Want to bring your hiking game into winter, but unsure which snowshoes will get you there? We assessed over 40 products and tested the best 8 models available for months of head-to-head testing. Testing was carried out in snowy Wyoming, Colorado, and northern California, where we found all kinds of snowshoeing conditions. Our team of experienced snowshoers set out to find the strengths and weaknesses of each model by traveling packed-out trails and off-trail deep powder alike. Some days were fresh, others were icy, but all gave us insight for a review that cuts through the marketing blather and focuses on real-world performance. Our test metrics hit the essential performance areas for a quality snowshoe, such as how well each model floats in the deep stuff, traction on the ups, downs, and sidehills, and how much or little the shoe affects a natural stride. After 100 hours of use, all our field notes and test results culminated in the review below, aiming to identify the perfect snowshoe for your snow-filled adventures. Ladies, be sure to check out our complete review of women-specific models.
The Best Snowshoes of 2018
Nuking snow storms have been few and far between in the Western US this winter, but other areas of the States have had some doozies. Regardless of snow levels where you are, we continue to maintain this review with the latest and greatest product selection and reviews. Our testers found plenty of snow in northern California to test the latest version of the MSR Lightning Ascent. With improvements to the durability and bite of this model, we confirm that it deserves its reign as Editors' Choice winner at the top of the field.
Best Overall Snowshoe
MSR Lightning Ascent
The stout MSR Lightning Ascent continues to dominate the field of contenders this year. Throughout the testing period, it proved its backcountry prowess time and time again. Versatile across an array of snow conditions? Check. Reliable traction on snow, ice, and slush? Check. Capable in steep stuff? Check. We'll stop there for brevity's sake, but this model simply performs well in any situation we threw it into. The rubber bindings provide easy fine-fitting and secure the foot in place without question. The binding system itself allows for an unparalleled range of motion, too. We liked all the models we tested for one feature or performance area or another, but the Lightning Ascent brings it all together like no other shoe could. For the same high-quality design and features in a lighter, lower-profile model for a narrower gait, check out the women's Lightning Ascent.
Read review: MSR Lightning Ascent
Best Bang for the Buck
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 molded from lightweight, rigid plastic. The simple design and ease of use excel 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 bottomless snow as the flotation gained from a long 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 a natural stride for nearly anyone. 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 make the MSR Evos our Best Buy.
Read review: MSR Evo
Top Pick for Deep Snow
Louis Garneau Blizzard II
For trail breaking in deeper snow, optimized flotation is critical. Flotation, primarily, is a function of "pounds per square inch." You weigh what you weigh, so choosing a larger pair offers more flotation. Choosing the right size, with a whole market full of choices, is challenging. In making our selection we followed the manufacturer's recommendation for each model we chose. It was the Louis Garneau Blizzard II that was the largest we tested. At a reasonable weight, with a very comfortable and easy-to-use binding, the Blizzard gets our recommendation for off-trail and deep snow use.
Read review: Louis Garneau Blizzard II
Top Pick for Trails
TSL Symbioz Elite
Especially as traffic into the winter backcountry increases, it is more and more likely that you may never, or very rarely, step off of traveled tracks. In that case, the largest and best floating shoes aren't necessary. The bulk, weight, and compromised stride of all-around backcountry tools may not be required. For the user traversing mainly packed tracks, the TSL Symbioz Elite is by far the best equipped. The binding is fast and easy, the traction is excellent, and the size is compact. By far the best attribute, for trail use, of the TSL is the flexible deck. While still maintaining some float (though nowhere near as much as stiffer shoes of the same size have), the flexible deck of the TSL provides shock absorption like we've never seen.
Read review: TSL Symbioz Elite
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 a 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. 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. Wide expanses of snow-covered terrain, local trails feet below the surface, 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 trail tested all eight pairs in varying conditions in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, plus some snowy jaunts in the Sierras of California. 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.
Wondering which pair of snowshoes offers the best ratio of overall performance to price? We compared overall score from testing to retail price for all snowshoes in this review. For a great budget-friendly deal, check out the simple and solid MSR Evo ($140). Alternatively, the MSR Lightning Ascent is the best available, but will set you back by $300.
Flotation is measured by how well the shoes keep you on the surface of the snow. Surface area is the prime determinant of flotation. Larger is better, for flotation. The design also affects how well it floats. A rigid, wide, oval frame provides better flotation in deep snow than a flexible, 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 biggest we tested is the Louis Garneau Blizzard II, which took home a score of 10 out of 10 - the best rating a product can earn. Not coincidentally, these are the best floaters. Next is the Crescent Moon Gold 10, which also scored a 10 out of 10. The Crescent Moon is smaller, but also quite a bit narrower. What the Crescent Moon lacks in flotation it makes up for in stride ergonomics.
The MSR Lightning Ascents are almost ideal for off-trail travel in deep snow and varying conditions. Others are bigger, and therefore float better, but for all-around users, the Lightning Ascent is worth pressing into duty in deep snow. Add the optional flotation tails, and the MSR excels. The TSL Symbioz Elite is a unique case. It is the smallest product we tested. It follows that we would expect poorer flotation. What isn't readily apparent, regarding flotation, is that the entire length of the Symbioz is flexible. This is an attribute optimized for walking comfort, especially on hard and crusty snow. The drawback of this, however, is that one's weight is focused in the middle of the length and the flotation ends up even less than what we would expect of rigid snowshoes of the same size. For the terrain and conditions the TSL is designed for, the poor flotation is not a problem. Nonetheless, it is worth noting. The Fimbulvetr Hikr scored an impressive score of 8 out of 10 in the flotation metric - the third highest - but were also the lowest scoring model in our fleet.
After flotation, traction is the most important consideration. Snow is slippery. 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 Atlas Aspect, which took home perfect 10 out of 10s. Both styles have crampons underfoot, lateral crampons, and brake bars offering traction in a range of conditions and terrain. The least gripping snowshoes are the Fimbulvetr Hikr, the Louis Garneau Blizzard II, and the Crescent Moon Gold 10, which scored a 6, 5, and 2, respectively.
Attaching "tennis rackets" to your feet will inevitably impede your stride. There are ways to minimize this impediment. Smaller shoes make a smaller literal "footprint." Larger 'shoes, of course, are more cumbersome and clumsy. In technical terrain, a rigid, hinged connection between binding and deck lends stability and improves climber confidence. On mellower terrain, a strapped, flexible connection between deck and binding provides shock absorption and encourages a slightly more cushioned ride. After decking, bindings, and overall surface area, the final determinant, with debatable and various actual effects, is shape-related design cues. The taper and asymmetry of snowshoes can help to reduce the tripping hazard. In our use and testing, these shape differences help, but the other criteria make a far bigger difference.
Within the stride ergonomics evaluation metric, there are some conflicts. Take, for example, the attachment of binding to the deck. In some settings one method is preferred, we find, while in other situations, the other method is preferred. For that reason, we evaluated the overall design and intention of the product before assessing the Stride Ergonomics value of the binding/deck interface. The MSR Lightning Ascent is designed for rugged terrain, so its hinged attachment is good and this contender earned an 8 out of 10.
The MSR Evo is targeted at users entering more casual terrain, so its hinged binding/deck interface is a detriment - 8 out of 10. The bulk of the features on the Atlas Aspect seem to steer it towards technical terrain, except for the strapped, imprecise binding/deck interface and the stride ergonomics provided earned this pair a 6 out of 10. This generalization on the suitability of the different binding/deck interface options is subject to some opinion and debate. Our test team, with years and years of experience, is in agreement, but others will disagree. For those, the option to choose is great. If you prefer flexible straps for technical terrain, the Atlas Aspect is for you.
Our best trail and firm conditions walking product, the TSL Symbioz Elite is a bit of an outlier. With a small size and flexible deck, we'd expect it to have great stride ergonomics. With a rigid hinged binding/deck attachment, we'd expect some of those advantages to be tempered. Defying our expectations, we had no issues with the trail walking ergonomics of the TSL. For its intended purpose, the TSL Symbioz Elite augments your stride ergonomics better than any other in our test, earning it an 8 out of 10. Another high scorer for this metric includes the Tubbs Flex Vrt, which scored the only 9 out of 10 for stride ergonomics.
The most comfortable bindings spread the force of retention over a broad area. To do so securely is a bit of a trick. The most comfortable bindings were the least secure, and vice versa. The soft straps of the Fimbulvetr Hikr are very comfortable but by far the least secure, earning a 4 out of 10. Next, the twist-lock "Boa" style tension systems of the Louis Garneau Blizzard and Tubbs Flex Vrt are quite comfortable, and they earned 8 out of 10s. They are secure enough for moderately steep and technical terrain. The proprietary, unique systems on the Crescent Moon Gold 10 are fairly comfortable (7 out of 10), while the TSL Symbioz Elite earned the highest score for this metric.
In soft boots and trail shoes, the rubbery straps of the MSR Evo, MSR Lightning Ascent, and Atlas Aspect can impede circulation and cause pressure points, thus earning these contenders lower binding comfort scores. In stiffer snowboard and mountaineering boots, this isn't a problem but is worth noting for softer boots.
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. 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.
Bindings get better and better with time, and easy to use systems currently look very different from one another. There isn't one clear winner for ease of use. The TSL Symbioz's bindings are the most complicated to set up initially but snap easily on and off once that initial set up is complete. The MSR Evo, MSR Lightning Ascent, and Atlas Aspect bindings pack compactly and work reliably in all sorts of conditions and on all boots, while the Crescent Moon Gold 10 scored the highest score in the ease of use metric. The BOA systems of the Tubbs Flex Vrt and Louis Garneau Blizzard seem gimmicky but are actually quite slick. The only one we had trouble with, concerning ease of use, was the Fimbulvetr Hikr. The simple nylon straps and plastic ladder-lock buckles are finicky to set up and collect ice more than any of the others.
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 Atlas Aspect, MSR Evo, and MSR Lightning Ascent offer the best security on foot of any pair in our review, earning perfect 10 out of 10s.
The hybrid systems on the Crescent Moon Gold and TSL Symbioz Elite snowshoes are as secure as necessary. The BOA bindings on the Louis Garneau Blizzard and Tubbs Flex Vrt stay on in all but the most extreme terrain. The Fimbulvetr Hikr's nylon strapped bindings slip around and fall off entirely after a few minutes of use, even with the most aggressive tightening, thus earning a 5 out of 10.
Best for Specific Applications
- Deep snow: Louis Garneau Blizzard II or Crescent Moon Backcountry Gold 10
- Spring snow: MSR Lightning Ascent, Atlas Aspect, or Tubbs Flex VRT.
- Groomed trails: TSL Symbioz Elite
- Steep terrain: Tubbs Flex VRT or MSR Lightning Ascent
- Walking the dog: MSR Evo or Fimbulvetr Hikr
- Sharing with family members or friends: MSR Evo
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.
— Jediah Porter