The Best Snowshoes for Deep Snow, Trails, and Beginners
Wide expanses of snow covered terrain, local trails with dirt feet below you, and mountains blanketed in winter may be explored with snowshoes on your boots. They extend your hiking season through the winter and broaden access. But how do you know which ones to buy? And which ones will work best for you? We spent the snowy winter and spring months in Colorado reviewing six popular pairs side-by-side to find out exactly this. These shoes have certainly evolved from their leather and wooden origin to technically advanced pieces of gear. We evaluated each pair for floatation, traction, ease of use, and security on foot. If the snow is keeping you from enjoying solitude and exploring winter terrain, read on to see what we recommend.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Snowshoe
MSR Lightning Ascent
Best Bang for the Buck
Top Pick for Both Recreational and Backcountry Use
Best for Specific Applications
Deep Snow: MSR Lightning Ascent or Tubbs Mountaineer
Spring Snow: MSR Lightning Ascent or MSR Evo
Light Snow: MSR Evo or Alps Performance Lightweight
Groomed Trails: Tubbs Mountaineer or Tubbs Wilderness
Steep terrain: MSR Evo or MSR Lightning Ascent
Walking the dog: MSR Evo or Alps Performance Lightweight
Fresh Tracks: MSR Lightning Ascent
Sharing with family members or friends: MSR Evo or Alps Performance Lightweight
Analysis and Test Results
Most hikers enjoy three seasons: spring, summer, and fall; then upon the first big snow hiking gear is packed away. These shoes allow for similar experience of the outdoors in the winter season, which is one of the reasons this is one of the fastest growing winter sports in America. Finding the right pair can make all the difference in your enjoyment of this activity. Some companies have been constructing quality pairs for decades, and these will be on the shelf beside companies introducing their first line, making it hard to distinguish what models are best and what features are desirable. There is a wide range of designs on the market, but the main components to consider remain the same across the board: frame size and shape, traction systems, binding compatibility with footwear, and application in specific terrain and snow conditions. See our Buying Advice for more detailed information on construction designs and materials.
Why Wear Snowshoes?
Most hikers find themselves on the trail from spring through fall, but what if you could extend your hiking season to encompass all months of the year? These shoes open up this realm of longer hiking seasons and allow you to enjoy all of the things you love about hiking, in the winter.
Winter Hiking Footwear
They have metal crampons that are sharp and grip ice and snow well. The crampon designs mimic those of crampons for ice climbing and glacier travel and are specifically designed for winter use.
Though many shoes can be used for multiple applications, there are three main types tailored to specific winter outings.
Recreational use is classified by beginner to intermediate terrain with a balance of easy to moderate uphill and downhill travel. This includes groomed trails, park trails, easy to moderate hiking trails, packed snow, and off-trail travel in moderate terrain. Models for recreation should be comfortable and secure on foot. Choosing a pair based on the most difficult terrain you anticipate encountering will not necessarily offer the optimal comfort and enjoyment. When selecting a pair for recreation, consider the terrain you will spend the most amount of time in.
For this application we recommend the MSR Evo, Alps Performance Lightweight, Tubbs Mountaineer, and Tubbs Wilderness models.
Backcountry travel gets you out to remote mountain basins, valleys, and secluded summits and demands models that have rigid traction, secure bindings, and durable construction. Skiers and snowboarders will travel miles into the backcountry in search of untouched snow, and shoes specially made for the snow can be a lightweight option for hiking through snow to access these mountain wonders. Backcountry terrain is more advanced than recreational terrain and may require some technical skills for avalanche awareness, climbing, and mountaineering. Models intended for backcountry travel have aggressive traction systems and crampon designs as well as features such as heel lifts for steep ascents. Most backcountry models can be used on beginner to intermediate terrain but also offer technical features for advanced snow travel.
The top pair for backcountry snow travel is the MSR Lightning Ascent.
Running in these shoes allows trail runners to extend their training into the winter months. These models focus on agility, efficiency of stride, light weight, and tapered tails. Running in this manner is typically enjoyed on groomed trails or packed hiking trails. None of the models in our review are specific to this category.
Would you Rather Have Skis?
Getting outside in the winter offers a sense of adventure that extends outside of the ski resort boundaries. Backcountry travel in winter is popular amongst ice climbers, mountaineers, backcountry skiers and snowboarders, cross-country skiers, and those in search of solitude. Access into these remote landscapes can be attained by foot, on backcountry or cross-country skis, split board snowboards, and or shoes specially made for walking on the snow (as tested here).
If you seek to move leisurely, these shoes offer an opportunity to get where you need to go at a slower speed. Models intended for backcountry travel are designed with brake bars and aggressive traction systems to get you up inclines and these can provide superior traction to skis.
Criteria for Evaluation
We trail tested all six pairs in varying conditions in the Rocky Mountains. Our rating metrics cover flotation on snow surfaces, traction on a range of terrain and conditions, ease of use for putting on and taking off, and the security on foot. Each criterion evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each pair and then compares them side-by-side. The chart below displays the overall performance score of each product.
Flotation is measured by how well the shoes keep you on the surface of the snow. The design affects how well it floats. A wide, oval frame provides better flotation in deep snow than a narrow, tapered design. Some designs combine a tapered tail with a wide frame to offer agility and flotation at the same time. We tested flotation in different snow conditions such as spring snow, hard packed snow, and fresh powder snow with depths up to three feet. The models that excel best in deep snow are the ones with the widest frame and longer tails. The MSR Lightning Ascents are ideal for off-trail travel in deep snow and varying conditions. Both the MSR Evo and Tubbs Mountaineer rated high for excellent flotation as well.
Traction is one of the most important considerations. Wide applications of snow travel require traction that is versatile and stabilizing. We measured traction by testing each pair on steep and slick hillsides. We evaluated the stability and support gained from the grip on the bottom of each shoe.
The traction systems on the underside are designed with crampon style teeth and rigid frames to provide optimal support in slippery terrain. Packed snow, inconsistent snowpack, and ice demand traction that will keep you from sliding downhill. While moving along groomed trails, the crampons dig into the snow to keep you from shifting in your step.
The highest rated traction systems in our review are the MSR Lightning Ascent and the MSR Evo. Both styles have crampons under foot, lateral crampons, and brake bars offering traction in a range of conditions and terrain.
Ease of Use
Standing in a snowstorm, anxious to get on the trail, the last thing you want to be worried about is difficult hardware and strap-in features that are challenging to use. We measured ease of use based on how easily they are to put on and adjust at any moment. We looked at how much adjustment is necessary to get them underfoot and secure for an outing. Then we looked at how easy they are to remove at the end of the day. Binding systems are the main moving components that require adjustment. Some bindings resemble snowboard bindings with horizontal buckles and straps that ratchet open and closed. This easiest to use binding system is found on the Alps Performance Lightweight. Another style of bindings is a step in binding that covers the top of your foot. This method requires some adjustment to get a proper fit, requires you to loosen each time you remove the shoes, and has more complex components than the simpler binding systems. Both the Tubbs Mountaineer and the Tubbs Wilderness - Women's have step-in style bindings. Like a belt, the MSR pairs have buckles and rubber strap bindings with perforated holes that align to a metal buckle. These require some adjustment with holding the extended strap out of the way with tabs.
All of the binding systems are suitable for use with gloves on and are easy to use right out of the box. Some require additional adjustment, which lowers the ease of use rating.
Another aspect to ease of use are any additional components such as heel lift bars and asymmetrical designs. The Atlas Elektra 12 - Women's are one of a few models we tested that have heel lift bars, but they are incredibly stiff and therefore lowered the ease of use rating.
Security on Foot
Security on foot depends on two things: bindings and fit. Incredible bindings on a pair that don't fit your feet will not provide security. And likewise, an incredible fit with sub-par bindings will result in less security. A balance between a proper fit and bindings that stay fastened is essential to overall security on your feet while out in the snow. The MSR Evo are unisex, providing a wide range of proper fit for many boots and foot sizes. The bindings are easy to use and remain clasped while in stride. The Tubbs Mountaineer offer the best security on foot of any pair in our review. The step-in binding system requires few adjustments but then remains tightened and secure while walking. The Mountaineers are men's specific and fit well to a larger boot size, but they also come in a women's version. One of our female testers used the men's Mountaineer model while wearing large winter boots and still experienced incredible security.
A pair of snowshoes can open up an entire season for hiking lovers. Choosing the best pair to buy can be confusing yet rewarding, as a pair can add much enjoyment to your winters. Need more help deciding the size and shape to use? Have a look at our Buying Advice article for more tips on the different styles and types available today.
— Briana Valorosi
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