Traditional wood-frame (Yukon, Ojibwa, Beavertail, Bearpaw)? The smaller, modern metal Western frame with high toe-turnup? Or a lower-priced, colorful plastic frame? There are many snowshoe models on the market and the choices can seem overwhelming. Dave Felkley, editor of Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master, 5th Edition has some suggestions to help beginners.
The basic shape of a snowshoe affects its handling in different conditions, says Felkley. But frame design traditional webbing vs. decking, tracking, toe turnup, size, and weight are all factors to consider when selecting the snowshoe right for you. Because no design solves all problems for all people in all terrain and snow conditions, a compromise must be made when buying The idea is to balance flotation and weight against lightness and maneuverability.
Different geographical areas have quite different requirements for snowshoes. For example, in the western coastal ranges where “warm” winter temperatures cause the snow to firm up quickly, small Western snowshoes work very well. Often a 200-pound person will be quite happy with the smallest size, although most people prefer more flotation. The interior of British Columbia; the Rockies of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado; the Wasatch of Utah; and the Sierra of California are a great deal colder than the Cascades of Washington and Oregon. Snow is fluffier, so a larger snowshoe is required for flotation, that is until the snow firms up later in the season.
Snowshoe length, toe rise, and snow conditions
If you’re climbing up mountain slopes, you’ll want to be able to kick steps with your snowshoe. If the snowshoe is over three feet long, it’s too unwieldy for mountain use. Step kicking in the eastern mountains is probably more sever than in any other area of North America. Typically, there is a crust on the snow there. Snowshoes should have nearly flat toes that can really be bashed into the crust to make a step. But in soft western snow—either wet and sloppy or powder—the snowshoe is rather casually stepped down to make a deep step with only the tail sticking out. There are many more Western snowshoes with high toes—three to six inches of toe rise—in use in the coastal mountains of the West than there are traditional wood-frame flat beavertails and bearpaws.
Comfort on descents also has a bearing on whether to choose higher or flatter toes. Most western mountains have softer snow throughout the winter, seldom crusting as the eastern mountains do after a January thaw. So descents are generally in soft snow, where a higher toe where a higher toe helps keep the snowshoe from running under the snow and tripping the snowshoer.
The problems created by steep slopes and hard snow are best solved by fairly small snowshoes that can be placed very accurately just where you want them. For more gentle terrain, the main concern is to have enough flotation without excessive weight. The larger the snowshoe, the less you sink in soft snow. The shape may be long and narrow or short and wide.
Your personal dimensions:
A person’s dimensions should be matched to the snowshoe. For example, a five-foot-long snowshoe is not suited to a very short person. Middle-aged or less-active persons and young teenagers probably don’t
have the stamina for bigger (heavier) snowshoes.
- When comparing two different snowshoe models to see which has the larger surface (thus more flotation), place one on top of the other and estimate how much bigger it is by comparing the actual flotation surface. Remember, that surface does not include a long skinny tail or a very high toe rise, which does not add much flotation. The differences in wood-frame shapes and sizes sometimes are not that much different in flotation ability.
- The ultimate way to select a style is to try the snowshoes on the snow. Many retail shops, manufacturers, and local clubs have demonstration days and snowshoe festivals to introduce potential buyers to the sport. If nature cooperates, you can try different sizes and types on firm snow, in powder, and on some hillsides. Or try renting before you buy; some shops will even apply rental costs to the purchase price.
- When picking your weight range, don’t forget to allow for a heavy pack, if you’re going to use one.
- For general all-around use, choose the smaller size rather than the larger. If you are going snowshoeing in gentle country, you don’t need all that heavy equipment designed for mountains.
Specific to wood-frame snowshoes:
- When using wood-frame snowshoes, if the route doesn’t climb steeply and the snow is exceedingly deep and soft, a good choice would be a medium to large Ojibwa, with pointed toe and tail and a toe rise of six to eight inches.
- If the route has steep descending slopes in this same deep powder, a Yukon would be better, except that they don’t climb steep slopes well.
- If steep is going to be the game, a medium to large modified bearpaw—Green Mountain, for example—would work well since it will handle a traverse.
Adapted from Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master, 5th Edition by Gene Prater, edited by Dave Felkley, The Mountaineers Books, $16.95