Snowshoes are a simple piece of equipment, and yet the number of features and differences can make, or break, your day in the snow.
The first thing most people think about when picking snowshoes is size. Snowshoes are typically measured by length, which translates to an ideal users weight range. At basic, big snowshoes for big people, small snowshoes for small people. The most typical sizes are 25 inches, 30 inches, and 36 inches. Nowadays though there are so many options that you find a lot of sizes even smaller, and in between.
Here is THE MOST HELPFUL THING I CAN SAY about sizing. Pick what is most comfortable for you. The smaller a snowshoe is the lighter it typically weighs, AKA: more comfort. A smaller snowshoe is also going to have a smaller profile so it is easier to maneuver and walk in.
A Bigger snowshoe will float better on snow. This is basic physics. Ever see a movie where someone is on ice and it’s starting to crack so they lay flat on their stomach? Same principle. Spread the weight as wide as possible so you don’t sink in the snow. What this means, is that if you are the type of person to get out on powder days, or like to travel off the beaten path, or simply hate sinking into the snow period, you should get a bigger snowshoe.
So, if you stay on trails on standard snow days, get small. If you like to only go in the back-country and big powder days, go big. If you are somewhere in between, then boom, medium size.
There are two standard types of snowshoes, Aluminum Frame and Composite Frame. An aluminum frame snowshoe will have nylon webbing, or plastic strung between the frame, or in the case of really old ones, possibly animal hide. Composite frames are typically a heavy duty plastic for the entire body, both outer and inner.
Composite frames are bomb-proof. I’ve seen snowshoes such as the MSR Denali survive 10 years in a rental fleet with heavy duty use. The plastic / composite material just lasts forever and doesn’t really have any fault points to compromise integrity. Snowshoes such as the TSL 226 Tour which we sell new at the store are made of a heavy duty plastic that could be dropped off a building, run over by a truck, and would still be good to go!
So what is the negative of a composite snowshoe? Weight, and Sound. Most composite snowshoes weight significantly more than their aluminum frame counterparts. They also make an excellent “crunch, crunch, crunch” sound in the snow, which can be annoying (or for some people, rewarding!). Other than that you can’t go wrong with composite.
Aluminum frames are lighter weight, softer on impact, and generally quieter in the snow. Since the aluminum frame is typically connected to the middle via a heavy duty fabric, or thin plastic, they tend to absorb some shock when you step. This means an aluminum frame will typically be less fatiguing for those snowshoes for long hours.
The negative of Aluminum frames is durability. In cheap aluminum frame snowshoes they will often use a plastic that is very thin in between the aluminum. This material can often get very brittle and will start cracking after to much use. This problem is usually solved by more expensive snowshoes which will typically use a rubberized nylon or other fabric material. This material won’t get brittle and thus lasts longer, though it is more prone to tears if you catch it on a rock or something.
The key point is this: for comfort, buy Aluminum Frame, for durability buy Composite.
Nowadays when looking at a snowshoes you might notice that NASA had a hand in designing it! At least that may be how it appears. Every company seems to constantly be changing their bindings to be more high tech and fancy, riser bars are on the rise, and the grips/crampon section often looks more terrifying than the blades of a combine. So what features do you need?
A simple, yet easy to use binding. Try a few types to see what is easiest for you to tighten, and loosen. If you are going to be taking your snowshoes off and on, an easy binding is critical. Likewise, if you plan to share your snowshoes with different people who have all sizes of feet, get a binding that is more adjustable and expandable. Again, look at the binding and try to assess critical failure points, some might be very comfortable to put on, but are cheaply made.
Riser bars are a really nice feature if you do a lot of incline climbing. A riser bar is going to be a small bar you lift and click into place behind your back heel. This bar then allows you to climb easier because it keeps your foot more level when climbing, while keeping the snowshoe more angled to the hill. This is typically only found on much more expensive snowshoes. It’s a great feature, but unnecessary if you mostly stay on level groomed trails.
Crampons / metal grabby things / cleats! This is where the magic happens! Sure a snowshoe helps you stay on top of the snow, but so do skis! The difference is that in a well designed snowshoe you can tackle any terrain without sliding! The basic concept here is, more metal = more grip. Also true, more metal = more weight. Try to find a combination of grip and weight that is suitable for you. If you like to go on very uneven terrain, get more grip. If you mountaineer a lot, get more grip. If you tend to go on icy hard packed snow, get more grip. On the flip side, go with less if you are a simple snowshoe hiker and want to save weight.
These are the basics of snowshoes. Hopefully it will help you decide. Also, remember that we sell, and RENT SNOWSHOES.