While a lot of the gear we test at OutdoorGearLab are fancy modern day inventions, the snowshoe harkens back to a different era. No one is quite sure when they originated, but it's thought to be 4,000 to 6,000 years ago in Central Asia.
Originally made from hardwood and rawhide, modern-day snowshoes are manufactured with high-tech materials and sleek designs to improve traction and maneuverability. Snowshoes were likely inspired by the large footprints of animals like the snowshoe hare, which distribute body weight over a larger area to float on top of snowdrifts. This allowed people to work and hunt during extreme winter months. Now snowshoeing is also the best way to hiking in snowy winter months.
To learn all about the women-specific models we tested and which ones we liked the best, check out our full review.
Do I really need them?
You may wonder why you need snowshoes when there are winter boots, spikes, and crampons all available for snowy and icy conditions. Hiking or winter boots with spikes or crampons provide fantastic traction on icy terrain and snow-packed trails, but as soon as you step off into deeper snow, you will simply post-hole and sink. Anyone who has tried to hike while post-holing knows how unpleasant and exhausting it is.
Snowshoes provide you with good traction on icy and uneven terrain, and the wide surface area — generally 4-5 times that of a hiking boot by itself — keeps you on top of deep snow. This combination gives a winter hiker access to both packed trails and unchartered territory into fresh snow, a true outdoor enthusiasts dream. But, if you don't live in an area that regularly dumps more than 6 inches of powder at a time before melting off, they are likely overkill.
What about skies, snowboards, and split boards you ask? These are all fantastic options for navigating snowy backcountry terrain, but require considerable know-how and, unless you have skins, don't allow you to get uphill very easily. Snowshoes, on the other hand, are straightforward and offer a more typical hiking experience. They also make it easier to navigate steep ascents and obstacles and give you access to deep snow.
Types of Snowshoes
Snowshoes are pretty versatile by nature, but many are designed with a specific activity or terrain in mind. Consider where you think you will be hiking the most and what you want to be able to accomplish while out. Generally, each model is geared toward one of the following:
Flat Terrain/Trail Walking
These are your most basic shoes, geared toward recreational use at a beginner to intermediate level. If you plan to stay on flat to moderately rolling terrain or groomed snow-packed trails without straying off trail very much, this is a great category for you. These models are easy to walk in and will have less aggressive traction and simpler binding systems. The price point is usually lower as well.
Rolling Variable Terrain/Day Hiking
If you are a more serious hiker and backpacker and want to get off the packed trail as much as you can, this is the category to pay particular attention to. These models are a step up from the last category and are good for everything except the steepest and iciest terrain. Expect them to come equipped with more aggressive crampons and beefier binding systems.
Steep, Mountainous Terrain / Overnights
If getting into the backcountry is what you yearn for, then you'll want a more serious pair of snowshoes. These models have the most aggressive crampons and bindings and will serve you well on icy slopes and steep ascents. Many of these shoes come with heel lifts to aid with getting up hills — a feature that makes a huge difference in regards to energy expenditure when climbing.
Owning this kind of snowshoe will mean you have the technical features for advanced snow travel but will, in most cases, still be able to enjoy beginner to intermediate terrain with ease. These models are also great if you are a skier or snowboarder who loves to trek through uncharted territory looking for a secluded run. Just realize that such outings will require additional training to stay safe in mountaineering and avalanche terrain.
The best shoes we tested for backcountry travel are the Editors' Choice-winning Tubbs Mountaineer and the MSR Lightning Ascent, our Top Pick for Technical Terrain.
The Atlas Elektra Montane and Louis Garneau Blizzard II are on the lower end of this spectrum and also work well on casual outings, though the Mountaineer is a more robust option overall. The Tubbs Flex RDG is also a good candidate for the backcountry in many respects, though the Boa binding system on both it and the Blizzard II are not nearly as robust as other systems. So we hesitate to recommend these models for long and technical hikes in lonely terrain.
Trail runners don't have to quit for the winter season any more than hikers do, thanks to snowshoes designed specifically for running. These models are created with speed, agility, and ease of stride in mind. They often have a tapered tail to clear snow more efficiently and are also lighter weight — sometimes a lot lighter. We did not test running models in our review, but the Eva All-Foam allowed for some light running. When we tried it out a bit, it was a lot of fun. Most of the manufacturers featured in this review also make a shoe geared toward running if you're interested in trying it out in earnest.
To get a glimpse into how we tested each pair of shoes and in what kind of terrain, be sure to read the How We Test article.
Anatomy of a Snowshoe
To find the ideal model for your particular needs and desires, let's take a walk through the components and materials that make up a modern day snowshoe.
Snowshoe frames have evolved from wooden oblong ovals to slender ergonomic designs made from lightweight metal and composite plastic. The frame is what determines the ultimate shape and surface area of the shoe, directly correlating to how well you will be able to float in deep snow. As a general rule, the wider and more oval the shape is, the better flotation you can achieve. Narrower tapered frames make it easier to walk and keep a normal gait. Ideally, snowshoes perform well in both areas. The Tubbs Mountaineer and Atlas Elektra Montane achieve this.
Women-specific frames often have a more pronounced taper to accommodate a narrower stride. Frames made for racing or running are also considerably more tapered to facilitate the quickest and easiest gait. A good rule of thumb is to get a narrower design with a tapered tail if speed is your primary motivation. If you are a beginner or plan to hike in a lot of deep snow, seek out designs with a wider tail, or oval shape. Some models also offer add-on flotation tails to extend their length — and thus the surface area — of your shoe. Of the models we tested for women, both MRS models, the Lightning Ascent and Evo, offer this upgrade.
Decking is the material that stretches between your frame to hold it all together. Back when wood and rawhide were the building materials of choice, rawhide was used for the decking. Early practitioners used it to make panels or weave a latticework, giving snowshoes that classic tennis-racket look we are all familiar with. Modern-day decking, however, has replaced the woven latticework with solid panels. When this change was first introduced, people thought it wouldn't work, thinking that the holes were necessary to keep snow from collecting on top of the shoe. Turns out that's not the case, a solid decking will still clear away snow very effectively, though some designs are better at this than others.
Contemporary decking is constructed from various materials such as plastic, polyurethane, neoprene, synthetic leathers and rubbers, or a composite material like polyurethane coated with nylon. These materials are extremely robust and cold tolerant, and they don't require constant maintenance the way rawhide and other natural materials do. Some designs, like the MSR Evo, are comprised of a single piece of sturdy molded plastic that makes up both the frame and decking as one integrated unit. Another example of this is the solid all-foam platform of the Crescent Moon Eva.
The traction system can be found on the underside of your snowshoe. Constructed from plastic (not recommended), aluminum, or steel (ideal), traction systems vary widely. We recommended that you have at least some idea about what kind of terrain you're most interested in navigating, as this can help inform what kind of traction system will serve you best. Steep hillsides and icy slopes will require a much burlier system than groomed packed trails.
The traction components that a shoe may or may not come equipped with include the following:Crampons
This is the main source of traction for any snowshoe, and the one component that every model will include to some degree. Crampons come in vastly different shapes and sizes and can be found under the toe or surrounding the ball of the foot. Because they are underneath the binding system, they are meant to pivot with the movement of your foot, helping you stick securely with each step. Some models meant for climbing and descending steeper terrain will also have a crampon at the heel of the foot (often in a V-shape), or an enlarged toe pick.Side Rails
Also known as traction bars, side rails run down the length of each snowshoe to provide extra grip and more lateral stability when traversing icy slopes.Braking Bars
Breaking bars are sometimes found on snowshoes made with plastic decking to prevent any backsliding and to help with overall traction.Heel Lifts
Snowshoes geared toward ascending steep terrain are sometimes equipped with a heel lift (MSR calls it a Televator on their models). This is a stiff wire bail that can be flipped up under the heel when climbing up hills to alleviate calf strain and overall muscle exhaustion.
The binding system is what keeps your feet firmly attached to your snowshoes. Women-specific models are designed with a smaller foot in mind, but bindings are generally able to accommodate a wide range of footwear and foot sizes. Be sure to look at the bindings with a critical eye. If you have tiny feet, or you're planning to wear minimal shoes, make sure the binding isn't overly roomy or unable to cinch down from all angles.
If, on the other hand, you want to wear something very large and bulky like a snowboard boot, make sure the bindings are flexible and open up fully to accommodate a large boot. Toe caps — meant for added security — can be problematic with very large or very small footwear. It may help to take a length, width, and height measurement of your boot and write to the manufacturer to make sure it will fit properly before purchasing.
There are two ways that bindings are mounted to a snowshoe, using a fixed rotation system or free or floating rotation (also called full) system. On a fixed rotation system, the tail of the shoe follows the movement of your heel closely. This allows the shoe to closely mimic the natural movement of your foot, making it easier to navigate obstacles. This style of mounting is better for packed trails and, especially, running. Backing up is also easier because the tail is less likely to get stuck. In deeper snow, fixed rotation is not ideal because the snow that falls onto the tail gets flipped up onto the back of your legs. Not only is this annoying, but constantly collecting and flipping up snow means an increased energy expenditure. If it's wet snow and your pants aren't waterproof, you a can also end up soaked.
Free, floating, or full rotation bindings can, as the name implies, freely rotate around an axle under the ball of your foot. This allows the tail of the snowshoe to stay closer to the ground — it will drag instead of flip up — which means you will expend far less energy when walking through deep snow. Steep ascents are also easier because the tail can stay parallel to the terrain, thus opening up the toe claw for more effective gripping. With fixed rotation, it is harder to access your crampons on steep hills. The downside of this design is that, when you are on packed trails, the tail will drag behind you which can be loud and feel cumbersome. Backing up is also considerably trickier and requires more precise attention to your movements to not get stuck and trip.
As we've mentioned previously, it is important to have an idea of what kind of terrain you plan to spend the most time in before making a final decision. We tried all the models tested across every type of snow and trail, and while you can use a fixed binding in deep snow and a free binding on a packed trail, you will have much more fun if you are using the right shoe for the job.
One contender in our review didn't fit into either of these categories. The Crescent Moon Eva has a static system much like a sandal that keeps your foot completely attached to the platform. The idea is that the rocker-shaped foam decking provides all the flexibility you need to walk naturally, just like being in a cushy tennis shoe. It's an interesting take on the snowshoe for sure, and while this model didn't float very well, it did allow for the easiest mobility of any shoe in our review. It also has a unique spring that helped propel our feet forward.
Some models are made to accept flotation tails. These attach to the back end of your snowshoe and provide another 5 to 6 inches of length, which will increase your load capacity by 60 to 70 pounds and drastically improve your flotation. This is great to have for trips out into remote terrain where you want to take a larger pack and be ready for deeper snow.
Having a snowshoe that allows for tails means you can expand the uses of one pair. Leave the tails off for modest days on beginner or intermediate trails and put them on for deeper snow and longer trips with a heavier load. Of the models we tested, only the MSR Evo and the MSR Lightning Ascent are flotation tail compatible, and the addition will set you back about $50 or $60.
Sizing & Fit
When choosing the size, shape, and design for your snowshoes, consider both the terrain and weight load. You should select a model that is able to perform well in the most advanced terrain you expect to encounter. If you plan to rendezvous with deep or very dry snow regularly, then look for a shoe that is wide and long (i.e., has a larger surface area dimension). If, on the other hand, you know that you will stay on packed trails, then pay attention to more compact models that allow for an easier natural stride.
The other factor to pay close attention to is weight load. Figure out how much you weigh with all your snow gear and a pack equipped with water, snacks, extra layers, etc. Then choose the length of your snowshoes accordingly.
Are Women's Specific Snowshoes Necessary?
While we are focusing on women-specific models for this review, keep in mind that women can wear men's or unisex shoes and vice versa! If the length is appropriate for your weight load and the bindings fit well, then you're good to go.
The main difference with women's shoes is that the bindings tend to be smaller to accommodate a more petite foot, and the frame shape is generally narrower (and often has a tapered tail) to allow for a narrower gait. But maybe you're a woman with large feet and wide hips or a man with a small frame and foot size. Don't let gender specificity dictate more than is reasonable. Try to look at measurements and design features and think practically about what your specific needs are for your unique body type.
If you've purchased your snowshoes and are psyched to use them as much as possible, there are some fun and useful accessories you may want to consider.Snowshoe Bags
Most manufacturers make bags specifically designed to fit their snowshoes. These bags will often have space or features to store tails and trekking poles. A well-designed bag will also be ventilated to ensure that everything can dry properly, meaning you can store everything in your bag over the long term.Gaiters
Gaiters are like sleeves for your lower leg and foot. They attach near the knee and clip down at the bottom of your foot to help keep snow and other debris out of your boot. If you tend to end up with wet socks when out hiking in the snow, gaiters could make a world of difference for you and your feet.Trekking Poles
Trekking poles help distribute the weight of each step you take into more of your body, taking excess strain off the legs and knees. They can also help with balance and stability on tricky terrain, especially if you have full rotation bindings. If you're not convinced, have a look at our article on the top ten reasons for using trekking poles. Then, if you ARE convinced and want help choosing your poles, check out our Best Trekking Pole Review.
That just about covers the basics. We hope this article has answered all your questions about women's snowshoes and will help you find your perfect fit. Happy (snow-filled) trails!