Snowshoe Buying Advice

I received an e-mail today from my sister, soliciting some showshoe buying advice.

Hubby & I would like to get snowshoes this year, but looking at the MEC site I’m not sure what type we should get. There’s “trail”, “mountain” and “off trail”. We want these primarily for getting around our farmland and possibly out at the cabin. If we really get into it, maybe some mountain trails… and here’s a stupid question, do you need any particular footwear or just winter boots? I’ve got my winter boots, but Hubby doesn’t have any (yet). Will the bindings need to be fitted to a particular boot or are they fairly adjustable. All new territory for me.

In the interest of making the world a better place I decided I would share my response…

You probably want those big wooden snowshoes that are 4 feet long and weigh 40 pounds. Just kidding. Maybe.

Choices, Choices

Here are the definitions for MEC’s snowshoe categories (I had to write these, because MEC does not provide these definitions on their site):

  • Trail are smaller and nimbler, but less supportive on snow, less robust, less secure, have less traction, etc. Not meant for too much up and down. This category might include “jogging/running” snowshoes, which never made sense to me. Probably not what you want.
  • Off-trail are larger and more supportive as well as more robust — an all-around shoe. These should have good built-in crampons under the ball and heel of the foot and possibly a heel lift for travel in steeper terrain.
  • Mountain, similar to off-trail but intended for climbing approaches and steeper terrain, so will have the most robust binding. Will have a heel lift which allows your foot to assume a flat footfall position even on steep ascents, thus saving your calve muscles. Good crampons too.

To make things more confusing, there are women’s snowshoes. Probably a little lighter and or smaller in general. And cute kids shoes too.

One key element, besides the terrain where you will be using them, is flotation. As described on the MEC site:

Flotation provided by a shoe varies with the surface area of the decking. The amount of flotation you require depends on your weight (in your winter boots and all your layers), the weight of your pack, and the snow conditions. You need more flotation in freshly fallen powder than in wet, heavy snow. Depending on conditions, there can be as much as 70kg of variation for the same shoe.

Merrell Women's Thermo Arc 8 Waterproof
Merrell Women’s Thermo Arc 8 Waterproof

Boots for Snowshoeing (or should that be Snowbooting?)

Any of the slightly more technically-oriented winter boots that MEC carries should be fine (like these Merrells). Snowshoe bindings use plastic or rubber straps to secure to a wide range of foot sizes and boot shapes. I use heavy leather backpacking boots in which I can get a large pair of warm socks. My wife uses smaller Sorel boots. My big “-70°” Wind River winter boots would probably be too clumsy and hard to fit in the bindings. It would be a good idea to take your boots with you when buying the shoes.

My Top Snowshoe Picks

My wife and I have MSR Evo 22 snowshoes. These have a plastic deck and are very light. There are several Evo models with the only difference being the bindings. We have the Ascent version which has the most secure binding, but is a bit slower to use. The Tour binding looks good too — the toe strap is set once for your boot size and then you just slip your toe in on subsequent uses so it is a bit faster to put on. The generic Evo binding version doesn’t seem as secure and lacks a heel lift.

MSR Evo Ascent 22 Snowshoes
MSR Evo Ascent 22 Snowshoes

(Technical aside: The Ascent straps and back two Tour straps are the same, but if you compare them closely in the store you will see a small difference. The Tours are supplied with a  little aluminium stud which helps keep the strap from coming undone or flopping around. The Ascent used to come with these studs but they don’t anymore. You can get the MSR field maintenance kit which comes with three studs and put those studs on critial/problem straps, or you can just get the Evo Tour binding. The plastic strap keepers on the Ascent are okay, but studs are better in my experience. Regardless, I would get the maintenance kit anyway so you have some spare parts.)

Evo are a unisex 22 inch shoe and have very good flotation and traction. MSR also sell a tail extension which increase the length by 6″, thus improving flotation. We have these but don’t always use them. They are best for powdery snow or when carrying a big pack. I use them more often than my wife because I am heavier. Hubby would probably benefit from them.

I have also seen the MSR Lightning in action. Seems like a good shoe. These have an aluminium side rail which also functions as a traction device, and is covered with a rubber deck. Binding options are the same as the Evo line, but the Ascent are available in 22″ and 25″ versions and men’s and women’s -specific models. Extension tails (5″) are also available for Lightnings. Lightenings are a few grams lighter and more expensive than Evos.

MSR Lightning Ascent 22 Snowshoes
MSR Lightning Ascent 22 Snowshoes

The U of C Outdoor Centre rents out Lightenings. MEC also does rentals so you can probably try-before-you buy. I think the cost of one rental can be credited towards your purchase once you decide what to get. I’d probably rent from MEC since you would buy there anyway.

The other brand MEC carries is Atlas, with which I have no experience.

(Maintenance tip: it is a good idea to rinse and dry your snowshoes off thoroughly before putting them away in storage. Most components are rust-proof, but the crampons are generally of some ferrous metal and will rust. Think of it this way — the last thing you usually do at the end of a hike is walk to your car though a parking area that probably has at least some corrosive road salt deposited on it.)

I don’t know why, but any of the snowshoe designs that use tubular frames have never appealed to me.

Poles for Snowshoing (Or should that be Snowpoling?)

And now to add to the confusion, you probably want some snowshoe poles too.

Black Diamond Traverse Poles
Black Diamond Traverse Poles

The adjustable Black Diamond Traverse poles are probably quite good (I have an older  version which I love):

I like Black Diamond because of their FlickLock cam adjustment device. Doesn’t jam and doesn’t slip. Easy to use with gloves on.

The Voilé Backcountry Poles have three sections so they collapse down to 65cm versus 95cm for the Black Diamonds, which is nice if trunk or storage space is at a premium or if you want to stash the poles in your pack on some gnarly terrain.

Other Accessories

Finally, I would buy bags to store your snowshoes and poles. We have one of each of the MSR and older MEC bags. They are both good. MSR is more padded, but older MEC is longer and fits Evo with extension tails installed. The new 2013 MEC bag comes in three lengths.

Final Thoughts

Snowshoeing can be a lot of fun and a great way to get outside when it is cold and all you want to do is hibernate. I used to really dislike snowshoers.

When the snowshoeing “fad” started my impression was that it was opening up the winter terrain to a bunch of inexperienced and uneducated yahoos who were walking all over the cross-country ski tracks and ruining the trails. I started snowshoeing with my wife as a way to get into places that were a bit beyond her novice skiing ability (as she gets more skiing experience). Snowshoes are at their best when used to go places you just wouldn’t go on skis — canyons, heavily wooded hills — and in marginal snow conditions.

I still get erked when snowshoers ruin the ski tracks, so please, if you are going to start snowshoeing, please take some time to familiarize yourself with backcountry etiquette first.

  • Don’t walk or snowshoe on ski tracks.
  • Don’t park on the trail (move to the side to take a break).
  • Keep the trails clean.
  • Leave the dog at home.
  • Yield to skiers coming downhill.
  • When nature calls, completely burn or carry out used paper and sanitary supplies.

And finally, make sure you make the day out in winter wonderland an enjoyable one by having plenty of warm clothes, some snacks, warm tea, and appropriate safety equipment along. Albert Parks has published a good backcountry winter survival guide, because knowledge is the best defence.

And now, let’s go snowshoeing!