How to Choose the Right Snowshoes for Winter Treks

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By Bryan Rucker •  18 min read

Imagine the picture. You wake up one morning after a night of heavy snowfall. The powder lies fresh on the terrain right outside of the window, with the sun dancing and shimmering brightly down upon it. It’s a perfect day for a hike, and nothing is more beautiful and adventurous as a morning hike in the snow. To accomplish this, however, you will need a quality pair of snowshoes—accessories that can help you navigate the fluffy powder with sinking and getting stuck with every step.

Snowshoes enable you to travel across snow-blanketed ground without sinking or struggling. And using these types of shoes is a much better strategy than walking with regular snow boots.

[su_note note_color=”#f2f23e”]Quick Answer: What are the best snowshoes for the money right now?


Snowshoes provide a feeling of “flotation” by dividing or spreading your weight evenly over a large flat surface area. This particular quality of snowshoes enables users to hike, climb and even run across the snow with little difficulty.

However, not all snowshoes are the same, and there is actually an art to choosing just the right pair of snowshoes for you. Hence, in the following article we will define this “art” in some detail, outlining the many things to consider when selecting the perfect pair of snowshoes.

The Different Types of Snowshoes

There are many different types and style of snowshoes on the market today, some better than others. But how do you know what “type” of snowshoes you will need for a given situation or area. The truth about snowshoes is that the right type depends largely on the type of terrain you plan to traverse—not necessarily the makeup of the terrain, but rather the geologic features. That having been said, there are essentially 3 categories when it comes to snowshoes: flat terrain snowshoes, rolling terrain snowshoes and mountain terrain snowshoes. There are also a few models that are designed specifically for people who enjoy fitness, trail running and mountain climbing. However, below we will merely explain the 3 MAIN categories of snowshoes to give you a better idea regarding the pair that is right for you based on your location—or intended location.

Flat Terrain Snowshoes

According to most experts, flat terrain snowshoes should almost always be the preferred choice for anyone new to the world of snowshoeing. Perfect for the beginners in your group, these snowshoes, as the name suggests, are made for terrain that is mostly flat (some rolling terrain is okay). They are designed for leisurely walking and for getting used to the feel of wearing snowshoes and the weight distribution properties they work on. Families and those who are just up to “visit” the snow for a day or two will enjoy wearing the flat terrain variety.

In almost all cases, flat terrain snowshoes are designed with simple-to-adjust bindings and traction systems that provide just enough grip for flat or undulating terrain, but are not nearly as aggressive as those made for hill climbing. Most entry-level flat terrain snowshoes are made in this way—and most are without any of the bells and whistles you might find on more expensive and elaborate shoes. These shoes tend to offer great value for the price—which is usually quite reasonable.

Rolling Terrain Snowshoes

If you plan to go off the beaten path in your next trip to the snow—and you would rather not sink and struggle with every step—then the rolling terrain snowshoe is probably for you. Hikers and backpackers will benefit greatly from rolling terrain snowshoes, as they are designed for traversing some steep or unsteady terrain, much as you would find when you wander off the marked hiking path or trail. They can also, of course, be used for flat terrain, but they are not suitable and definitely not recommended for those who plan to challenge some very steep or ice-laden peaks.

Rolling terrain snowshoes are equipped with more aggressive crampons than their flat terrain counterparts. For those that are unaware of the term “crampon,” it can be defined as such:

A crampon is a traction device that is typically attached to snowshoes (or cross country skis) to improve mobility on the snow and ice when traversing icy trails and peaks. Not only are crampons used during hiking and ice climbing, but they are also used for secure travel on snow and ice, such as crossing glaciers, snowfields and icefields, ascending snow slopes, and scaling ice-covered rock.

Rolling terrain snowshoes also have stronger bindings than the flat terrain snowshoes, which operate with just a simple binding system. These are definitely a step up from the entry-level snowshoe.

Mountain Terrain Snowshoes

If you fancy yourself an adventurer when the weather and terrain becomes cold, snowy and icy, you may have to opt for the more advanced—and certainly more expensive—mountain terrain snowshoes. Designed with mountaineers, advanced hikers and backpackers and back country skiers and snowboarders in mind, mountain terrain snowshoes are made to get you anywhere you need to go on the hard, frozen turf. Mountain terrain snowshoes are typically worn for steep terrain exclusively; designed for those who have no desire to follow an established trail, but would rather blaze a trail of their own.

Mountain terrain snowshoes, as you might expect, have the most aggressive form of climbing-style crampons found on a snowshoe. The bindings are also very rugged and secure, designed to take a pounding when the conditions and the terrain is very harsh and frozen.

Best Snowshoes for Beginners (2018)

Sizing Is Very Crucial

As with any type of shoe or footwear, the correct size can make all the difference. However, in the case of snowshoes, correct sizing does not really have anything to do with the size of the wearer’s foot, but it has to deal with how heavy a person is and the type of snow that he or she will be travelling through.

According to experts, the correct size when selecting a pair of snowshoes is the key to getting just the right amount of flotation upon the snow. And if you remember from the introduction, the flotation factor in snowshoes is dependent on how evenly one’s weight is spread over a large flat surface area—in this case, the snowshoe itself. Hence, the heavier a person is, the more snowshoe surface area is required. Also, if you plan to traverse areas in which the snow is very light and dry, you will also need a larger surface area (snowshoe), as this type of snow is much easier to sink in, thus making it more difficult to achieve flotation.

As you will see in the section titled “Snowshoe Frames and Decking,” snowshoes come in two different frame types or materials: aluminum-framed snowshoes and composite-framed snowshoes.

Sizing when it comes to snowshoes is also done by gender, recommended load, and the type of terrain and snow. Below we will take a closer look at each of these factors.

Gender and Sizing

If you enter a sporting goods store to shop for snowshoes, chances are the men’s, women’s and children’s snowshoes will be in separate sections—just as regular footwear is divided in the same manner. There is a reason for this.

Snowshoes that are intended for men are designed to accommodate larger boots and heavier loads—not just the weight of the person, but also of the gear he may be toting.

Women’s snowshoes tend to feature a narrower and a bit more contoured frame design, and are designed to accommodate smaller boots and lighter loads. The size of women’s snowshoes can also be as small as 8 inches by 21 inches, and the bindings are designed to fit women’s footwear—snow boots, hiking boots, etc.

Children’s snowshoes, at least the ones for casual play, are much smaller than those made for adult men and women. However, they do offer some larger models for older children who like to hike and climb. These snowshoes are equipped with the same technical features as those found on adult snowshoes.

Load and Sizing

Whether you plan to shop online or in brick and mortar stores, the recommended load or carrying capacity of the snowshoe is a major factor that must be considered. The load can be determined by adding the weight of the individual with the gear he or she plans to carry. As we have mentioned, too much load on a small surface area or shoe can negatively affect flotation.

Most snowshoes will have a “Specs” tab that indicates the recommended load for that shoe, usually displayed in pounds or kilograms. Online retailers such as REI also relate the specs of each snowshoe they sell on their product pages, including the recommended capacity. Keep in mind that this is not something to take lightly. Heavier individuals—or those who plan to carry a great deal of gear—will definitely require a larger shoe to achieve the same measure of flotation as a smaller person in a smaller shoe.

Terrain, Snow Conditions and Sizing

The terrain and snow conditions on the ground are major factors when selecting just the right snowshoe. Heavy wet snow is much easier to achieve flotation on, so a smaller shoe is perfect for these conditions. On the other hand, if the snow is light, dry, fresh and powdery, flotation will be more difficult to achieve, as it is much easier to sink and struggle in these types of drifts.

As for the terrain, narrow or heavily forested areas can be much more difficult to navigate in the larger sizes of snowshoes. Thus, if you are able to achieve flotation with a smaller shoe it is definitely recommended that you do so.

Terrain that is very steep and icy is also best explored with smaller snowshoes, as they require less effort to move when climbing in harsh, steep conditions. Wide open and relatively flat areas, however, and those with deep snow drifts, are better traversed with a larger snowshoe that provides maximum flotation.

So which size is right for you?

As a general rule, you will want to purchase the smallest size shoe that will support your weight/load based on the snow conditions and terrain. If you have adequate flotation, the smaller snowshoes will definitely be easier to maneuver. However, if the shoe is too small to provide adequate flotation, maneuverability is a moot point; you will be sinking with every step.

Although most people (without large amounts of gear) can get away with the smaller sizes of aluminum framed or composite snowshoes, very large framed and heavy individuals—or those packing up many pounds of required gear, should get a larger snowshoe that supports their weight.

Just remember, when it comes to buying the right size snowshoes, the factors you need to consider are: gender, weight/load, snow conditions, and terrain.

Snowshoe Frames and Decking

As we mentioned in an earlier section, you essentially have two choices when it comes to the frames of your new snowshoes: aluminum and composite.


Most of the snowshoes you will find, whether shopping online or browsing at your local sporting goods store, are manufactured with aluminum frames. Aluminum is a light and durable material that makes the snowshoes very easy to maneuver. Another positive about aluminum framed snowshoes is the fact that they are available in a variety of sizes, including some of the larger sizes that are perfect for heavier individuals and on terrain in which the downed snow is light and powdery.

The aluminum framed snowshoes typically come equipped with a form of synthetic decking—a decking made from materials that are also very light and maneuverable. Along with being extremely light, these decking materials—such as Hypolon rubber and nylon—are very responsive, making it easy for users to traverse their chosen path without being weighed down unnecessarily.


The composite framed snowshoe is rather new to the sporting goods marketplace. “Composite” materials are made from a mixture of different plastic materials, melted down and then re-hardened to form a light and durable material. The composite framed snowshoes were initially popularized by the outdoor company MSR. Currently, they are only made in one adult size, which is comparable to the smallest aluminum framed snowshoes. Users of these composite snowshoes can add a tail of up to six inches to achieve the adequate flotation they require when hiking or climbing in deep powdery snow drifts.

The decking on composite snowshoes can also be made of nylon or rubber for extra responsiveness. But generally, the ones available today have a hard composite plastic decking that is integrated into the frame.

About the Bindings

If you have ever skied or snowboarded along the snow-topped peaks of the country, you already know about bindings. What you may not know is that you have a choice when it comes to the types of bindings you can select. As we referred to briefly earlier, the sturdiness or ruggedness of your snowshoe bindings will depend on the type of snowshoes you select. For obvious reasons, the bindings for rolling terrain snowshoes are typically much sturdier than those found on flat terrain snowshoes; yet not quite as rugged as those found on mountain terrain or climbing snowshoes.

For those who have never skied or snowboarded, bindings typically consist of a platform and nylon straps that go over the foot and around the heel. There are two types of bindings that are very commonplace for today’s snowshoes: Rotating bindings and fixed bindings.

Rotating Bindings

Also known as “floating” bindings, rotating bindings are those that pivot at the very point where they attach to the decking, located under the balls of your feet. This pivoting or rotating movement allows users to walk naturally and to climb hills without any added strain or strength.

Not all rotating bindings are alike. They are different in the amount of distance they pivot—a difference that typically depends on the model you purchase. Certain bindings—those attached with metal rods—can pivot up to 90 degrees or more. This allows the back ends of the snowshoes, referred to as the tails, to fall away as you take each step. This is very important, as it helps to shed snow as you walk (instead of kicking it up onto your legs) and greatly reduces leg strain and fatigue.

Rotating snowshoes also allow for “tracking.” This tracking, or steering, enables those walking in very deep snow to position their boots in such a way that they “kick” into steep slopes, which again helps reduce leg strain and fatigue.

Despite the many benefits of rotating or floating bindings, there are a couple of disadvantages as well. First, rotating bindings make it very difficult to step back or walk backwards. This deficiency tends to surprise some new users, often resulting in a fall or loss of balance. Also, stepping over things, such as rocks and logs, can also be quite challenging with rotating binds.

Fixed Bindings

Fixed bindings on snowshoes are typically connected to the snowshoe with heavy duty rubber or neoprene bands. Although fixed bindings do have a “little bit” of give in them, they do not rotate near as much as their rotating or floating counterparts.

Fixed bindings tend to bring the tails of the snowshoes upwards with each step, which allows for a trouble-free and very natural stride. Additionally, backing up and stepping over things using fixed bindings is much easier than it is with rotating bindings.

The one major problem people tend to have with fixed bindings is snow displacement. Because these bindings kick the tails of the snowshoes upward, snow is constantly getting kicked up onto the back of the user’s legs.

Traction/Stability Devices and Snowshoes

Snowshoes come equipped with many devices that are designed to provide traction, stability and comfort as people traverse the snow. Of course, the weight of the user does provide some of the traction simply by pushing the snowshoes into the snow. Many of today’s best models of snowshoes feature tooth-like crampons or cleats that offer greater grip and stability.

These traction devices are not found on every type of snowshoe. Flat terrain snowshoes, for example, typically have little to no crampons because there is very little use for them when the ground being traveled on is flat and constant. Rolling terrain and mountain terrain snowshoes, on the other hand, have graduating levels of traction devices—devices that come in very handy when the terrain is steep and icy.

Here we will take a look at several different traction and stability devices and explain the usefulness of each device.

Toe or Instep Crampons

On almost any pair of rolling terrain or mountain terrain snowshoes, you are bound to notice crampons located along the toe and instep on the underside of the bindings of the snowshoe. This design allows the crampons to pivot with the feet as one climbs. Toe crampons are an absolute must when climbing, helping users dig into the snow to achieve each new step. Instep crampons also help with climbing, but their main usefulness is to prevent users from sliding backwards as they make an ascent.

Heel Crampons

Whatever goes up must come down. So if the primary purpose of the toe and instep crampons is to help users climb a peak, the heel crampons assist greatly with the descent. Heel crampons are located on the decking underside of many of today’s rolling and mountain terrain snowshoes. They are typically placed in such a way that they form a V formation on the back underside of the snowshoe. As climbers descend the mountain, this V tends to fill up with snow and hence slows the climber down, preventing falls that can often be disastrous. Anyone who intends to climb steep peaks with their new snowshoes should definitely look for a full set of toe, instep and heel-based crampons.

Side Rails

Also called traction bars, side rails are located on the decking underside of the snowshoe. Their main purpose is to provide lateral—side to side—stability as the user crosses slopes. Perfect for both rolling hills and mountain terrain snowshoes, side rails also help reduce incidences of slipping during a climb.

Braking Bars

As the name suggests, the function of braking bars is to provide forward traction and prevent the user from backsliding directly backwards. Much like the side rails, they are usually placed on the undersides of the plastic-decked snowshoes.

Heel Lifts

Heel lifts go by several other names, including “climbing bars” and, on the MSR composite snowshoe models, “Televators.” Located atop the snowshoe, attached to the decking at the very back end, these simple devices look just like little wire bails. When flipped into the upright position behind the heel, they help to alleviate calf strain and fatigue when climbing very steep and rugged uphill sections of a trail. They also help climbers keep some energy in reserve on long ascents, helping the feet and snowshoes to work as one. Many climbers say heel lifts give the sensation of walking up steps, preventing undue strain on the calves and the Achilles tendons.

Footwear and Snowshoeing

Last but not least to consider is the type of footwear you should use when enjoying the activity of snowshoeing. Here there are only a couple of hard and fast rules. First, you want to select a boot that is warm and waterproof. Walking in the snow for hours on end can make the feet get very cold indeed, especially when the water from the snow seeps into the boot and wets the socks. The second rule is that you will have to select a boot that is stiff enough to work with the bindings on your snowshoes; and one that provides good ankle support. Snowshoeing can be an arduous activity, so you want a boot that can stand up to the job.

Generally, any pair of snow boots or hiking boots will work well with your snowshoes. If you plan to run in the snow or go mountaineering, you can even select shoes that are meant for that purpose, provided they meet the first two requirements.

image credit: OlyPhotoStories/Deposit Photos

Bryan Rucker

Brian Rucker has spent his entire life participating in essentially all things wildlife. His concern grew astronomically during the previous tensions between the United States and other nations. He also has grown a substantial interest in survival and sustainability due to the current shape of the world over the years. He believes that preparation triumphs all things.