Just because its winter doesn’t mean you should give up hiking or trail running. I think snowshoeing is a better workout and there is something about being in the woods in the winter that is hard to describe.
You probably already have the winter apparel, now you just need a pair of snowshoes and you don’t need to spend a lot of money to to get a decent pair.
But how do you know which ones are right for you? There are quite few to choose from.
To find out we tested some of the popular brands in the Michigan Upper Peninsula in some pretty deep powder to see which ones would come out on top.
The MSR Evo’s, Chinook Trekker, and MTN All Terrain are uni-sex while the RedFeather and MSR Lightning’s have a specific ladies model available.
First lets take a look at the snowshoes, then we’ll talk about how to choose the right pair for you.
- MSR EVO 22 Snowshoe
- Chinook Trekker Snowshoes
- MTN All Terrain Snowshoes
- RedFeather HIKE Recreational Series Snowshoes
- MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes
Here is a feature overview of the snowshoes with full reviews and our buying guide below.
The Best Snowshoes
MSR, a highly reputable brand owned by Cascade Designs is probably best known for their camping gear. They have in the case of the Evo snowshoes have created some of the best snowshoes on the market at any price.
Immediately inspiring confidence we learn that the traction components are made of steel and, what’s more, they’re molded directly into the body of the snowshoe – this leaves little room for components to fail.
A very simple aluminum and rubber non-moving-parts binding system says to me that MSR intended to mechanically simplify this snowshoe to increase user experience and decrease potential broken parts.
Modular and adjustable tails for these snowshoes mean adjustability when the snow gets deep and I think it’s a feature which greatly improved the value of the snowshoe as a whole. In my opinion with the tails put on, these are best snowshoes for backcountry use.
However, the tails are not included and need to be purchased separately.
For a bargain price I think MSR has created a snowshoe that I can recommend without hesitation when compared to its higher priced peers.
For a budget minded traveler the Chinook snowshoes aren’t a bad choice. Featuring plastic decking and full rotation bindings, these snowshoes are middle of the road. Aluminum frame is lightweight and durable but not top of the line.
With aluminum crampons the durability won’t be world-class but it’s a long shot better than plastic teeth on your crampons. Don’t traverse a bunch of rock or you’ll have worn out crampons in no time.
The heel spikes on the crampons certainly come in handy for downhill travel.
Even at such a bargain price they included carrying bag which is a nice feature although far from a deciding factor in my mind.
I generally would say that even at such a bargain price you can have confidence in this entry-priced pair of snowshoes. These are probably the best snowshoes for the money.
#3 MTN All Terrain Snowshoes
Despite the fact that the MTN All Terain snowshoes comes with an included pair of hiking poles I am actually going to mark that as a negative. As a long time outdoor professional I know that a huge majority of outdoor enthusiasts already own a pair of poles which are probably higher quality, lighter weight, and more well suited to the individual.
Now if you don’t already have a pair then this will save you some money. The poles are pretty good and fully adjustable.
Pay attention to choosing the right size when you commit to this snowshoe as they seem to be offered in sporadic intervals. Double check with the manufacturer that you’re getting the right size.
I have to admit that my confidence was not inspired by the quickly assembled look or large use of aluminum and plastic components which are more common in lower end snowshoes.
I’d really like to see more attention to the rivets used to secure the decking to frame. However even after several seasons of use, they still are holding up just fine.
Like most budget minded outdoor I don’t like paying more for gear than I have to but I think you get what you pay for here. In my opinion these are the best snowshoes for beginners because they come with everything you need for a bargain price, highly recommended.
#4 RedFeather HIKE Recreational Series Snowshoe Kit Review
RedFeather not as well known for snowshoes as other brands, is owned by ORC Industries. ORC is a not for profit company whose sole purpose is to employ people with disabilities. They are hand crafted in La Crosse, Wisconsin so if you buy from them you can feel good you are helping out worthy cause.
That of course it not the main reason for buying the RedFeathers. The reason is these snowshoes are lightweight, strong and provide good traction. The lightweight series 7200 aluminum makes for a strong frame coupled with decking of TX 35 rip stop polymer that maintains its softness at below zero temperatures.
The “sure grip” crampons made from stainless steel provide excellent stability and strength.
They have an anti-shock mechanism to reduce stress on your joints for all day hiking comfort and there is a “live action” hinge that lifts the tail of the snowshoes for every step so it doesn’t drag for added hiking speed.
The RedFeather snowshoe set includes adjustable poles that the snow baskets are removable so you can use them for hiking and the set is completed with a carry case.
It’s nice to know not only are you getting a good set of snowshoes but you can feel good about helping a worthy cause!
Women – there is a Ladies model of the snowshoe, click here to see it.
This is a higher end version of the MSR EVO snowshoes reviewed above. Instead of a uni-body aluminum frame like the EVO’s it has a polymer decking that make these snowshoes lighter while not sacrificing quality and stability.
The feature I love about MSR snowshoes is the ability to add a 5 inch modular tail. This almost gives you two snowshoes in one.
Leave the tails off for more packed snow and added speed. For fresh, deep powder, clip on the tails for extra flotation. Great design MSR!
Similar to the RedFeather snowshows, they have a hinge that elevates the tail, that reduces fatigue. However unlike the RedFeather you can turn it on and off with a push of your pole.
The frame of the snowshoes have teeth that provide extra traction on steep inclines or on ice. This design gives you better security and traction than the typical tubular frame.
The bindings utilize a urethane construction that adapts for just about any type of shoe or boot you want to use.
These are an upgrade to the MSR EVO’s and an excellent backcountry snowshoe. There is also a ladies version of the Lightning Ascent available.
How To Choose Snowshoes
When I bought my first pair of snowshoes, I found a used pair on the cheap from the local Craigslist scene. I took them out in the first snowstorm we had and they summarily broke within minutes. Somehow I convinced the guy to give me my money back for his crappy old snowshoes but the point was clear – I had no idea what I was buying.
Learning what makes a pair of snowshoes a good choice for your needs is critical in avoiding dumb purchasing decisions like mine. While seemingly a simple tool, snowshoes warrant a fair amount of understanding and consideration in purchasing.
Let’s take a look at some of the most critical criteria for evaluating a snowshoe purchase and why to bother buying a pair in the first place!
Why You May Need Snowshoes
Traveling during snowy weather really leaves you two main options (unless you have a dog sled). You can ski or snowshoe. Each of these traveling methods is a topic unto its own but for not we’ll just highlight some benefits of each:
- Faster on flat sections and downhills
- Sometimes floats better in soft or deep snow
- Skis can be used to create your shelter
- Easier to traverse densely cluttered areas
- Easier on uphill travel
- Can traverse ice more readily
If you’re not going to use snowshoes or skis, you’re really left with boot packing it in the snow which is no fun at all and leads to sore, tired legs and wet, frustrated people.
Snowshoes are really not needed outside of knee deep snow conditions. Short travel in snow ankle deep is easier done in good boots. Once the snow piles up to mid-calf or knee deep then you’d better have a pair of snowshoes!
This video from REI is a good primer on snowshoes.
You’ll want to pair a good set of snowshoes with a nice pair of winter boots or hiking boots. I would recommend finding your winter travel footwear first and then choosing a snowshoe to be certain the snowshoe will fit your boot appropriately.
I hate hiking boots, they have many serious drawbacks for real hiking but they might just hit their stride for winter snowshoeing. You’ll have to decide how important waterproof boots are to you and where you’re going. For winter snowshoeing I would say waterproof boots are definitely a worthy consideration. See my recommendations for hiking boots here.
Winter Snow Boots
The majority of “winter boots” are really not made in a way which is conducive to backcountry travel. Often the liners are absurdly thick and warm and not removable. This means once they get wet with sweat, they’ll stay that way.
This type of footwear is also just notorious for poor quality and fashion over function. Be selective here.
If you need mountaineering boots, you’ll probably already know it by now. The casual outdoor enthusiast does not need mountaineering boots. If you’re planning a trip up Denali, you might consider it. If you’re planning a trip to the local resort, you definitely don’t need them.
What to Look for in Snowshoes
Snowshoes come in several flavors but we’re going to keep it narrowed down to two main flavors:
- Recreational & Budget
- Backcountry Travel
Recreational & Budget Snowshoes
The recreational snowshoe would most commonly be used the beginner snowshoer who is going to use them on mostly flat terrain, on mostly either groomed park trails or packed snow. This type of shoe does not need the best traction and stability just be comfortable and secure on the foot. The Chinook Trekker Snowshoes and the MTN All Terrain Snowshoes are perfect for this type of snowshoer.
Backcountry Travel Snowshoes
The snowshoer going into the backcountry will need an entirely different type of snowshoe. The person heading into the backcountry in the mountain valleys, and remote untraveled areas needs a snowshoe with excellent traction, durable construction, secure bindings and as lightweight as possible. Heading into the backcountry will be significantly more advanced than the groomed trails in a park area. The backcountry snowshoer should be aware of possible avalanches (see my beacon reviews here) and experienced in mountaineering. The snowshoe needs an aggressive traction snowshoe with heel lifts for steep climbs. The MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes is an excellent showshoe for this purpose.
This is a very specific model not covered in the article. This snowshoe would be significantly smaller, lighter and a tapered tail to allow this type of activity.
There are many considerations to be made when choosing from among these two categories and once you’ve decided whether you’re a hardcore backcountry snowshoer or a weekend warrior, you’ll be ready to start looking at the following factors which affect snowshoe performance.
Not only do snowshoes need to help you float above the snow, they must also help you grip slick and sometimes icy surfaces.
During certain snow conditions a hard and thick layer of ice can form on the surface of the snow (known as “crust”). This layer can often support body weight and if your snowshoes don’t have some manner of traction on the bottom, you’ll be sliding around like Bambi on the pond.
Traction methods usually involve jagged metal teeth under the foot area of the snowshoe or (sometimes both) along the outer edge of the snowshoe frame. Carefully assess the likelihood of your need for traction when traveling with snowshoes before deciding what is right for you.
The more aggressive and steep the terrain you’ll be traveling as well as the likelihood of needing ice traction will determine your level of need for traction components and crampon type systems. In mountaineering type settings you may need some advanced level traction systems.
Watch out for traction systems featuring plastic components or plastic teeth. These weaker materials are guaranteed to fail.
Harness Attachment and Bindings
Snowshoes have to attach to your boots somehow. This is usually a system of straps and buckles which wrap over your boot and keep the snowshoe stuck fast against your foot. These systems can be fickle at times and often feature weak plastic components when buying budget-category snowshoes.
Bindings which feature a ratchet-style closure offer the best fitment and security in our opinion and we suggest you seek these whenever possible.
It is worth noting that some snowshoe bindings allow the snowshoe to rotate freely and limitless. These are full rotation bindings and may cause extra drag by allowing the tail of the snowshoe to drag along the snow behind you with each step.
The other type of binding is slightly more efficient and is called a fixed rotation binding – that is the snowshoe is held fast by the binding after a certain point and won’t be able to drag along behind you when you pick your foot up past a certain level.
Generally speaking fixed rotation bindings are a solid choice for the every day snowshoe enthusiast.
Testing Your Bindings
Remember to use the boots you’ll be traveling in when testing snowshoes. Try getting in and out of your snowshoes with gloves on and operate the binding systems to see how easy they are to use.
Test how snugly the binding fits your boot by checking for lateral and fore-aft slipping.
If you’re sensing a hot spot or pressure point where the straps of the bindings pinch your foot, that’s absolutely a no-go – you must solve this problem before traveling or you will pay the price with blisters.
Much like backcountry ski bindings, some snowshoes feature a heel lift which can be adjusted to the angle of the slope which you are climbing. If you’re going to be climbing with your snowshoes this is recommended as it allows your foot to stay more level as the slope becomes increasingly aggressive.
For flat land walking, a heel lift is not really necessary.
The float offered by a snowshoe is measured by the surface area of the decking (the part underfoot which presses against the snow). More decking and a bigger snowshoe means more float. This is important if you are heavy, tall, or entering areas with deeper or softer snow.
Some snowshoe offer clip-on style additions which increase overall snow contact surface area and boost floatation. Consider a modular system like this if you expect to enter varying snow conditions and deep powder frequently.
Properly Sizing a Snowshoe
Sizing is really all about surface area versus weight. While we will talk about a few other considerations, this is really the deciding factor.
The heavier you are, the more surface area you will need in your snowshoe to distribute your weight so you don’t sink in the snow. This is pretty basic physics.
Here are some factors which might influence your overall weight:
- How big are you as a person?
- Are you carrying a pack?
- How much gear are you carrying with you?
The inverse is worth considering – that is the more dense or packed down the snow is, the less floatation you’ll need for a given weight.
Every snowshoe manufacturer should have a sizing guide on their products. Simply refer to this sizing guide and don’t forget to include the weight of your gear and pack in your calculations.
Snowshoes can often be found in gender variations. This is not a sales gimmick – there’s really a difference.
Probably the most important difference is hip width and stride dynamics. Men and women are just built differently and this affects our stance and stride. Be sure to take into consideration your needs when choosing a snowshoe as it may be prudent to purchase a gender-specific snowshoe.
Absolutely a necessity in my book, hiking poles are critical to enjoying snowshoeing.
PRO TIP: Make sure your hiking poles feature a powder basket for snow. Powder baskets are larger and spread out the force of your hiking pole across the snow, in much the same manner as your snowshoe, thus preventing you from plunging your hiking pole uselessly into the snow.
Avoid the gimmicky cheap three-piece rotation lock hiking poles. They’re heavier than packing the kitchen sink. Look for fixed length hiking poles with a powder basket option and save yourself some problems.
You’ll get what you pay for with snowshoes and the overabundance of plastic components and cheap quality aluminum construction in many budget snowshoes lacks confidence. I would recommend the MSR EVO 22 without a doubt for its quality and reputation.
Don’t forget to do your research and shop around before committing to the best snowshoe option for you. Seek a shoe which is comfortable, sized appropriately, and ready to meet your needs.