Related: Best Snowshoes for Women
The Best Snowshoes of 2019
|Price||$299.95 at Amazon||$129.95 at Amazon|
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|Pros||Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, traction, flotation||Good traction, and an easy-to-use, comfortable binding||Large, with unique hybrid hinged deck/binding interface||Fully featured for steep and technical use||Inexpensive, simple, reliable|
|Cons||New binding trades ease-of-use for comfort||Mediocre flotation for the length, strapped deck/binding attachment||Limited traction||Loud decking and bulky harness||Loud decking on crusty snow|
|Bottom Line||The best snowshoes in our test, complete with high end features and simple engineering.||This is a great traditional snowshoe that's outshone in a few areas by newer designs.||All-around snowshoes optimized for off-trail and deep snow performance.||This contender provides excellent traction, heel lifts, a comfortable binding, and moderate weight.||The latest in a long line of innovative, molded snowshoes; they are reliable, inexpensive, and have widespread appeal.|
|Rating Categories||MSR Lightning Ascent||Atlas Montane||Louis Garneau Blizzard II||Tubbs Flex VRT||MSR Evo|
|Stride Ergonomics (20%)|
|Binding Comfort (10%)|
|Ease Of Use (10%)|
|Binding Security (10%)|
|Specs||MSR Lightning Ascent||Atlas Montane||Louis Garneau...||Tubbs Flex VRT||MSR Evo|
|Uses||Spring snow and steep terrain||Spring snow and moderate terrain||Deep snow||Spring snow and steep terrain||Spring snow and moderate terrain|
|Optimum weight loads per tested size. Per manufacturer.||120-220 lbs||25: 120-200 lbs, 30: 150-250 lbs, 35: 180-300+ lbs||150-250 lbs||up to 190 lbs||up to 180 lbs|
|Weight (per pair)||4 lbs 0 oz||4 lbs 7 oz||5 lbs 6 oz||4 lbs 9 oz||3 lbs 9 oz|
|Surface Area||188.5 sq in||176 sq in||282 sq in||179.4 sq in||173.8 sq in|
|Dimensions||25x8 in||25x8 in||31x10 in||24x8 in||22x8 in|
|Crampon/Traction aids||Steel crampon augmented with rail and frame teeth||Steel crampon augmented with traction rails||Steel crampon||Steel crampon augmented with traction rails||Steel crampon augmented with traction rails|
|Frame material||Aluminum||Aluminum||Aluminum||Steel traction rails||Steel traction rails|
|Deck material||Fabric||Nytex fabric||LG "Lightec" fabric||Molded plastic||Molded plastic|
|Binding/Deck Connection||Hinged||Strapped||Hybrid Hinged and Strapped||Hinged||Hinged|
|Binding system||Rubber Straps with pin-in-hole||Nylon straps with cam buckles, rubber strap with plastic buckle||Boa||Boa||Rubber Straps with pin-in-hole|
|Flotation tails sold separately?||Yes||No||No||No||Yes|
|Men's and Women's versions?||Women's version avalible||Women's version avalible||Women's version avalible||Women's version avalible||Unisex version|
|Sizes Available||22, 25, 30||25, 30, 35||825, 930, 1036||24, 28||One Size|
|Tested Size||25||25||930||24||One Size|
Best Overall Snowshoe
MSR Lightning Ascent
The redesigned MSR Lightning Ascent continues to dominate the field of contenders. In all testing conditions, it proved it's prowess. It provides reliable traction on snow, ice, slush, and even the occasional bit of exposed rock. It's the model our testers reached for on steep or technical terrain. The new binding system is incredibly secure and more comfortable than previous iterations. We liked all the models we tested for one feature or performance area or another, but the Lightning Ascent brings it all together as no other shoe could.
Our only gripe with the new version is with the straps that control the rubber webbing securing the forefoot. The tail of the strap seems unnecessarily short, making it challenging to adjust or remove, especially with gloves on. We wish this strap was a bit longer. That concern notwithstanding, this is our favorite model.
Read review: MSR Lightning Ascent
Best Bang for the Buck
Many backpackers will have a hard time believing that you can shell out less than $100 for a new pair of snowshoes, but it's true! The Chinook Trekker goes for an astoundingly affordable price. For that low price, you get more flotation (as measured in square inches) than any model of the same length. As for walking comfort, the Trekker was right in the middle of the pack, not great, but not too bad.
In other metrics, we got what we paid for. Traction was bad on anything more than the most gentle of slopes. The binding was quite old-fashioned; we wouldn't want to rely on it to get us back to the car from any place remote. Nevertheless, this model is a great value for the occasional dog walk or someone who wants to have a spare pair for when their mother-in-law is in town.
Read review: Chinook Trekker
Top Pick for Deep Snow
Louis Garneau Blizzard II
For trail breaking in deeper snow, optimized flotation is critical. Primarily this is a function of "pounds per square inch." You weigh what you weigh, so choosing a larger pair offers more flotation. In making our selection, we followed the manufacturer's recommendation for each model we chose. The Louis Garneau Blizzard II is the largest model recommended by a manufacturer for our test weight. So it gets our recommendation for off-trail and deep snow use. It sports a comfortable and easy to use binding and a reasonable weight.
Our testers thought the Blizzard II left something to be desired when it came to traction. Though it's generous size is a boon for float, it compromises a comfortable stride. If you're often dealing with fresh, deep, or powdery snow on flat or moderate ground, this is the model for you.
Read review: Louis Garneau Blizzard II
Top Pick for Trails
TSL Symbioz Elite
There was a time when most snowshoes were being used by hardy mountain folk venturing off the beaten path. With the growth in popularity of winter outdoor recreation, a lot of outdoors-people are snowshoeing on groomed trails or tracks where flotation is no longer the overriding consideration. The TSL Symbioz Elite provides excellent traction for icy groomers. The deck is relatively small and also flexible, both qualities make it a pleasure to hike with on hard-packed trails.
These same characteristics are the enemies of good flotation. For hikers who aren't looking to reenact The Revenant and just want a snowshoe that's not cumbersome to walk in, go with the Symbioz Elite.
Read review: TSL Symbioz Elite
Why You Should Trust Us
Author Ian McEleney is an AMGA certified Alpine Guide. He spends numerous days each year traveling on snow and has logged hundreds of thousands of vertical feet guiding while wearing snowshoes all over the country, including in the High Sierra and the Alaska Range. Jediah Porter is an internationally licensed AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guide. He has guided hundreds of clients in winter environments and helped them select gear and clothing that was right for their trips.
Hours of research into current models on the market led to the selection of 10 models for our side-by-side test. Testing took place in the Sierra Nevada, Tetons, and the Alaska Range. We made short approach hikes to technical ice climbs, taught winter mountaineering courses, climbed high peaks (including Denali) and strolled the local cross-country trails. We often traded models with our clients to get their opinion on specific features.
Related: How We Tested Snowshoes
Analysis and Test Results
Humans have been using snowshoes for thousands of years and for good reason — walking through deep snow with just boots on your feet is miserable! Most hikers enjoy three seasons: spring, summer, and fall. When the first big storm of the winter strikes the hiking gear is packed away until next year. Snowshoes allow for a similar experience of the outdoors in the winter season, and require little skill beyond what any hiker of moderate experience already knows. This accessibility is one of the reasons that snowshoeing 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 are 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 are accessible with a little extra flotation. 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?
Related: Buying Advice for Snowshoes
Wondering which model offers the best ratio of overall performance to price? We compared the overall score from testing to the retail price for all products in this review. For a great budget-friendly deal, check out the Chinook Trekker. Alternatively, the MSR Lightning Ascent is the best available, but also one of the most expensive.
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 shape of the snowshoe 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, and it offers excellent floation. The Crescent Moon Gold 10 is also excellent in deep snow. 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 qualities that boost flotation often hinder an efficient stride, and vice versa. Winter recreationists should consider which is more important for their needs.
The MSR Lightning Ascent is almost ideal for off-trail travel in deep snow and varying conditions. Others (like the Chinook Trekker) are bigger and 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, 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 models 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 earned an impressive score in the flotation metric but is one of the lowest scoring models overall.
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. Tubular frames are naturally slippery and do not enhance traction. Models with a rail-like frame (like the Lightning Ascent) or a unibody plastic deck construction (like the Evo and Flex VRT) provide more traction by design. We found that all other things being equal, more metal teeth on the bottom of your snowshoe equals more traction.
Anecdotally, these models seemed to be louder on crusty snow. Birdwatchers hoping to take their game to the winter months should take note.
The highest rated traction systems in our review is the MSR Lightning Ascent. This model has crampons underfoot, lateral crampons, and brake bars offering traction in a range of conditions and terrain. The least gripping options are the TSL Symbioz Elite, the Chinook Trekker, and the Fimbulvetr Hikr.
Attaching "tennis rackets" to your feet will inevitably impede your stride. There are ways to minimize this impediment. Smaller models have less of a "footprint" and are more nimble. Larger models, of course, are more cumbersome and clumsy. When it comes to performance, flotation and stride ergonomics exist in opposition to each other.
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 deck material, 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 we find that one method is preferred, while in different situations the other is advantageous. 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.
The MSR Evo is targeted at users entering more casual terrain, so its hinged binding/deck interface is a detriment. The bulk of the features on the Atlas Montane seem to steer it towards technical terrain, except for the strapped, imprecise binding/deck interface and the unimpressive stride ergonomics. 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 Montane 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. Another high scorer for this metric is the Tubbs Flex Vrt.
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 sometimes the least secure, and vice versa. The soft straps of the Fimbulvetr Hikr are very comfortable but by far the least secure. Next, the twist-lock "Boa" style tension systems of the Louis Garneau Blizzard and Tubbs Flex Vrt are quite comfortable. They are secure enough for moderately steep and technical terrain. These two models were edged out by the Montane, which improved the comfort of its design with some foam padding and didn't compromise security. The proprietary, unique systems on the Crescent Moon Gold 10 are fairly comfortable, 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 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. The MSR Lightning Ascent sported a similar binding system for many years, but this has now been replaced with a rubbery web over the forefoot. Our testers found this distributed the tension quite well without a compromise in security.
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 straps on the MSR Evo 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 quite slick.
The binding on the Chinook Trekker was decidedly old-fashioned, with a combination of ratcheting and nylon straps. The ratcheting straps are not confidence inspiring, and both the nylon and ratchet straps are troublesome when things get icy. The MSR Lightning Ascent has two straps that hold the forefoot webbing in place. Our testers found that the short length of these straps made them difficult to grip, especially with gloves on. The only one we had real 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 MSR Lightning Ascent also sports a very secure set-up. While this can come at the expense of comfort, their new design seems to walk the security/comfort line nicely. The Evo and Lightning Ascent offer the best security on foot of any pair in our review, earning a high score.
The hybrid systems on the Atlas Montane, Crescent Moon Gold and TSL Symbioz Elite 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. Again, the Chinook Trekker and Fimbulvetr Hikr trailed behind the rest. The Hikr's nylon strapped bindings slip around and fall off entirely after a few minutes of use, even with the most aggressive tightening.
Best for Specific Applications
- Deep snow: Louis Garneau Blizzard II or Crescent Moon Backcountry Gold 10
- Spring snow: MSR Lightning Ascent, Atlas Montane or Tubbs Flex VRT.
- Groomed trails: TSL Symbioz Elite
- Steep terrain: Tubbs Flex VRT or MSR Lightning Ascent
- Walking the dog: Chinook Trekker or Fimbulvetr Hikr
- Sharing with family members or friends: MSR Evo
A pair of snowshoes can open up an entire season for folks who love to travel on two feet. Choosing the best pair to buy can be confusing yet rewarding, as a pair can add much enjoyment to your winters. We hope we've made the decision a bit simpler so you can get out there and enjoy the snow!
— Ian McEleney and Jediah Porter