With so many snowshoe designs out there, selecting a pair to purchase for yourself or as a gift for someone can seem like a daunting task. To help, we reached out to experts at local outfitters for some tips. Here’s what they had to say.
First, ask yourself this question
When a customer walks through the door looking for snowshoes at Epic Sports in Bangor, the store’s owner, Brad Ryder, usually asks them this initial question: “What kind of snowshoeing do you want to do?”
“Are you going out in the backyard or maybe in the [Bangor] City Forest, which has nice, gradual, easy trails?” Ryder said. “Or are you looking to be a little more adventurous and hike some more rugged terrain?”
Different snowshoes are designed for different types of activities. There are recreational snowshoes that are designed for easy trails. There are mountaineering snowshoes, designed for navigating steep slopes and gripping ice. There are even snowshoes designed for running. Each design has different features.
Cost varies greatly
What’s your budget? Snowshoes vary greatly in price.
Simple snowshoes are available for $60 online and through big box stores. On the other end of the spectrum, high-tech mountaineering snowshoes can cost more than $300. Some of the most popular snowshoes sold at Maine outfitters land somewhere in the middle, costing between $130-$180.
Price is usually related to quality, Ryder said. But it’s also related to the type of snowshoe. Mountaineering snowshoes are usually the most expensive designs because they have so many special features and are often made of more durable materials. Yet for many people, mountaineering snowshoes are overkill. Which leads you back to the first question: “What kind of snowshoeing do you want to do?”
Traditional vs. modern
Many people swear by traditional wooden snowshoes, which typically have wooden frames and animal hide webbing and bindings. Used for thousands of years, these types of snowshoes are tried and true. The holes in their webbing prevent snow buildup. And the wooden frames are known to be more quiet than their plastic or metal counterparts.
A number of Maine companies make wooden snowshoes. Some have modified them, replacing the leather portions with synthetic materials, which makes them less expensive and easier to maintain.
In contrast, modern snowshoes are made of lightweight metals and plastics. They tend to have sophisticated bindings, which are the straps that hold the snowshoe onto your boot. And they usually feature crampons or metal teeth for traction, something that most traditional wooden snowshoes don’t have.
So, again: “What kind of snowshoeing do you want to do?” If you’re going to be in deep snow and don’t plan to hike up any mountains, maybe you should look at wooden snowshoes, carrying on a rich tradition. If you’d prefer to have good traction and the ability to climb hills, then a modern design may be a better fit.
Snowshoe size matters
Most modern snowshoe designs come in multiple sizes. To help customers select the right size, companies offer sizing charts, which are based on the weight of the snowshoer. Generally, the more a person weighs, the larger the recommended snowshoe. That’s because larger snowshoes offer greater floatation on snow.
These charts are a great place to start, said Seth Taylor, assistant manager of Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport. But several other factors might come into play when deciding on which snowshoe size is best for you.
If the snow is often deep where you plan to snowshoe, than you might select a larger size for better floatation. If the opposite is the case, you might go down a size.
“The modern versions of snowshoes are as much for going over frozen ground and bare ledge and fallen trees and frozen brooks as it is going through deep powder,” Taylor said. “If you’re around the coast of Maine, like me, you may want smaller snowshoes with more traction.”
In addition, comfort and aesthetics might come into play. Some people simply prefer the look and feel of certain snowshoes, Taylor said. He’d rather get his customers into something they love than force them into a certain style or size.
Nitty gritty details
Modern snowshoe designs differ in many ways. Shape, size, materials, bindings, crampons. Each feature serves a purpose.
Once you narrow down what type of snowshoes you’re looking for based on your budget and the type of snowshoeing you plan to do, you may want to look closer at these many features.
Do you think the crampons (metal spikes on the bottom of the snowshoe) are large enough or numerous enough to grip the terrain where you plan to snowshoe? Do the bindings fit well on your boots, and do you think you can adjust them in the cold?
“Brands of snowshoes are constantly trying to make a better binding or easier binding,” Ryder said. “They’ve evolved a lot.”
In addition, if looking at mountaineering snowshoes, you may want to see if they have a heel lift, which is a metal bar that pops up and supports your heel when you’re hiking uphill. This little feature may make all the difference when you’re out exploring a trail.
It might also be helpful to read customer reviews before making a final decision. After all, snowshoes aren’t cheap.
New or used?
Many Maine outfitters and consignment shops sell used outdoor gear, including snowshoes. In addition, outdoor equipment is often sold in newspaper classified ads, Uncle Henry’s, Craigslist and social media sites such as Facebook.
You may be able to get a good deal on used snowshoes, but keep in mind the importance of design and size. Often, options are limited when shopping for used gear. But you might get lucky and find the perfect pair.
Another thing to consider, whether you’re buying new or used, is repair options. It’s not uncommon for bindings to break, and every once in a while, snowshoe frames and crampons bust too.
Some snowshoes companies offer limited-time warranties. Others offer no repair services. If you buy used, you may not qualify for repair services. However, some local outfitters will help customers with repairs by contacting companies on their behalf and ordering parts.
Snowshoes are often sold with a pair of trekking poles. In addition, those poles are often outfitted with snow baskets, which screw onto the end of poles, preventing them from sinking too far into the snow.
“Poles help a lot with balance, so it can be helpful if you’re going uphill or over uneven terrain,” said Mike Townsend, a sales associate at Ski Rack Sports in Bangor. “But a lot of it just comes down to personal preference. It’s not mandatory, and some people like to snowshoe without [poles].”
In addition to helping with balance, poles help snowshoers divide the work between leg and arm muscles, which makes for a more full-body workout. This may also help you with endurance, since you’re not relying solely on your legs as you move through the snow.
Lastly, if you’re new to snowshoeing, keep in mind that snowshoes don’t always keep you on top of the snow. It all depends on snow conditions. If the snow’s crust is thick, you may walk right on top. On the other hand, if the snow is powdery and deep, you’ll sink a bit — but you’ll sink a whole lot less than if you weren’t wearing snowshoes.
“Snowshoeing is just a way to make the hiking season year round,” Taylor said. “It’s just liberating.”