The Best Snowshoe Review

The MSR Evos (left) and the MSR Lightning Ascents (right) both reign from MSRs reputable outdoor gear. Similarities include the easy to use bindings and range of motion offered by the decking. Differences include the applications; the Evos are ideal for recreation and the Lightning Ascents are ideal in backcountry terrain.
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.

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Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:

Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
November 11, 2014

Best Overall Snowshoe


MSR Lightning Ascent


MSR Lightning Ascent Editors' Choice Award

Price:   $290 online
Compare at 5 sellers


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Our Editors' Choice Award goes to the backcountry-oriented MSR Lightning Ascent for their versatility in all snow conditions and terrain. The aggressive traction system remains gripped in a range of applications from steep snow to slick slopes to groomed trails. We love the lightweight oval frames that offer incredible flotation in deep snow while also remaining easy to use on moderate terrain. Three rubber binding straps cross over the top of the foot to meet metal buckles along the outer foot. A rubber heel strap secures the back of each foot and stays in place for unrestricted movement. The range of motion provided by the binding design is unparalleled. Regardless of the snow conditions, the Lightning Ascents provide excellent flotation, traction, ease of use, and security on foot. And if you're looking for this snow shoe in a lighter, lower-profile for a narrower gait check out the Lightning Ascent- Women's.

Best Bang for the Buck


MSR Evo


MSR Evo Best Buy Award

Price:   $140 online
Compare at 3 sellers


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The MSR Evo earn our Best Buy award. These affordable shoes function well in various snow conditions. The construction design is different from all of the other pairs we tested with a UniBody deck made from lightweight plastic. The simple design and ease of use excels for beginners, yet provides technical features such as a lateral crampon for those looking to venture into the backcountry. The Evos come in a single 22" size that is not suited for really deep snow as the flotation gained from a longer tail is lacking. Add-on flotation tails are an optional accessory that would add 6" to the tail length for better flotation. Because of their short frame length and shape, they offer stability with or without poles. We favor the MSR Evos for trail travel and light off-trail use. All those features at a price nearly $100 less than the other award winning pairs makes the MSR Evos our Best Buy!

Top Pick for Both Recreational and Backcountry Use


Tubbs Mountaineer


Tubbs Mountaineer Top Pick Award

Price:   Varies from $228 - $270 online
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The Tubbs Mountaineer earn our Top Pick award for their versatility in both backcountry and recreational applications. They lack the lightweight and technical features of the MSR Lightning Ascents, but are suitable for deep snow traversing and intermediate slopes. The ActiveFit+ binding systems cover the top of the forefoot and toes with a single panel and then secure with two horizontal straps at the top of each side of the binding. This design offers incredible security on the foot. The Mountaineers are bulkier in size and weight than other models in our review, and therefore not recommended for small builds, but a women's version is available for a smaller frame size and weight. These are available in the longest sizes with some of the highest optimal weight loads per size. For people hiking with heavy weight loads (including pack weight) or intending to travel in deep snow off-trail, the Tubbs Mountaineers are excellent! These great snow shoes are also available in a women's specific model; check out the Women's Mountaineer.

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.

All of the test models lined up and ready to get out on the trail. Top to bottom  clockwise: Atlas Elektra 12  Tubbs Wilderness  MSR Evo  MSR Lightning Ascent  Alps Performance Lightweight  Tubbs Mountaineer.
All of the test models lined up and ready to get out on the trail. Top to bottom, clockwise: Atlas Elektra 12, Tubbs Wilderness, MSR Evo, MSR Lightning Ascent, Alps Performance Lightweight, Tubbs Mountaineer.

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



Hiking Boots
Hiking boots in the winter will only allow you to comfortably access well maintained trails that are packed by foot or groomed. They are designed with rubber soles that have deep lug patterns for maintaining traction in diverse trail conditions such as mud, gravel, wood chips, and grass. However, these boots do not grip as well on snow or ice. Hiking boots sink deeper into snow as a result of the small surface area; the deeper you sink into the snow, the less stable you will feel with each step. These are not the footwear of choice in deep snow. When dirt and rocks are still visible through the snow in early and late winter conditions, and flotation is not a huge issue, waterproof hiking boots are preferable.

Winter Boots
Sorel Caribou
Winter boots also work well on groomed trails, and because of the high ankle shafts, can be worn in deep snow, but they lack the surface area to keep the walker on top of the snow. Winter boots are warmer than hiking boots and will keep the wearer drier, but they are clunkier and less agile than hiking boots. Winter boots tend to have good traction in snow but can still be slippery on ice. These are ideal for wearing with snowshoes when flotation is needed.

Snowshoes
MSR Evo
Using this type of footwear allows you to hike on the same trails that you can in hiking boots, but also expands the access to off-trail exploration, including deep snow. They can do this because the surface area is four to five times larger than hiking boots alone. Surface area correlates to flotation: the greater surface area, the greater flotation in deep snow, and they keep you as close to the surface of the snow as possible. They can manage some off-snow terrain but will be worn out quickly on dirt and rock and are best reserved for snow conditions of 1 foot or deeper.

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.

Types


Though many shoes can be used for multiple applications, there are three main types tailored to specific winter outings.

Recreational Use


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.

Snowshoeing is a low impact aerobic activity to get you out of the house in the winter months. The Tubbs Mountaineer snowshoes and MSR Evo snowshoes are both great introductory options for packed snow and groomed trails.
Snowshoeing is a low impact aerobic activity to get you out of the house in the winter months. The Tubbs Mountaineer snowshoes and MSR Evo snowshoes are both great introductory options for packed snow and groomed trails.

Backcountry Travel


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.

Full rotation bindings allow your feet to step up without restriction  which is important when going off-trail in the backcountry. The MSR Evos were among our favorite for unrestricted stepping.
Full rotation bindings allow your feet to step up without restriction, which is important when going off-trail in the backcountry. The MSR Evos were among our favorite for unrestricted stepping.

Running


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).

Skis
Cross-country skiing is an enjoyable way to enjoy backcountry access in the winter. It can be faster than snowshoeing  though skis will have less uphill traction.
Cross-country skiing is an enjoyable way to enjoy backcountry access in the winter. It can be faster than snowshoeing, though skis will have less uphill traction.
Skis allow you to move into the backcountry at a quick and easy pace and they allow for a quick descent that requires some technical skill. However, skiing can also be really fun. Many backcountry travelers will be heading into the mountains with the sole purpose of skiing. But, if you are simply looking for the best method of travel in the backcountry, cross-country skis or snowshoes are both viable options. If you wish to move quickly and efficiently, consider skis as a better option for backcountry access. Unless you have skins on the bottom of your skis, uphill travel can be difficult and there will be less traction than with the crampons found on snowshoes. Descending will be much faster.


Snowshoes
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.
New to winter recreation? Seek out groomed or packed trails. Many hiking trails are maintained or packed out for winter hikers.
New to winter recreation? Seek out groomed or packed trails. Many hiking trails are maintained or packed out for winter hikers.
They are compact and lightweight, so when you get into terrain that no longer requires the use of flotation, you can simply take them off and put them in a backpack. For mountaineering, access into the backcountry is intended to take you to the base of a route for climbing or ascending a mountain. When it comes time to take off your flotation, snowshoes can be much easier to manage than a pair of long skis. They will not offer a quick descent, although the technical skills required are minimal to none.

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.

Flotation


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.

Snowshoes keep you close to the surface of the snow so that you spend less energy and hike farther. Here is a comparison of how deep a snowshoe sinks relative to how far a winter boot sinks. Both are imprinted from the same body size and boots.
Snowshoes keep you close to the surface of the snow so that you spend less energy and hike farther. Here is a comparison of how deep a snowshoe sinks relative to how far a winter boot sinks. Both are imprinted from the same body size and boots.

Traction


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.

The crampons on the Alps Performance Lightweight collect snow which hinders traction and stability.
The crampons on the Alps Performance Lightweight collect snow which hinders traction and stability.

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.

The Tubbs Wilderness with step-in bindings. Women's models have a narrower gait than the unisex models  and our female testers found themselves kicking the instep often. A unisex model would have been just as fitting as the women's model.
The Tubbs Wilderness with step-in bindings. Women's models have a narrower gait than the unisex models, and our female testers found themselves kicking the instep often. A unisex model would have been just as fitting as the women's model.

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.

Three binding straps provides security on and off the trail  although we found them excessive. Because of the sturdy rubber and metal components  two binding straps would be suitable.
Three binding straps provides security on and off the trail, although we found them excessive. Because of the sturdy rubber and metal components, two binding straps would be suitable.

Conclusion


The MSR Evos (left) and the MSR Lightning Ascents (right) both reign from MSRs reputable outdoor gear. Similarities include the easy to use bindings and range of motion offered by the decking. Differences include the applications; the Evos are ideal for recreation and the Lightning Ascents are ideal in backcountry terrain.
The MSR Evos (left) and the MSR Lightning Ascents (right) both reign from MSRs reputable outdoor gear. Similarities include the easy to use bindings and range of motion offered by the decking. Differences include the applications; the Evos are ideal for recreation and the Lightning Ascents are ideal in backcountry terrain.

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
Helpful Buying Tips
The MSR Lightning Ascent earn our Editors' Choice award. They are lightweight and offer all of the technical features you expect in a solid backcountry pair.
 How to Choose the Best Snowshoes

by Briana Valorosi

Unbiased.