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How to Choose the Best Snowshoes for Women

Here you can see an assortment of traction systems on our award winners. From left to right: our Editors' Choice  the MSR Lightning Ascent with side traction rails  large toe picks  and heel lifts; our Top Pick for Ease of Use  the Tubbs Flex RDG with curved traction rails  heel lifts  and molded braking bars; and our Best Buy winner  the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous with a more introductory toe crampon and V-shaped heel cleats.
By Penney Garrett ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday April 20, 2017

While many things that we test here at OutdoorGearLab are fancy modern day inventions, the snowshoe is not one of them. No one is quite sure when these smart devices for navigating deep snow originated, but it's thought to be 4-6,000 years ago in Central Asia. Originally made from hardwood and rawhide, modern day snowshoes are manufactured with high-tech materials and sleek designs in order to facilitate improved traction and maneuverability. Snowshoes were inspired by the large footprints of animals like the snowshoe hare which distribute body weight evenly over a larger area. This means that, instead of sinking straight down into snowy drifts, you can "float" on top of them (in actuality you will still sink, but you will sink a matter of inches instead of feet). This ability was essential over the centuries, allowing people to be able to work and hunt during extreme winter months. In more recent years snowshoeing has moved into the world of outdoor recreation as the best way to continue to hike through all four seasons.

To learn all about the women-specific models we tested and which ones we liked the best, check out the full review.

Why Snowshoes?


You may be wondering why you even need snowshoes when there are winter boots, spikes, and crampons all available for snowy and icy conditions. Hiking boots with spikes or crampons can absolutely 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. The same goes for winter boots that, while often warmer and made to cover more of the leg, are also usually clunky and do not provide very good traction. And again, there is no way you will stay on top of deep snow. Anyone that has tried to hike while post-holing at every step knows how unpleasant and exhausting an experience that is.

Snowshoes will 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 - will allow you to "float" 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.

What about skies, snowboards, and split boards you ask? These are all fantastic options for navigating snowy backcountry terrain, but require considerable additional know-how and, unless you have skins, don't allow you to get uphill very easily (though the downhill is of course much quicker!) Snowshoes, on the other hand, will allow you to move at a slower pace and have more of a regular hiking experience with easier navigation of steep ascents and obstacles, while simultaneously giving you access to areas of deep snow.

Oh the difference a snowshoe can make! Here you can see what hiking would be like without them - the small surface area of a hiking boot sinking well over a foot into the snow where the Atlas Rendezvous had kept us just a matter of inches below the surface.
Oh the difference a snowshoe can make! Here you can see what hiking would be like without them - the small surface area of a hiking boot sinking well over a foot into the snow where the Atlas Rendezvous had kept us just a matter of inches below the surface.

Types of Snowshoes


Snowshoes can be used across a lot of different landscapes, 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 will be geared toward one of the following:

Flat Terrain/Trail Walking


This type encompasses your most basic shoes geared toward recreational use at a beginner to intermediate level. Plan to stay on flat to moderately rolling terrain or groomed snow-packed trails with the dogs without straying off trail very much? This is probably a great category for you. These models should be easy to walk in and will have less aggressive traction and simpler binding systems. The price point will sometimes be more modest also.

While all the models we tested performed decently across varied terrain, the shoes we tested that best fit into this category were the Tubbs Xplore -Women's, the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous and the Crescent Moon Gold 13.

Rolling/Variable Terrain


If you are a bit 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 will be good for everything except the steepest and iciest terrain. Expect them to come equipped with more aggressive crampons and beefier binding systems. The models we tested that best fit into this category were the MSR Evo - Women's, the Tubbs Flex RDG, the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous, and the Crescent Moon Gold 13.

Steep/Mountainous Terrain


If getting into the backcountry is what you yearn for, then you'll want a more serious pair of snowshoes. These models will have the most aggressive crampons and bindings and will serve you well on icy slopes and steep ascents. Many of these shoes will 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 shoe will mean you have the technical features for advanced snow travel while still being able to enjoy beginner to intermediate terrain with ease. These models are also great if you are a skier or snowboarder that loves to trek through uncharted territory looking for a secluded run. Just realize that such outings will require some additional training in regards to mountaineering and avalanche awareness.

The best shoe we tested for backcountry travel was our Editors' Choice, the MSR Lightning Ascent - Women's. The Tubbs Flex RDG is also a good candidate for the backcountry in many respects, though the binding system is not nearly as robust as we feel it needs to be to fully recommend this model for long and technical hikes in lonely terrain.

Finding the right shoe for the type of snow and terrain you most enjoy will make all the difference in the quality of your adventure.
Finding the right shoe for the type of snow and terrain you most enjoy will make all the difference in the quality of your adventure.

Running


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 more tapered tail in order to clear snow away more efficiently and will also be lighter weight - sometimes by a lot. None of the models we tested fit into this category, but most of the manufacturers featured in this review make a shoe geared toward running if you're interested in trying it out.

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


In order 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.

Frame


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. It's up to you to decide which aspect is more important, though there are definitely some shoes designed to perform well in both areas. We thought that the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous was a great example of this.

Women-specific frames will often have more of an overall taper in order to allow for a narrower stride. Frames made for racing or running will also be considerably more tapered in order 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 a wider tail or a more oval shape. Some models also offer compatible add-on flotation tails in order to extend the length - and thus the surface area - of your shoe. Of the models we tested for women, both the MSR Lightning Ascent - Women's and the MSR Evo - Women's offer this upgrade.

Here you can see an assortment of frame materials and designs. Clockwise from top to bottom we have: the unisex MSR Evo with its rather wide plastic frame  the Tubbs Flex RDG  also with a plastic frame but sporting a more tapered women-specific shape  and the Tubbs Xplore with an oval-shaped aluminum frame that's great for floatation.
Here you can see an assortment of frame materials and designs. Clockwise from top to bottom we have: the unisex MSR Evo with its rather wide plastic frame, the Tubbs Flex RDG, also with a plastic frame but sporting a more tapered women-specific shape, and the Tubbs Xplore with an oval-shaped aluminum frame that's great for floatation.

Decking


Decking is the material that makes up the interior of your snowshoe - the part in the middle of the frame. Back when wood and rawhide were the building materials of choice, the rawhide was used for the decking to either 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.

The MSR Lightning Ascent is a fantastic snowshoe for steep ascents and backcountry mountaineering. Here you can see the burly binding system and the urethane-impregnated nylon decking.
The MSR Lightning Ascent is a fantastic snowshoe for steep ascents and backcountry mountaineering. Here you can see the burly binding system and the urethane-impregnated nylon decking.

Crampons/Traction Systems


On the underside of your snowshoe is where the traction system can be found. Constructed from plastic (not recommended), aluminum, or steel (ideal), this is one of the places you will see the most variation in a shoe. We recommended that you have at least a bit of an idea about what kind of terrain you're most interested in navigating, as this can really 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 different traction components that a shoe may or may not come equipped with are as follows:

Crampons

This is the main source of traction for any snowshoe, and the one component that every model will have to some degree. Crampons come in vastly different shapes and sizes and can be found under the toe and/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 to 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), and/or an enlarged toe pick.

Side Rails

Also known as traction bars, side rails run down the long sides 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 will sometimes come 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.

Here you can see an assortment of traction systems on our award winners. From left to right: our Editors' Choice  the MSR Lightning Ascent with side traction rails  large toe picks  and heel lifts; our Top Pick for Ease of Use  the Tubbs Flex RDG with curved traction rails  heel lifts  and molded braking bars; and our Best Buy winner  the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous with a more introductory toe crampon and V-shaped heel cleats.
Here you can see an assortment of traction systems on our award winners. From left to right: our Editors' Choice, the MSR Lightning Ascent with side traction rails, large toe picks, and heel lifts; our Top Pick for Ease of Use, the Tubbs Flex RDG with curved traction rails, heel lifts, and molded braking bars; and our Best Buy winner, the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous with a more introductory toe crampon and V-shaped heel cleats.

Bindings


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. That being said, if possible, it's ideal to try on your prospective snowshoes in real life with the shoes you plan to hike in. If you are buying online, be sure to look at the bindings with a critical eye; if you have very small feet or you're planning to wear minimal shoes, make sure the binding isn't overly roomy or not able to cinch down everywhere.

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 potentially problematic with very large or very small footwear. It may be helpful 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 get mounted to a snowshoe: fixed rotation and free or floating rotation. With a fixed rotation, the tail of the shoe follows the movement of your heel closely. This is meant to allow the shoe to more easily mimic the natural movement of your foot and make 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. However, in deeper snow, fixed rotation is not ideal because the snow that falls onto the tail gets flipped up onto the back of the legs. Not only is this annoying, but constantly collecting and flipping up snow means an increased energy expenditure.

The fixed binding on the Crescent Moon was great on packed trails and for quick movements  but as soon as we got into even moderately deep snow we were throwing powder all over the place.
The fixed binding on the Crescent Moon was great on packed trails and for quick movements, but as soon as we got into even moderately deep snow we were throwing powder all over the place.

Free or floating rotation bindings are able to, 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 rotate downward until 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 louder and feel cumbersome. Backing up is also considerably trickier and requires more precise attention to your movements in order to not get stuck and trip.

Here you can see the benefit of a free rotation binding mount on a steep hill. The MSR Lightning Ascent effectively allows the tail to drop to the ground and fully expose the amazing toe claws. Combine that with heel lifts and climbing up hills was a breeze.
Here you can see the benefit of a free rotation binding mount on a steep hill. The MSR Lightning Ascent effectively allows the tail to drop to the ground and fully expose the amazing toe claws. Combine that with heel lifts and climbing up hills was a breeze.

As we've mentioned previously, it really 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 we tested across every type of snow and trail, and while you can definitely 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.

Flotation Tails


Some models are made to allow the addition of flotation tails. These attach to the back end of your snowshoe and provide another 5-6" of length - which will increase your load 60-70 pounds and drastically improve your flotation. This is great to have for trips out into more 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 really expand the uses of your 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 $50-60.

Sizing & Fit


When choosing the size, shape, and design for your snowshoes, you will want to consider both terrain and weight load. You should select a model that will be able to perform well in the most advanced terrain you expect to encounter. If you plan to rendezvous with deep or light 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 be staying 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 on and with the addition of a pack equipped with water, snacks, extra layers, etc. Then choose the length of your snowshoes accordingly.

Finding an optimal range for snowshoe sizing is determine by your weight plus the weight of any additional gear you intend to bring. Plan for an additional 10 pounds for day outings and 30+ pounds minimum for multi-day outings. Consider the weight of water  extra layers  food  cooking/fire equipment  etc.
Finding an optimal range for snowshoe sizing is determine by your weight plus the weight of any additional gear you intend to bring. Plan for an additional 10 pounds for day outings and 30+ pounds minimum for multi-day outings. Consider the weight of water, extra layers, food, cooking/fire equipment, etc.

A Note on Gender


While we are focusing on women-specific models for this review, keep in mind that women can absolutely 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.

The Elektra Rendezvous performed well across all kinds of terrain.
The Elektra Rendezvous performed well across all kinds of terrain.

Accessories


If you've purchased your snowshoes and are psyched on using 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 accommodate 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 have a tendency 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 here. And if you ARE convinced and want help choosing your poles, check out our Best Trekking Pole Review.

Happy trails!

Our Editors' Choice the MSR Lighting Ascent and our Top Pick for Ease of Use the Tubbs Flex RDG - friends forever!
Our Editors' Choice the MSR Lighting Ascent and our Top Pick for Ease of Use the Tubbs Flex RDG - friends forever!


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