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Snowshoes should fit both the snowshoer and the intended use

Posted: Friday, January 02, 2004

For those who love fitness, adventure and nature, snowshoeing is a perfect combination of all three. Not only is it a great way to enjoy some favorite summer destinations during winter, but unlike a lot of sports, snowshoeing is easy to learn.

"It's the one activity that everyone who can walk can do," said Karen Righthand, director of marketing with Atlas Snow-Shoe Company.

However, purchasing snowshoes can be a daunting task to newcomers.

"It can be a little intimidating for your first time," said Righthand. To make things easier she advises breaking the purchase down into several categories.

 

Snowshoeing is easy, but purchasing snowshoes can be daunting to those new to the sports. Before spending any money, it's important to consider many aspects such as application, flotation, style, construction, features and accessories, in order to ensure buying the right snowshoe.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"Based on their application, snowshoes can be divided into three main categories," Righthand said, those being recreational, all-terrain and sports snowshoes.

"We also came out with gender specific snowshoes last year," she said. "Women have a narrower stance and shorter stride, so they need a shoe that will be more specific to their individual biomechanics."

Picking the right snowshoes involves some thought prior to the purchase.

"You have to ask yourself several questions about how and where you're going to use them and begin drilling down to the right shoe," said Righthand.

Also, based on the material they're made from, snowshoes can generally be classified as either traditional or modern.

Traditional snowshoes are the snowshoes that have been used by the Natives of Alaska for hundreds of years. They were often made of willow or other wood, with a decking of moose sinew or thin strips of hide.

In modern times, traditional shoes continue to have frames made of wood (although more often white ash) with a decking material of rawhide or synthetic webbing such as a neoprene coated nylon.

Wooden shoes are classics, still favored by many old-timers and veteran snowshoers. Although they come in many styles such as the bear paw, the Alaskan, and the beaver tail, traditional shoes are often considered more simple in design and more elegant in appearance.

Modern snowshoes, sometimes called technical shoes, usually have aluminum frames with solid synthetic decks, rather than lacing, which increase flotation. Plastic molded frames also exist, but are not as common.

"The aluminum alloy is much lighter," said Righthand. "You lose about a pound per pair compared to other materials, and every pound off your feet is equivalent to 6 on your back. Modern shoes tend to be much more durable and resistant to abrasion as well."

With the type of shoe out of the way, how and where it will be used becomes the focus. "We boil it down to a formula we have an acronym for called F.A.C.T., which stands for flotation, articulation, comfort and traction," said Righthand.

FLOTATION

"Flotation is what your weight will be on top of the snow," said Righthand.

It is determined by two factors snowshoe size and snow condition.

Here on the peninsula, snow condition isn't a huge factor since snow characteristics aren't as widely varying as some other locations such as down in the Lower 48.

The peninsula receives a lot more wet snow than dry powder, and the warmer temperatures here generally make for a denser, firmer snow as a result of thawing during the day and refreezing at night. These conditions play into the second factor of flotation determining the right size snowshoes, since denser snow often allows for a smaller shoe.

"Weight also must be considered in selecting the right size shoe," said Righthand. Many snowshoes have a tag or label identifying the weight range the model shoe is designed to support. "Weight includes not just body weight, but gear weight, a child in a backpack, whatever," said Righthand.

Recreational snowshoers may not have much more gear weight to consider other than their boots, winter clothes and a light daypack. However, backcountry backpackers and mountaineers can easily carry between 50 and 75 pounds of extra weight in gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, stove and so on. As gear weight increases, so too will snowshoe size increase.

Taking all this into consideration, determining snowshoe size can seem a little tricky. Just bear in mind flotation, flotation, flotation. The perfect shoe is the smallest one that can be used without compromising flotation. But a shoe that is too small is worthless, since the user will just sink and have to post hole, rather than float on top of the snow.

For this reason, it's often better to err on the side of bigger rather than smaller. However, Righthand pointed out "A 120-pound women doesn't need 36-inch snowshoes." Unless she would be, for example, in 3 feet of fresh powder packing out game after hunting, Righthand said.

ARTICULATION AND COMFORT

"Articulation refers to how the foot moves in the snowshoe," said Righthand. "You want a natural stance and stride on the snow."

Articulation can relate directly to bindings, and these are one of the most important features on a snowshoe. After all, it doesn't matter how many other features the shoes have if they won't stay on your feet.

Bindings are generally either fixed holding the foot in place or allow for rotation either limited or free. Fixed bindings keep the foot in place, while rotating bindings allow the user's foot to pivot, which can lead to greater efficiency.

Snowshoes with limited-rotation bindings lift completely off the ground with every step. The tail does not drag as it does with a free-rotation system. This can reduce energy exerted and increase efficiency on flat or gently rolling hills and packed trails.

Free-rotating bindings are intended for the steep terrain and hill climbing a hiker would encounter in backcountry backpacking and mountaineering. With free rotation, the tail falls and drags but this allows the user to really dig into a slope with his or her toes. This can greatly increase climbing traction, which is why shoes with these bindings also typically feature aggressive crampons, such as both heel and toe cleats.

"You want something that will allow the shoe to take up the terrain and not the foot," said Righthand. "On a traverse you want to be able to keep flat footing and have the shoe be able to flex laterally."

Regardless of which binding system is chosen, a pair of snowshoes should be comfortable and fit snugly.

"You don't want them cutting off circulation, so they shouldn't be overly constrictive or create pressure points," said Righthand.

Snowshoes also should fit a variety of boots, since footwear worn while snowshoeing will often vary.

"You've got to try them on," suggested Righthand. ""It's like hiking boots you would never purchase them without first trying them on."

A reliable way to see if a snowshoe fits is to shake each foot from side to side with the snowshoe on. It should move with each foot with minimal jiggling or following.

Binding styles will also vary some feature straps while others have snaps, buckles, ratchets, and other lacing devices.

"Try to get something that is easy to use," said Righthand.

That usually comes down to individual preference, but consider a type that will not clog with snow easily and will be simple to adjust quickly with frozen fingers or in gloves. Also, choose straps that are comfortable and durable. Avoid straps that may absorb water since these can often freeze solid as the temperatures drop during an outing.

TRACTION

"Traction is what really separates modern snowshoes," said Righthand.

Recreational snowshoes are also called walking snowshoes. These are good for walking, day hiking or light backpacking.

"You can use these right out your back door," said Righthand "They perform well on the flat terrain of packed or groomed trails."

Construction materials used for recreational shoes are fairly durable, while crampons and cleats range from subtle to moderate.

All-terrain snowshoes are the recreational shoes' tougher big brother and are built to be reliable through extreme conditions and terrain. They would be the shoes for people interested in off-trail exploring, backcountry backpacking or mountaineering.

"These aren't just for the backcountry, like some people think, they're for all terrain. If you'll be doing any kind of climbing, descending or traversing, these are the shoes you'll need," said Righthand.

Since these shoes are designed to offer increased traction, durability and maneuverability, they are often made of more durable materials than recreational shoes. Crampons and cleats are much more aggressive and binding systems may be a little more sophisticated.

The down side is that all the added features usually come with an added price, making all-terrain snowshoes the most expensive.

However, Righthand said, when it comes to snowshoes you often get what you pay for.

"You can't have too much snowshoe. You should always try to get the most you can for the money you're willing to spend, but it can be worth it to spend more and be comfortable and have a shoe that's reliable on all terrains."

The third category is sport snowshoes, which are probably the most activity-specific snowshoes. They are small, lightweight, have tapered frames and may be typically used on packed trails.

"They have less traction and less surface area," said Righthand, "These shoes are built for running and racing."

OTHER ACCESSORIES

Footwear worn while snowshoeing is highly variable and will depend on application, but generally waterproof, insulated, hiking or snow boots are suitable.

Even big rubber pac boots such as Sorels will work, but can be unnecessarily heavy. Medium to lightweight boots, tend to be more efficient and can provide more ankle support. For mountaineering, plastic double boots are common to wear while snowshoeing.

Trekking poles can add stability, balance and traction. For better float, look for poles with snow baskets as opposed to disks. Properly sized poles allow the user's elbows to be at 90-degree angles when the poles are planted on level ground, just outside the snowshoes.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Purchasing snowshoes can be intimidating, but having some good information can help in making the right choice.

No matter which snowshoes are ultimately purchased, it's important to remember that no one shoe will be perfect in all conditions. As anyone who has ever snowshoed a mountain could attest, conditions from the bottom to the top could often require different snowshoes.

However, snowshoe manufacturers have taken this into consideration, which is why there is substantial overlap between most snowshoe categories and models.

People potentially interested in purchasing snowshoes shouldn't feel limited by the difference in make and model, but rather should use these to more closely narrow down the right shoe for them.



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