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How to Choose Women's Snowshoes

Photo: Penney Garrett
Wednesday April 15, 2020
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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.

Needless to say, we have come a long way since then. The first snowshoes were made by stretching rawhide over hardwood. While the original snowshoe was most likely a pretty burley and durable one, it could not compare to our modern-day models. Some pretty serious improvements have been made in regards to weight, traction, and comfort. It is believed that snowshoes were inspired by the large footprints of animals like the snowshoe hare. Humans discovered that distributing body weight over a larger area helped them float on top of snowdrifts, allowing them to work and hunt during extreme winter weather. Snowshoeing is also the best way to hike in snowy winter months.

Our full review discusses all the women-specific models we tested in depth.

Snowshoes opening up the backcountry for all to explore!
Snowshoes opening up the backcountry for all to explore!
Photo: Hayley Thomas

Do you really need them?


You might be asking yourself, why do I need snowshoes when I already have winter boots and crampons? Well, let's think about that snowshoe hare for a moment. If your feet are the same proportions as theirs, then you're probably fine. But chances are the only person with feet that big is Bobo the Clown. While hiking boots and winter boots paired with spikes or crampons provide fantastic traction on icy terrain and snow-packed trails, they fail miserably on fresh deep snow. You simply post-hole and sink. Anyone who has tried to hike while post-holing knows how unpleasant and exhausting it is.

The right snowshoe will provide you with excellent 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 snowfall, a true outdoor enthusiasts dream. However, 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 skis, snowboards, and split boards, you ask? While these are all great options for navigating snowy backcountry terrain, they do require considerable know-how. Not to mention they are rendered useless on a steep uphill trek if you do not have skins. Snowshoes, on the other hand, are meant more for the avid hiker. If you find the perfect snowshoe, your stride will be much more natural than on a split board or skis. They are also drastically cheaper.

Oh, the difference a snowshoe can make! Here you can see what hiking...
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 on our right foot plunged well over a foot into the snow. The Atlas Rendezvous kept our left foot just inches below the surface.
Photo: Penney Garrett

Types of Snowshoes


Snowshoes are pretty versatile by nature, but most are designed with a specific activity or terrain in mind. Before you jump down the rabbit hole of researching the perfect shoe, take a moment to address what you are trying to accomplish. Where do you enjoy hiking? What kind of conditions do you think you'll be up against? Do you have a specific terrain in mind? If you are trying to hike Everest you will surely be using a different style of snowshoe than you might use walking on a flat packed trail around an alpine lake. Generally speaking, each model is geared toward one of the following:

Flat Terrain / Trail Walking


These are your most basic snowshoes 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, this is a great category for you. These models have less aggressive traction, easy to use bindings, and are usually sold at a lower price point.

Snowshoes and snaxxxx!
Snowshoes and snaxxxx!
Photo: Penney Garrett

Rolling Variable Terrain / Day Hiking


If your plan is to disappear into a day of deep snowdrift and off trail adventure then listen up. These models are a step up from the last category and are suitable for everything except the steepest and iciest terrain. Expect them to come equipped with more aggressive crampons and beefier binding systems.

Finding the right shoe for the type of snow and terrain you most...
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.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

Steep, Mountainous Terrain / Overnights


Are you looking to hike as far up and out as you can? Are you in search of the kind of quiet that only a long backcountry trip could possibly supply? Or maybe searching for the most stunning of views is more your cup of tea. If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then you'll need something a little more advanced. These models have the most aggressive crampons and bindings. They will serve you well on icy slopes and scary descents. Many of these shoes come with heel lifts to aid with steep ascents — a feature that makes a huge difference in regards to energy expenditure when climbing.

The MSR Lightning coming through with the stable yet light heel lift...
The MSR Lightning coming through with the stable yet light heel lift for steep terrain.
Photo: Hayley Thomas


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 seeking out that perfectly 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 MSR Lightning Ascent.

Trail 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 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 springy Crescent Moon Eva Foam inspired some light jogging. 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.

While the Eva Foams may not have been the best for float we loved...
While the Eva Foams may not have been the best for float we loved running in them!
Photo: Hayley Thomas

To get a glimpse into how we tested each pair of shoes and in what kind of terrain, be sure to read our How We Test article.

Anatomy of a Snowshoe


In order to make an informed decision, you should probably know a little bit about the components and materials that make up a modern-day snowshoe.

Frames are made of all different materials. We don't often love...
Frames are made of all different materials. We don't often love plastic ones but we were pleasantly surprised by this particular pair.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

Frame


Snowshoe frames have evolved from wooden oblong ovals to slender ergonomic designs. These days most frames are 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 of thumb, 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, but keep in mind that narrow means less surface area, which in turn may affect float. Ideally, snowshoes perform well in both areas.

Women-specific frames or shoes made specifically for running often have a more pronounced taper to accommodate a narrower stride. If you are looking for speed, you should be seeking out a narrow design with a tapered tail. 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. Keep an eye out for shoes with optional floatation tails. Sometimes this offers the buyer the best of both worlds! The snowshoe frame is much smaller, but if you find yourself needing a little more float, you can slip on the tails for some additional surface area. Of the models we tested, both MRS models, the Lightning Ascent and Evo, offer this upgrade.

The MSR Lightning Ascent is a fantastic snowshoe for steep ascents...
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.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

Decking


Decking is the material that stretches between your frame. The main purpose of the decking is to provide float. 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 all know and love. Modern-day decking, however, has replaced the woven latticework with solid panels, which give the shoe more float. 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; 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 incredibly 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.

Crampons/Traction Systems


Traction is generated by a series of crampons and/or spiked railing found on the underside of the snowshoe. They can be constructed from plastic (not recommended), aluminum, or steel (ideal), but traction systems vary widely. As we mentioned earlier, it is best to take a moment to decide what kind of terrain you are looking to tackle. Advanced slopes will require a much burlier system than groomed packed trails. On the flip side, if you do not plan on hiking steep icy hillsides, the unnecessary traction will cause unwanted stick on more tame terrain.

Here we have a close up shot of one of the burlier crampons we've...
Here we have a close up shot of one of the burlier crampons we've seen on the MSR Lightning.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

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 most models will include. 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 shoe to provide extra grip and more lateral stability when traversing icy slopes. They look like little spiked teeth and can make a huge difference when navigating dicey terrain.

Braking Bars

Breaking bars are sometimes found on snowshoes made with plastic decking to prevent any backsliding and to help with overall traction. They generally run perpendicular to the side rails.

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.

Heel lifts can make all the difference when you're navigating steep...
Heel lifts can make all the difference when you're navigating steep terrain.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Bindings


Just like on skis and snowboards, 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.

On the other hand, if your goal is to hit the backcountry with your snowboard and you plan on wearing your boots for the hike, make sure the bindings are flexible and open up fully to accommodate this. 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 can also end up soaked.

Can you see the difference in the amount of snow flicked up onto the...
Can you see the difference in the amount of snow flicked up onto the back of our pants? The left subject was wearing free rotation snowshoes while the one on the right was wearing fixed.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

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.

Trying to walk backwards in free rotation bindings proved difficult...
Trying to walk backwards in free rotation bindings proved difficult in the deep snow.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

We tested each model across all different terrain, 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.

There was one in our test suite which 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 rocker-shaped foam decking provides all the flexibility you need to walk naturally, just like being in a cushy tennis shoe that is the size of a clown foot. It's an interesting take on the snowshoe for sure, and while this model didn't float very well, it did allow for a unique spring that propelled our testers' feet forward.

The Eva Foam has quite a unique take on the modern day snowshoe.
The Eva Foam has quite a unique take on the modern day snowshoe.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

Flotation Tails


Some models have the option for added flotation tails. These attach to the back end of your snowshoe and provide another 5 to 6 inches of length. They can increase the snowshoes' 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.

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 plan to stay on packed trails, then the larger surface area may be a little overkill, so look for something a little more compact.

Finding an optimal range for snowshoe sizing is determine by your...
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.
Photo: OutdoorGearLab

The other factor to pay close attention to is weight load. You usually step on the scale with minimal clothing, but you're probably not hiking around during the winter in that attire, or lack thereof. Since winter coats, scarves, hats, and mittens topped with a bag full of water and snacks to get you through the day can get pretty heavy, be sure to suit up and take your weight fully equipped for your hike before you choose your snowshoe. Then, and only 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. In truth, the differences in design are more about height, weight, and bone structure than your sex.

While some testers had to widen their gait a bit with the Evo, a...
While some testers had to widen their gait a bit with the Evo, a unisex shoe, most found it fantastic all around. It is an award winner in both the men's and women's review.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

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 marketing 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.

Accessories


Once you have purchased your snowshoes, there are some fun accessories you may want to consider purchasing.

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.

We definitely could have used some gaiters to keep the snow out of...
We definitely could have used some gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots.
Photo: Hayley Thomas

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles help distribute the weight of each step you take, using more of your body and 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 snowshoes and will help you find your perfect fit. Happy (snow-filled) trails!

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