The more you weigh (including any gear you're carrying), the more surface area you’ll need underfoot for optimal flotation on the snow. Since snowshoes can only be so wide, length is what primarily determines flotation. With properly sized snowshoes, you'll still sink into fresh powder, but not nearly as deeply as you would in boots alone.
Most snowshoes come in a range of lengths between about 20” to 36”. The heavier you are, the longer your snowshoes must be to keep you from sinking too deeply into the snow. Most of the variation between snowshoe sizes is related to the length. In other words, a size large snowshoe will only be slightly wider than a size small snowshoe. However, the size large will be quite a bit longer than the small. Remember to include the weight of any gear you plan on carrying when determining what size snowshoes to buy. Once you have your ideal weight range, check the chart below to choose a size.
Note: If you’re in-between sizes, think about maneuverability and traction. A smaller snowshoe will offer more of both. Smaller snowshoes are also better for steep slopes, thick forests and wet snow. On the other side of the spectrum, larger snowshoes will provide better flotation in powdery, dry snow.
Recreational and Trekking Snowshoes
A great place to start, recreational snowshoeing allows you to explore the gently rolling terrain and packed trails found in your own backyard or a city park. Easy-to-use bindings and less-aggressive crampons work well on moderate hills and fairly deep powder. If you enjoy hiking, you'll love recreational snowshoeing. Recreational snowshoes usually have a wide, rounded Western tail for better flotation. Trekking snowshoes may have a tapered tail for faster hikers interested in an aerobic workout.
Backcountry snowshoes are designed for 'shoers who enjoy multi-day hut trips, winter camping and exploring deep into the wilderness. Made of highly durable materials, backcountry snowshoes are lightweight and perform well in the deepest powder and on the steepest slopes. Secure, durable bindings support every step, and aggressive crampons grip into icy pitches. These snowshoes have plenty of surface area and a rounded Western tail to let you navigate easily through unpacked snow.
Serious aerobic athletes will want to look at snowshoes designed for speed. Racing snowshoes are ultralight and designed for moving fast. On a groomed trail or race course, flotation is not the main concern. Instead, you need reliability and a lightweight design. You'll find both in racing snowshoes, which have a shorter length and tapered tail. Most racing snowshoes will be branded as such, and are usually in the 25-30” range.
Regardless of style, some snowshoes are designed just for women. Why? Women have a different body shape and stride than men. Most women will find that women-specific snowshoes, with their unique bindings and slightly slimmer frames, are easier to use than unisex snowshoes.
Check out the video below for more tips on choosing snowshoes:
Trekking poles or adjustable ski poles are invaluable on snowshoeing excursions. They add stability and balance, and help you muscle your way up slopes and control your descents. Telescoping poles with large baskets are best. Plus, you can use the same poles for Nordic skiing and summer hiking. Check out our Trekking Pole Guide for more information on how to choose the right pair for your needs.
Warm, waterproof snow boots or insulated hiking boots are ideal for snowshoeing. Almost any waterproof boots with adequate insulation can serve as snowshoeing boots. However, boots designed specifically for hiking are generally best. For better protection in deeper snow, consider adding a pair of gaiters. Check out our Winter Boots Guide to learn more about winter footwear.
If you’re out hiking through the snow, you’ll need some outerwear designed to protect you from the elements. Even if the weather is mild when you head out on the trail, conditions could change. So always have adequate gear on hand. Waterproof breathable jackets and pants are ideal for snowshoeing in winter conditions. At the very least, you should have a water-repellent shell and pants. Our Guide to Winter Dressing expands on features to look for when buying outerwear.
Layered clothing items like wool or polypropylene socks, long underwear and insulating layers are essential for an enjoyable day of snowshoeing. Our Layering Guide will give you tips on dressing for the weather and your activity level.
Hats and Gloves
Hats, gloves, scarves and other accessories that cover your extremities should always be on your person when snowshoeing -- even if it's warm and sunny when you start out.
Be sure to properly strap into your snowshoes. If your snowshoes are left-right specific, be sure to put the correct shoe on the correct foot. First, place the balls of your feet over the top of the hinges. Next, tighten the front strap, then the heel strap, and finally the instep strap. Adjust straps to fit snug only — don't over-tighten them. Check out the video below for a quick tutorial.
Once your snowshoes are on, start out by walking on packed snow or dry ground to get comfortable with them before you plunge into fresh powder. Just walk like you normally would -- there's no need to take bigger steps, although your stance will be slightly wider than you're used to.
In deeper snow, it’s important to lift your knees higher to avoid dragging your feet and potentially tripping. When you head up steeper slopes, aggressively dig the front crampons in. When you head downhill, avoid leaning back onto the tails of the snowshoes, instead keeping your weight over the center of the snowshoes. This allows the crampons to grip the snow and prevent sliding. When you traverse side slopes, stand upright, take short steps and lean into the hill.
Turning 180-degrees in snowshoes is probably the most difficult maneuver. If you forget your shoes are on and try to quickly turn in deep powder, you can easily get caught up and tip over. If you must abruptly turn around, be sure to lift your knees very high and clear the entire shoe free of the powder before you turn your foot.
Although the slow, controlled nature of snowshoeing means you're less likely to have an unpredictable accident compared to other winter sports, there are a few things you still need to remember for a safe trip:
- Be mindful of what's under the snow, especially when you’re blazing your own trail. Just because the snow looks smooth and unobstructed doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a branch, tree stump, rock or other object just beneath the surface. Look out for barbed wire fences or air pockets in buried deadfall.
- Always carry extra water, food and emergency supplies, in case you become stranded or injured.
- It’s much easier to become disoriented in snow-covered terrain. If a storm or high winds pick up, you may not be able to follow your tracks back to where you started. Bring along a compass and keep navigation in mind before you head out. Always tell someone where you'll be going and when you plan to return.
- Never walk over frozen water unless you’re absolutely certain it offers a safe thickness. Even though it may take longer to go around a body of water, it’s always the safer choice.
- Avalanches don’t only happen in high-elevation alpine terrain and extremely steep grades. If you plan to head off-trail over sloped terrain, learn to recognize potential avalanche dangers. Check out our Avalanche Safety Guide for more information.
- Be prepared for any weather eventuality. Visit our Guide to Winter Dressing to learn about the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia.