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How to choose snowshoes: stay afloat in all conditions and terrain

Snowshoes in the snow
If you’re planning on keeping your hiking season going year-round this winter, there’s no piece of gear you’ll want more than a good pair of snowshoes (Image credit: Image Source)

If you’re planning on keeping your hiking season going year-round this winter, there’s no piece of gear you’ll want more than a good pair of snowshoes. Snowshoeing is a bit like having an all-access pass to the backcountry in winter and choosing the right pair of snowshoes can make or break your experience. As it turns out, understanding how to choose snowshoes is more complicated than just knowing your shoe size, so we’re here to break it all down and keep you from sinking into the deep stuff this cold season. 

What are snowshoes? 

A man and a woman snowshoeing uphill in winter

Snowshoes are a type of footwear that you attach to your feet over your hiking boots that keep you from ‘postholing’ (AKA sinking thigh-deep into the snow when you’re hiking) (Image credit: Westend61)

Snowshoes are a type of footwear that you attach to your feet over your hiking boots that keep you from ‘postholing’ AKA sinking thigh-deep into the snow when you’re hiking. 

Snowshoes have a wide shape that resembles a tennis racquet and provides flotation to stop you from sinking into the snow. They feature a binding, which fastens your hiking boot to the snowshoe. The binding is really important – you want a secure binding that is easy to get in and out of. Think: pulling one tab to adjust the snowshoe to your foot rather than spending five minutes fumbling around with it in the freezing cold. On the underside of the snowshoe, there’s a crampon to help you dig into the snow, and sometimes a heel lift, depending on the type of terrain you plan to use them for.

  • Aluminium-framed snowshoes are more traditional and have a netting that can be made from a variety of materials such as nylon. These are usually lightweight and strong.
  • Composite snowshoes, where the frame and flotation area are all made from the same hard material, can be a little noisier to hike in.
  • EVA foam snowshoes are a more recent innovation which are super quiet, warm and moveable but don’t provide as much traction and are probably better suited for casual use.

How do you know what size snowshoes to buy? 

Picture of a hiker’s snowshoes as he kicks back and enjoys the mountain views

Rather than correlating to shoe sizes, snowshoes are sized by their overall length, usually measured in inches (Image credit: Westend61)

The first, and most obvious question is what size of snowshoes you should buy. Rather than correlating to shoe sizes, snowshoes are sized by their overall length, usually measured in inches, or they might just come in a standard small/medium/large type measurement. 

Like cross country skis, snowshoes fit more by your body weight rather than foot size, so you’ll want to consider your weight plus any gear you’re likely to be carrying on your adventures. Check the recommended weight capacity for the snowshoe and go with that length. If you’re a little heavier than the recommended weight, it won’t necessarily damage the snowshoe, but you’ll sink farther, which does defeat the purpose a bit.

Another good thing to know is that women’s models are usually about 3/4" narrower than men’s to accommodate for a narrower boot.

Finally, a good rule of thumb is to pick the smallest pair within the range that holds your weight, since that means you'll have less weight to carry on your feet.

What type of terrain will you be snowshoeing on? 

A woman snowshoeing across flat terrain with a big backpack

In addition to weight, you’ll want to consider the type of terrain you’ll likely be snowshoeing on: flat, rolling or steep hills (Image credit: Christopher Kimmel)

In addition to weight, you’ll want to consider the type of terrain you’ll likely be snowshoeing on: flat, rolling or steep hills. 

Snowshoes meant for flat terrain will have simple bindings that assume your foot won’t easily slide out and only require tightening once at the beginning of your hike. Fixed bindings attach the entire length of your shoe to the snowshoe and are best for flat terrain. Flat terrain snowshoes will also have a simple crampon intended for a modest bite into the snow and no heel lift.

If you’re planning to snowshoe on rolling terrain however, you’ll want a pair that feature a more technical binding that is easy to adjust since you may have to adjust it when you change between uphill and downhill. Rotating, or floating, bindings are better for both rolling and steep terrain as they allow more movement. Rolling terrain snowshoes will feature a more aggressive crampon and a modest heel lift to help boost you up the inclines.

Finally, if you’re heading up a steep slope, you’ll want snowshoes with a highly technical binding that is easily adjustable, an aggressive crampon that bites deeply into the snow to keep you from sliding downhill and a higher heel lift to compensate for the grade beneath your feet.

What type of terrain will you be snowshoeing on?
Flat terrain Rolling terrain Steep terrain
BindingsSimple, fixed bindingsRotating (floating) bindings that allow for more movement and are easy to adjustRotating (floating) bindings that allow for more movement and are easy to adjust
CramponModestModerateAggressive
Heel liftNoneModerateHighest

If you anticipate snowshoeing on varied terrain, either pick snowshoes for rolling terrain that you can probably use on flat or steep ground, or pick the style that is best suited for the terrain you’ll be traversing the majority of the time. If you only plan to snowshoe on steep stuff once a winter, you can rent a pair for that occasion. 

What kind of snow will you be snowshoeing on? 

A hiker snowshoes across a slope with mountains in the background

The larger the surface area of the snowshoe, the better flotation you’ll have, so if you’re snowshoeing in deep, soft, powdery snow, you’ll want a bigger snowshoe to provide more flotation (Image credit: Cavan Images)

Finally, if you’re getting into winter sports, you may already know that not all snow is created equally. East coast snow is typically heavy, wet and icy for example, whereas high altitude zones like Colorado and Utah are famous for their light, dry powdery snow.

A bit like backcountry skis, the larger the surface area of the snowshoe, the better flotation you’ll have, so if you’re snowshoeing in deep, soft, powdery snow, you’ll want a bigger snowshoe to provide more flotation. If you’re going to be in the heavier, wet stuff or packed down snow, you can go with a smaller, more compact snowshoe. Again, you’ll want to pick the snowshoe that covers the snow you’ll most often be hiking on.

If you’re more likely to be hiking on ice than snow, consider using Yaktrax or Microspikes instead.

Once you’ve picked out the best pair of snowshoes for you, check out our guide to cold weather hiking to make sure you’re dressed appropriately and have all the gear you need for a good time. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.