Detailed Guide for Selecting Snowshoes


  1. Questions to ask yourself before selecting a snowshoe.
  2. Snow and terrain conditions.
  3. General activity type with suggested snowshoe model.
  4. Does size matter?
  5. Frames and Decking.
  6. Connecting the decking to the frame.
  7. Claws/Cleat Crampons used for traction.
  8. Heel Lift Bars.
  9. Binding Rotation Styles.
  10. Binding Fit.
  11. F.A.Q’s.

1.  Questions to ask yourself before selecting a snowshoe.

  • How much will you weigh when snowshoeing (body weight + clothes, gear and equipment)?
  • What snow conditions will you be in; deep, dry Utah powder or heavy, wet Washington State snow?
  • What will you be doing on your snowshoes?  What will the terrain be like?  Will you be on packed trails, off the beaten track, climbing up step terrain, etc?

The two biggest factors are snow conditions and your weight, including any pack/gear you may be carrying. It is best to wear the shortest shoe that will still provide you with enough flotation. The shorter the shoe, the easier it is to maneuver. To select a snowshoe size that is right for you, see the fitting chart below. It has been in use longer than any other. Your selection will be a compromise purchase because no snowshoe works best under all conditions. Even so, you will be satisfied that you have chosen the model best for you.

Fitting Chart: Select the smallest snowshoe that can handle your typically load (your combined body and pack weight)

8″X20″ Child to 150 lbs. Child to 125 lbs.
8″X25″ 100 lbs. to 175 lbs. 50 lbs. to 150 lbs.
9″X30″ 150 lbs. to 210 lbs. 125 lbs. to 200 lbs.
9″X34″ 200 lbs. to 275 lbs. 175 lbs. to 250 lbs.
10″X37″ 250 lbs. to 350 lbs. 200 lbs. to 350 lbs.

2.  Snow and Terrain Conditions.

Consider that you may need a little larger snowshoe in light fluffy powder conditions then you would in heavier, wetter snow.  On the same note, walking on packed trails would not require as large a snowshoe as would plunging through snowdrifts.

Wet Snow: Snow that has gone through repeated melt-freeze cycles, often called Corn Snow. Under Corn Snow, or Melt-Freeze conditions, a crust forms on the surface that is able to support more weight when frozen, but will turn to slush when the temperatures rise.

Dry Snow: has little or no liquid water content and is therefore less dense than average, and not sticky. Less dense means there will be more air pockets between the snow crystals.

3.  General Activity Type with Suggested Snowshoe Model.

Aerobic/Running – small and light not intended for backcountry use.

  • Atlas Race and Run Snowshoes
  • Crescent Moon Gold Series 12

Recreational/Trailwalking – a bit larger, intended for gentle to moderate use.

  • Atlas and Elektra 9 Series and 10 Series
  • Crescent Moon Gold Series 9

Mountaineering/Backcountry/Expedition/Adventure – intended for serious hill-climbing, long distance trips and off-trail use.

  • Atlas and Elektra 11 Series and 12 Series
  • Crescent Moon Gold Series 10
  • Crescent Moon Gold Series 13 – Women’s
  • Crescent Moon Gold Series 15 – Women’s
  • Crescent Moon Gold Series 17 – Expedition
  • MSR Men’s and Women’s 22” and 25” Lightning Ascent
  • MSR Denali Evo Ascent

4.  Does Size Matter?

You bet size matters! Most people who have never snowshoed believe they will float on top of the snow with snowshoes. As a result, larger sizes are mistakenly selected. Actually in deep powder you will sink no matter what you wear. The fact is that a smaller snowshoe is often better. You get the greatest gains by selecting the smallest snowshoe that will handle your maximum load.

For example, take Pete O’gear he weighs 180lbs. with a pack and fully dressed for winter. In powder snow, Pete will sink 20 inches, up to his knees, on a 10″x36″ snowshoe. If Pete were to use a smaller 8″x24″ snowshoe, he would sink 24 inches. In the smaller snowshoe Pete sinks 4” further then the larger ones. However, the smaller snowshoe is almost 1/2 the weight of the larger pair.

So which snowshoe is better in this case? The smaller snowshoe is preferable, even though Pete sinks further; he has less weight to lift on each step. In fact, he has 40% (24″/12″/ft x 4 lbs = 8 ft. lbs vs. 13 ft. lbs. = 20″/12″/ft x 8 lbs) less energy expenditure on each step. The example shows that minimum energy expenditure is the criterion for judging snowshoes, not flotation.

5.  Frames and Decking.

Frames: In the old days frames were constructed of wood and some manufacturers of today are reintroducing that traditional style.  However, many of the modern snowshoes made today are constructed with an aluminum frame, either as one solid piece, like MSR’s, or constructed of an aluminum tubing, such as with Atlas and Crescent Moon.

Decking: In the past, snowshoes were laced with full-grain rawhide in a crosshatch pattern.  This pattern added traction and helped prevent snow from accumulating on the shoe.  However, these traditional (old school) shoes did not come with toe crampon cleats. Today’s modern shoe decking material is typically synthetic, made from Hypalon or Rubber Coated Nylon.  This material is flexible, forgiving, cold resistant and lightweight.

6.  Connecting the Decking to the Frame.

Lacing: This is far more time consuming and rare but yields increased traction. Lacing is wrapped around the frame and woven through holes in the deck, alternating between the two to provide a tight bond. This method provides excellent traction around the perimeter of the frame. Patterned after wooden snowshoe lacing, synthetic polymers provide a high performance choice. Look for thick, rectangular extruded lace for maximum cleat-like action.

Wrap and rivet: Some snowshoes have their deck fabric wrapped around the frame and then riveted to itself. Generally the pieces are spaced about 4 to 6 inches apart, leaving a gap of exposed aluminum. This creates a clean, sharp looking shoe, especially with the brightly colored frames on the market. The down side to this arrangement is with all the slick frame surface exposed to the snow, overall traction can be diminished. Look for claws directly under the frame that protect the wrap and add traction.

7.  Claws/Cleat Crampons used for Traction.

The next piece of the snowshoe puzzle addresses the issue of traction. Nearly all shoes today come equipped with either aluminum, steel or, in some cases, titanium claws or cleats. These are mounted to the rotating binding and generally the rear of the deck as well. Aluminum is the most common and offers a fine combination of durability, weight and performance. For maximum durability, stainless steel is the leader of the pack. Chose this type of claw if your travels will take you over rocks, stream beds or an occasional plowed road.

Rear claws are standard on many snowshoes today. These offer more traction when climbing or descending, depending on the depth of the claw. Taken a bit further, think about traversing a steep slope. Most front claws are oriented perpendicular to the center line of the snowshoe which helps to grip when moving forward. In a side slope, however, claws that are positioned along the major axis, if deep enough, will add the necessary traction preventing the downhill shoe from sliding out from underneath you.

8.  Heel Lift Bars.

On steep climbs a heel lift bar can be flipped up so that your foot better matches the slope angle. This will aid in decreasing the strain on the calf muscle and the Achilles. In addition, it will aid in energy conservation.

9.  Binding Rotation Styles.

Fixed Rotation: Fixed rotation snowshoes are better for packed trails and running. Some snowshoers like the feel of the snowshoe picking up off the ground on packed trails with fixed rotation. Backing up in deep snow is also easier with a fixed rotation snowshoe because the tail does not get stuck. Runners like fixed rotation because it keeps the snowshoe close to the foot while running.

The limitation of fixed rotation in backcountry snowshoeing is that rotation beyond the fixed rotation point will lift the heel of the snowshoe off the ground with snow on it. In deep backcountry snowshoeing, the snow on both sides of the hole that the snowshoe makes falls in on top of the snowshoe. This means added weight and increased energy expenditure. Also, the snowshoe snaps up at the fixed rotation point. This throws cold snow down the back of the neck and onto the head.

Free or Floating Rotation: Free rotation snowshoes are better for backcountry snowshoeing. Free rotation transfers the weight of the snowshoe with the snow on it to the ground for minimum total energy expenditure. Vertical climbing is easier with free rotation because on steep ascents, the snow shoe rotates down and becomes parallel to the vertical ground surface, permitting the claw to bite and grip the surface, unlike fixed rotation which would render the claw less useful in this situation.

The limitation of free rotation is that on packed trails the tail drags on the ground. In powder snow, when approaching a dead fall or other objects that must be avoided, extra activity is required to back up, such as turning the snowshoe on its side so the tail does not dig in or totally reversing direction of one foot at a time. The limitation of free rotation when running is that the snowshoe does not remain close to foot and most runners will want to know where their snowshoe is at all times.

Variable Rotation: Variable rotation snowshoes are, as you may have guessed, a partial combination of fixed and free rotation principles. Variable rotation snowshoes are better for combined packed trail use and backcountry use. With variable rotation, the snowshoe automatically picks up off the ground on a packed trail. Yet, in deeper snow, the weight of the snow on the snowshoe keeps the tail on the ground. This transfers the weight of the snowshoe with the snow on it to the ground for minimum total energy expenditure. Variable rotation replaces snowshoe snap with progressively increasing resistance which reduces thrown snow by about 50%. Also, when running, the variable rotation replaces snowshoe ‘slap’ with a ‘kiss’ touch to the foot which is more natural and feels lighter.

The limitation of variable rotation is that the bushings which take the wear on the system may eventually need to be replaced. However, in three seasons of use, only athletes training daily have had enough wear to change their bushings.

10.  Binding Fit.

Bindings come in a variety of shapes, materials and even colors. Fortunately, the advice for bindings is pretty simple if you follow a couple simple guidelines to ensure you find a binding that fits properly and ultimately allows you to enjoy your snowshoeing outing.

Snug Fit: The bindings should wrap snuggly around your foot, but not cinched overly tight. They should solidly grasp the boots/shoes that you will be wearing for snowshoeing.

Comfort: Comfort is important. Remember, you may have these strapped to your feet for several hours. Make sure they are snug, but also that you are comfortable when strapped in and moving along.

Slippage: Slippage is when your boot moves around in the snowshoe binding, either initially or after some use. Slippage is BAD. Not only will you have to deal with the annoyance of having to correct/refit your shoe while snowshoeing, it will increase your energy expenditure.  It some unique cases, it has lead to shoe/binding wear.

Ease of use: This may be an obvious point but as you see the many binding types on the market, you will rapidly notice that many of them are not really easy to use. Remember, you will be putting on and taking off your snowshoes in cold weather, in snow, perhaps with your gloves on. Something that will allow you to snugly secure your foot without having to do an on snow Yoga routine or remove your gloves in cold weather is usually a very good thing.

11.  F.A.Q’s.

Why does snow flip off the tail?

This is an effect of a loaded binding that provides for a more natural stride.

How can a snowshoe that is narrower in the tail provide the same floatation?

Approximately 85% of the flotation on any snowshoe occurs beneath the area surrounding the ball of the foot, the toe and tail of the shoe, regardless of its configuration.  If the snowshoe is balanced and symmetrical, from tail to toe and side to side, then the weight distribution across the deck of the snowshoe will occur equally.

References: and

2 thoughts on “Detailed Guide for Selecting Snowshoes

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