 Adjust Snowshoes

Comfortable and Versatile

Power through rolling hills and stunning trails. REI

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This snowshoe from TSL is supportive and flexible, allowing your foot to move naturally while keeping you on top of the snow. The steel crampons will give you great traction uphill and downhill. There are built-in heel lifts and Boa Fit system bindings that alleviate pressure on the foot’s front. This 23.5-inch model can support up to 260 pounds.

Are you a true beginner?

While recreational snowshoes like the ones listed above are generally suitable for hikers of all abilities, you might want something a little less heavy-duty if you plan to hike through well-groomed winter trails. If you’ve never snowshoed before, you’ll need a little time to get used to the adjustments your body will have to make. Unlike hiking boots or regular shoes, the best snowshoes often require you to stand with your legs and feet slightly further apart, leaving enough room for the area of the shoe and preventing falls. As you walk, your heel will lift up, leaving the deck of your snowshoe on the ground; this can feel a little disorienting, like something is hanging off your shoe, but you’ll get used to it quickly. It’s a good idea to go slow and try to follow in the footsteps of whomever is in front of you; this will help you maintain balance. Finally, snowshoeing can be a little more tiring than your typical walk or hike, like how it’s more challenging to run on the beach than on a paved sidewalk.

If you’ve decided to go ahead and purchase your first pair of snowshoes, we suggest going after a flat-terrain pair. These snowshoes will be shorter than models made for rolling or mountain terrain, with a broader tail to help with balance. They don’t have a ton of features, but they are lightweight and easy to adjust. Once you select a snowshoe, make sure you also grab other important snow gear such as poles, gaiters, and warm clothing.

Best beginner/flat terrain snowshoes: Franklin Sports Arctic Trails Adult Snowshoes

Sturdy and Sophisticated

The perfect snowshoes for hikers of all abilities. Amazon

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These 36-inch snowshoes are a great option for flat terrain. The lightweight aluminum frame won’t weigh you down and dual ratchet bindings are easy to slip any boot into. This model supports up to 300 pounds.

Are you embarking on alpine ascents and steep terrain?

If you’re already an avid snowshoer and you’re hoping to add to your collection or finally grab a pair of your own, make sure you purchase a model that is going to help you scramble up steep terrain. Snowshoes designed for steep ascents will have more built-in features and add-ons than their flat or rolling-terrain contemporaries. For long hikes up unforgiving trails, a heel lift is necessary. It will greatly lessen calf fatigue and improve traction. Make sure that your bindings are secure from the get-go to ensure you won’t lose your balance adjusting on a precarious stretch of trail. Consider getting a snowshoe designed with toe stops, which help with foot placement and increase stability as you climb. If you think you might encounter icy sections or summits, you’ll want to be sure the snowshoe’s crampons are sturdy. Not all snowshoe teeth have the durability and bite needed to climb up icy terrain. If you predict a significant amount of powder, it might be worth looking for a model that can handle additional flotation attachments.

If you’re more of a recreational snowshoer or looking to take on something new and challenging, or you’re a skilled hiker wanting to stay in shape during the winter, make sure you take into account the inherently slow pace of snowshoeing. Safety-wise, familiarize yourself with proper avalanche protocols, and prepare with the proper techniques to get yourself out of deep snow should you trip or fall.

Best mountain terrain snowshoes: MSR Lightning Ascent

The Gold Standard

Push yourself with the right amount of support and structure. Amazon

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MSR snowshoes are famous for their success on mountain terrain. This one comes in three different lengths: 22, 25, and 30 inches with a load support between 180 to 280 pounds and the option to add additional flotation supports. It features built-in heel lifts, Paragon freeze-resistant bindings, DTX crampons, an aluminum frame, and a TPU-coated nylon deck. The Lightning Ascents are a tried and true staple in the snowshoeing community, so if you’ve already nabbed a pair and are looking for something new to try, check out our runner-up, Yukon Charlie’s Advanced Snowshoes.

Are you going to break a new trail in deep powder snow?

Some snowshoers might not be climbing up steep mountain trails but rather going off-trail to trek in deep, backcountry powder snow. This is also considered a more advanced form of snowshoeing, so you’ll need a pair designed as such.

Generally speaking, backcountry snowshoes can do without intense crampons because they primarily need to focus on flotation rather than grip. The larger the platform, the more area covered, which means an even and light distribution of mass. Larger snowshoes will support heavy loads while keeping you from expending extra energy used to pull yourself out of deep snowfall. Keep in mind that the larger the shoe, the easier it is to trip, so make sure to do a few practice runs or stomp around the backyard before heading out to the backcountry. If you’re looking for the best snowshoes that to use in deep snow while mountaineering up steep ascents, make sure you are prepared with the features outlined in the previous section. It is certainly possible to find a snowshoe that will work wonderfully in various terrains and conditions; we’ve included our favorite below.

Best snowshoes for backcountry powder: Yukon Charlie’s Elite Spin Snowshoes

Float Above the Snow

Push yourself to be a step above the rest. REI

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Yukon Charlie’s Elite Spin snowshoes are fantastic for both deep powder and mountain terrain. This 30-inch option is equipped with sharp, forged steel crampons, a precise Spin™ by Northwave dial binding system for a comfortable fit, and Tech Weave decking, which delivers lightweight flotation.

Do you plan to race across the mountain trails?

The world is full of amazing athletes, and snowshoe runners are no exception. While snowshoe running is not for the faint of heart, it promises beautiful surroundings, a challenging cardio workout, and a fantastic community. There are a number of races for professionals and trail running groups for aficionados, and the United States Snowshoe Association advocates for and encourages snowshoe running.

Unlike regular snowshoeing, runners can’t afford to be bogged down by weighty frames or tripped up by giant surfaces areas. It’s important to buy a pair of snowshoes that are specifically designed for running (smaller beginner models just won’t cut it). Running snowshoes typically have trim silhouettes with simple cleats. They have a tight suspension system so your feet and shoes don’t flop around too much. And unlike regular snowshoes, running pairs are made asymmetrically to avoid clanging together (this means you’ll have to keep track of which shoe is the left and which shoe is the right). It might be worth it to try on a few different models, paying special attention to which binding feels most comfortable and puts the least amount of strain on your foot. The binding should be fairly insulated, easy to adjust, and freeze-resistant. Should you need to make any adjustments during a race, you want to be able to keep your gloves on and do it quickly. Just like with backcountry models, it’s a good idea to do a few practice runs in your new shoes, getting used to the feel and weight before heading out to your next race on the mountain trails.

Best snowshoes for packed-trail running: Black Diamond Distance Spike Traction Devices

For the Pros

A pair of snowshoes to get you to first place. REI

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The Black Diamond Distance Spike Traction Device is perfect for snowshoe races and runners. With a super-light frame, you’ll be light on your feet for the miles ahead. They weigh just under half a pound and are equipped with 14 stainless steel spikes for increased traction. Plus, this model includes a front toe spike to help you push off.

Best budget snowshoes: What you can get for under $100

Truth be told, it’s pretty difficult to find a sturdy pair of snowshoes for under $100. Renting from an outdoor gear store or adventure center is a cost-effective alternative, especially if you don’t plan on snowshoeing frequently. It’s a great way to test out different models and make sure you like the overall fit and function before investing. Or you might purchase a pair secondhand; there are a ton of great used options available for less. Finally, if you’re primarily looking for traction on slippery, packed trails, you might be able to hold off on full snowshoes and think about grabbing a pair of slip-on cleats, which are significantly less expensive.

Best budget snowshoes: YakTrax Traction Cleats

"YakTrax

A Good Alternative

The right amount of traction without the high price.

YakTrax, which aren’t technically snowshoes, are a great, inexpensive option for hikers who need to increase their grip on well-traveled trails. These cleats come in many sizes, significantly reducing your risk of falling on slippery, snow paths. They are made of abrasion-resistant 1.4 millimeter steel coils, and they fasten to your shoes with a durable rubber outer band.

FAQs

Q: What other winter sports equipment do I need to snowshoe?

Before you hit the trails in your new snowshoes, you’ll want to grab some trekking poles, especially if you plan on adventuring into deep snow. Poles are a key part of picking yourself up, should you trip or fall. Next you’ll want a pair of warm gloves, since you certainly won’t be able to stick your hands in your pockets. If you foresee making many adjustments to your bindings, grab a five-fingered mitten liner for maximum control. Finally, think about grabbing some snowshoe gaiters to keep your legs and ankles dry. That may sound like a lot of winter sports equipment, but it will keep you warm, comfortable, and mobile.

Q: What should I know before buying snowshoes?

Before buying snowshoes, you need to know what kind of terrain you will be walking or climbing through to determine the features your pair needs. You’ll also need to know how much weight you plan on carrying, plus your own body weight to make sure you select the right size shoe. It’s a good idea to try on a few pairs, either in the store or as rentals to get a good feel for the bindings, frame structure, and weight.

Q: How do I know what size snowshoes I need?

Size can mean a few different things when it comes to snowshoes. The most important thing to know before going to shop is how much weight the shoe will need to support. Remember to account for not just your body weight, but the weight of your gear. This will determine the overall size of the shoe; lower weight means a smaller shoe and vice versa. Bindings can typically be adjusted to fit a variety of regular shoe sizes, and many models are made to fit “men’s” or “women’s” shoes. This is usually related to the width and weight of hiking boots or snow boots needed to fit the bindings.

A final word on shopping for snowshoes

The best snowshoes will support you as you trek through the tundra, lifting you on top of the snow, and helping you arrive at beautiful winter destinations. They’ll suit the terrain you frequent, your pack weight, and your experience level. There’s a pair out there for beginners, avid hikers, racers, and more, so get ready to strap in and explore!

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