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Best Snowshoes

It wasn’t long ago that any winter athlete worth the stench of his polypropylene was likely to pan snowshoeing with the disparaging one-liner "Why snowshoe when you can ski?" Simplicity was the obvious retort. Strapping snowshoes to an approach shoe, hiking boot, or snowboarding boot freed you from cast-like ski boots, stuck-together climbing skins, and the alchemy of ski-wax selection.

Luckily that argument still stands—as do the inherent joys of snowshoeing for its own sake. Walk into any outdoor shop, though, and the first thing you'll discover is that there's nothing simple about buying the latest snowshoes, which come in a mind-boggling array of styles. Indeed, in response to the demands of this burgeoning sport's devotees (who drove annual sales from 13,500 pairs in 1996 to 160,000 in 2000), manufacturers now offer deft and grippy models for transporting climbers and backpackers into mountainous terrain that even skiers would have trouble skinning up; lightweight, versatile systems that are luring trail runners and fitness junkies into snowshoe racing; and stiff, compact designs that offer snowboarders the solid toe-holds they need for climbing steep chutes. All of which means that the only question you need to answer about snowshoeing is "Where do I want to go?" Our best advice for gearing up: Define your interests, and the right shoe will follow.

 Multipurpose

The MSR Denali Ascent (8 by 22 inch; 3 lb., 12 oz. per pair; $180) uses a burly, solid copolymer body—a polypropylene used in ski construction, and a deviation from the classic hard-frame/soft-deck snowshoe paradigm. The strap bindings attach easily, and the combination of stainless-steel cleats and traction bars gives these shoes an epoxy grip on ascents, descents, and traverses. What makes the Denali stand out, though, are the optional snap-on tails available in 4-inch (11 oz.; $30) and 8-inch (16 oz.; $30) sizes. Because you can match the Denali to snow conditions and pack loads with the tails, it's like owning three different-size snowshoes. Note as of 2013 this shoe has morphed into the MSR Evo Ascent and the MSR Evo Tour.)

With its aluminum frame and rubberized nylon deck, the Crescent Moon Silver Series 9 (8 by 27 in.; 3 lb., 6 oz.; $185) has far greater eye appeal than the Denali—despite its modern materials, it's a shoe you might hang over the cabin's fireplace. In addition to its aesthetic advantages, the Crescent Moon 9 has a teardrop shape that facilitates a smooth, more natural gait—no duck waddling to avoid clunking or stepping on your own feet. Another worthy feature: The binding relies on a snowboard-style ratcheting strap and goes on fast, centering the foot securely. Stainless-steel cleats underfoot give this elegant shoe good, though not exceptional, grip.

 Running and Racing

Redfeather's Falcon 25 (8 by 25 in.; 2 lb., 8 oz.; $230), which Olympic gold-medal marathoner Frank Shorter and world-class snowshoe racer Tom Sobal both had a hand in designing, walks the weight/performance line successfully. The rubbery moisture-repelling Hypalon plastic decking is lighter than most, yet tough enough to endure seasons of heavy use (unless you regularly step on barbed wire). The titanium cleats below the toe and heel provide excellent grip at half the weight of most crampons. The bindings—also cut from Hypalon—are light, offer excellent torsional rigidity, and mold nicely to running shoes. A turned-up tail helps snow runners lengthen their stride. Note as of 2013: This exact model no longer exists. The Redfeather Race 25 (2 lb. 7 oz., $270) is the updated product with most of the same features and some improvements.

The Northern Lites Elite (8 by 25 in; 2 lb., 4oz.; $200) doesn't look as streamlined as most racing shoes, but when it comes to substance and value, few surpass it. Because Northern Lites designers used aluminum-alloy tubing, they were able to produce a smaller-diameter, lighter frame without sacrificing strength. The binding is a cradle built with Voilé binding straps—a simple, workable design that has prompted several manufacturers to copy the approach. The decking is a feathery but puncture-resistant polyurethane-coated nylon mesh secured to the frame's perimeter with cleats that do double duty by improving traction and, combined with the crampons underfoot, adding to the Elite's spiked-track-shoe feel.

 
Snowboarding and Steep Skiing

Verts (8.5 by 18 in.; 2 lb., 8 oz.; $75) may look like toys spit out of the Lego factory, but these functional tools let you front-point up ungodly steep slopes, carving out a sturdy platform as you go. Brand name snowboarders and extreme skiers like Tom Burt, Jeremy Jones, Shane McConkey, and Doug Coombs have seen beyond the product’s underwhelming appearance and praised the performance of these tough nylon plates. The bindings position your toes inches from the front for maximum step-kicking power. Going downhill, most Vert users are strapped to boards, but keep the shoes on and you'll find that the anchored heels plunge confidently into the slope. The shoes are light and small enough to slip into small day packs. The downside? The small footprint will have you postholing in deep powder.

The larger surface area of the Tubbs Mountain 25 (8 by 25 in.; 4lb., 8 oz; $260) reduces the posthole factor, which can turn a pleasant outing into a winter death march. A curbed nose and hinged binding also help the shoes float higher in the snowpack and make flat ground effortless to traverse. While the deck of the Mountaineer 25 resembles the nylon of other high-end shoes, it's actually a nearly indestructible copolymer skin called ArcTec—which is why this product has a lifetime guarantee.. For a hinged snowshoe, the Mountain 25 climbs superbly—its aggressive front crampons stick to snow and ice like Velcro and the binding is more torsionally rigid than most snowshoes so your heel isn’t twisting off the deck when you’re traversing steep slopes. Nevertheless, the hinge prevents users from kicking the steps that make the Verts unparalleled climbing tools.
Note as of 2013: This snowshoe has evolved over the past several years since this review was written into the Mountaineer 25.

Backpacking and Winter Climbing

Multi-day treks into the heart of winter produce unique problems—like the need to carry hefty packs through deep, unconsolidated snow. Which is why you want a 40-acre shoe underfoot for flotation. Notable among the big paws is the aluminum-framed, nylon-decked Sherpa Pembu Mountain (9 by 30 in.; 5 lb., 11 oz.; $269), the zenith product from the company that brought snowshoeing out of the stick-and-rawhide era. An ideal shoe for Alaskan meter readers, the Pembu's urethane-coated deck is extremely durable, and because it's laced to the frame with a tough rubbery plastic material (instead of being riveted to the top), it also enhances traction. The big crampon claws underfoot are among the best available for hard snow. Note: Sherpa went out of business about a year ago, but you may still be able to find these snowshoes through eBay and the like.

With an aircraft-grade aluminum frame and an incredibly rugged mesh-coated urethane deck, the Atlas 1033 (9 by 30 in.; 5 lb., 4 oz.; $270) is a high-flotation, heavyweight shoe that's earned the respect of both the climbing community and the Navy SEALs (who use it for winter operations and could probably wield it as a deadly weapon to boot). The spring-loaded binding—tension on a strap of webbing across the heel brings the back of the shoe up and out of the snow, reducing drag—saves energy on long hauls and clamps to any boot with a unique one-pull cord system. And while the 1033 once had a reputation for skittering slightly on icy descents, the new serrated traverse tracks—rows of stainless-steel teeth running lengthwise and parallel to the center of the frame—combine with the old cleats up front to provide pit-bull bite. Note: The Atlas snowshoes have changed ownership (now owned by K2) and the models, have changed some. The Atlas 10+30 (9 by 30 in.; 4 lb., 12 oz.; $200) or the Atlas 1230 (9 by 30 in., 4 lb., 7 oz. $280) are closest in character and quality to the older Atlas 1033.

Between Snowshoeing and Skiing

Many winter walkers reach the top of a hill and wonder, "Why doesn't someone make a snowshoe that glides?" Well, finally, someone does. The Yupi Snowspider 28 (6 by 28 in.; 5 lb., 3 oz.; $289 Canadian) is a hardened sheet of aluminum covered below in an edge-to-edge climbing skin. Strap a hiking, climbing, or snowboarding boot into the hinged nylon binding, and the base bristles to provide uphill grip. In anything other than hardpack snow and ice (conditions where the Yupis flail), you can walk straight up 35-degree slopes. Steeper slopes are tackled by zigzagging, or by kicking the tip into the slope and stairstepping. Once you've topped out, point the boards downhill and, with the skins still on, ride the glide back down. Note as of 2013 -- this was an interesting product but the website above is no longer active.

 

One For the Road

To read our review of the MSR Lightning, a snowshoe WenatcheeOutdoors reviewed last winter, click here.