The 3 Different Types of Snowshoes & How They Work

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You love the outdoors, so you want to be out in nature all year long. But if you live in an area that experiences heavy snowfall in winter, getting outside might be difficult. No one wants to soak their pants hiking through mountains of snow.

Of course, hiking boots aren’t your only option for traversing snowy terrain. Snowshoes can give you a leg up and make exploring accessible. Before strapping a pair on, however, you should know which kind to purchase and how to use them.

Choosing Your Snowshoes

Not all snowshoes are identical. Each pair varies by weight, stability, binding, traction, features and more. Narrow down your choices by considering the three main types of snowshoes. Odds are one of them will suit your hiking style and sense of adventure better than the others.

1. Recreational Snowshoes

Recreational snowshoes are the most basic and common type of snowshoe. Generally, those who enjoy hiking flat to rolling hills will use these shoes because they’re easy to put on and don’t have overly aggressive traction systems. Recreational snowshoes often feature low-tech webbing-based bindings that make for more affordable entry-level shoes. Most models are lightweight and have a tubular frame and crampons that can tackle steep terrain if need be.

This design easily supports the typical winter hiker. Thus, if you’re new to snowshoe hiking, this type of shoe will suit you just fine. Try out your new pair on the Old Bridle Path or Heald Pond Trail in New Hampshire for easy to moderate hikes the whole family will love.

2. Backcountry Snowshoes

If you’re planning to traverse more challenging terrain, like icy, steep hills and deep snow, you may need some backcountry snowshoes. This snowshoe is best for expeditions off the beaten road and can safely take you from point A to point B. Of course, since these shoes offer more features and better tread, they’ll likely come with a higher price point.

However, if your goal is to hike the Appalachian Trail mid-winter or summit Mt. Whitney, you’re going to want snowshoes that can go the distance. Luckily, backcountry snowshoes come with aggressive crampons, heel lifts, grippy edges and better, freeze-resistant bindings.

3. Running Snowshoes

For joggers and marathon lovers looking to stay agile during the winter months, there are running snowshoes. This type of snowshoe is quite different than the previous two. While recreational and backcountry shoes are large and tend to drag in the back, running snowshoes are shorter and narrower to enhance maneuverability. With these shoes, speed takes priority over flotation.

Plus, most trails have packed or groomed snow, so runners aren’t battling deep, powdery snow or ice. Thus, a smaller, minimalistic snowshoe is adequate, allowing you to walk or run with a more natural gait. Put these shoes through their paces by competing in one of the many races the United States Snowshoe Association hosts throughout the year.

Sizing and Weight

Snowshoes come in various sizes, although most are 20 to 36 inches long. To determine which size is best for you, consider how much you weigh. This factor will play a major role in how much flotation your snowshoes will provide and what kind of snow you’ll be able to hike through.

For instance, when considering your weight, if you’re a heavier person, you’ll likely need a longer and broader snowshoe. If you choose one that’s too small, the frame and deck won’t be large enough to distribute your weight and prevent you from sinking into the snow. On the other hand, if you don’t weigh much, you can get away with wearing shoes that are both shorter and narrower.

You may use the weight ranges below to determine which size is best for you.

  • 75 to 140 pounds: Choose a 21-inch model.
  • 120 to 180 pounds: Choose a 25-inch model.
  • 160 to 220 pounds: Choose a 30-inch model.
  • 220 to 300 pounds: Choose a 36-inch model.

Design Features

Once you determine which size best suits your proportions, you may begin searching for a pair that accommodates your hiking habits. Since snowshoes consist of different kinds of materials and come with various design features, it’s wise to consider what kind of terrain you plan to hike before settling on a pair.

For example, if you love hiking through deep, powdery snow and climbing steep hills, you may choose a pair with heel lifts or climbing bars. These features allow you to tackle inclines with ease. Additionally, you might pick shoes with tubular frames for deep snow and ones with flat stock frames for steep, icy hikes.

Snowshoes also come with different types of binding to strap your boots to the decking. Once you decide which type of binding you prefer, you must stick with it, since it’s impossible to replace. There are several types of bindings available.

  • Nylon webbing straps are the most common type of binding on entry-level snowshoes and can accommodate all different kinds of winter boots and hiking shoes. However, this material tends to stretch over time, so, if you hike often, you may want different binding.
  • Rubber— or polyurethane — straps are the most common type of binding across the board. They’re simple, lightweight and relatively easy to use. Plus, they’re waterproof and won’t stretch like nylon will. However, they aren’t adjustable, making them uncomfortable for some hikers.
  • Ratchet straps are similar to snowboard straps. These bindings are easy to adjust to ensure a comfortable fit throughout the day. Most also come with heel and toe straps, unlike rubber bindings, which typically only cover the toes.
  • Boa binding has become more popular lately. The one-dial cable system makes putting on your snowshoes a breeze. Plus,  boa straps also cinch around the foot without creating pressure points, so your feet stay comfy all day.

Storage Tips

Unless you live somewhere that experiences snowfall year-round, you’ll have to store your snowshoes during the warmer months. Of course, if you want to prolong the life of your shoes, you must keep them in a place where they’ll be free of damage. If you have wood snowshoes, you will need to varnish them and store them away from hungry mice and other creatures.

Those with metal or plastic frames won’t have to worry about pests. However, it’s essential to store this gear in a cool, dry place. A closet, attic, shed or garage is ideal as long as the space has adequate ventilation and is relatively dark. Snowshoes last longer if you store them out of direct sunlight and in a place that maintains a temperature of 100 degrees or less in the summer.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Proper cleaning and regular maintenance will also prolong the life of your snowshoes. Regardless of the kind of shoes you own, your pair will benefit from an end-of-season deep clean. Wash them with mild soap and water to remove dirt and salt. You can do this after each use, too.

Next, wipe synthetic decking with a plastic protectant or silicone spray and apply a thin coat of machine oil to prevent steel from rusting. Finally, make sure your snowshoes are dry before storing them.

Investing in Snowy Experiences

Snowshoes aren’t cheap, but they’re worth every penny. Once you find your perfect fit, they’ll take you where regular old hiking boots never could. Thus, you’ll be able to enjoy new snowy experiences and the great outdoors, even after stormy clouds roll in and the snow begins to fall.

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Richard Remick

Richard is the founder and the chief editor of Outside Pursuits. Passionate about the great outdoors, Richard spends much of his time in Colorado enjoying skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, cycling, hiking, and camping. When at home in Florida, he is most often found in the water. He loves water sports such as paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. He is a certified scuba diver. Because of his wealth of knowledge and experience, Richard has been invited to contribute articles to many outdoor-focused websites, such as Florida Rambler, and has been profiled on travel websites such as JohnnyJet.

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