How to Size Snowshoes

Snowshoe Fit Guide

The size of snowshoe you need depends on your body weight, the weight of your gear, snow type, and whether you snowshoe on broken-out trails or travel cross-country, on fresh powder.

But, if you are about to buy a new pair of snowshoes, don’t take manufacturer’s size recommendations as gospel. Their snowshoe fit guides tend to put you into a snowshoe that is too big and much heavier than you need. The last thing you want is to carry more weight in winter than necessary, or get stuck with a giant pair of snowshoes that are impossible to maneuver with. I’ve done this myself, and it’s money down the drain.

Generally, the larger the snowshoe, the more flotation and decking surface area it will provide. If you plan on snowshoeing on powder and breaking trail more than 80% of the time, then I’d recommend you get a larger snowshoe with a lot of flotation. However, if you plan on snowshoeing on broken-out trails or a mix of snow and icy, rocky terrain then I recommend that you downsize a level. You don’t need the flotation, and you’ll find it difficult to maneuver with 30″ snowshoes on narrow, trench-like trails.

Snowshoes for Rocky Terrain

Let me give you a real world example. I live in rocky New England. I mainly hike on mountain trails under tree cover, with moderate snow levels. I avoid snowshoeing on trails that are not broken out and mainly hike on older, crusty snow or a dusting of powder. I weigh 200 lbs and carry a 25-50 lb pack on winter day hikes and backpacking trips.

At one point, I used 30″ Atlas 8 Series Snowshoes and then 30″ Northern Lite ultralight snowshoes. Both proved too large for practical use because they were too wide to fit in the narrow trench of a broken trail and they were difficult to turn around in while wearing. Using them was downright unpleasant, so I downsized to 25″ MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes. That was three winters ago and has proven to be a good switch.

If you add my weight and gear weight together, it comes to 250 lbs on the high end when I’m backpacking and 225 lbs on the low when I’m day tripping. That  puts me into the 30″ Lightning Ascent if I were to follow the MSR fit guide, which doesn’t work for New England snowshoeing. At least, not for me.

Conclusion

In my experience, fit guides from snowshoe manufacturers tend to put you into a snowshoe size designed for powdery snow requiring a high degree of flotation. If you plan on snowshoeing on packed trails, consider downsizing to a shorter and narrower snowshoe, than the one recommended for your combined body and gear weight.

If in doubt, ask around. Post a question about sizing on an online forum or meetup group with local hikers that are familiar with the terrain in your area. They can give you the advice you need to purchase the right size snowshoe for your needs.

Written 2011. Updated 2013

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9 Responses to How to Size Snowshoes

  1. marco February 18, 2011 at 2:48 am #

    Sometimes the width will also make a big difference in getting around. A narrow shoe will let you weave in and out on a rough path, say the ADK High Peaks. But you loose floatation without extra length. Many variables here. Generally there were reasons for the various designs you see in history. Modern designs generally do not follow the regional characteristics so a local guide in one area will often give you a different piece of advice than one in another area. Neither is wrong.

  2. Earlylite February 18, 2011 at 4:38 am #

    A compelling reason to buy local, no?

  3. Victor February 20, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    This certainly points up the fact that there's no one answer. This wonderful winter here in New England has made that clear. I've seen people snowboarding in glades that have never been usable before, and I've waded through waist deep drifts of powder on the Holyoke Range.

    I use a pair of Atlas shoes that I've had for years. But i only use them when the snow gets over a foot on the ground. Otherwise, and for any packed and icy cut trails, i prefer some kind of crampon or cleat. Most recently, Micro-Spikes.

    That said, as the season warms, our unusually snow covered trails here will become difficult. As the pack softens, there is still over a foot of snow under it. Standard shoes like the Atlas won't work well, so I've been looking for alternatives. Right now I'm liking the MSR EVO. Those sharp metal side runners look like just the ticket.

  4. Steve February 20, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Reading these posts points to the need for a new (?) product–narrow snowshoes that have an adjustable length. One could then "tune" it to the conditions they are hiking through.

  5. marco February 20, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Yeah, MSR was getting to that with the tails you could add. But the entire shoe was still a bit on the heavy side. Coupled with heavy boots, it was almost self defeating, but a good thought.

  6. mike December 10, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Bought new shoes about a month ago. Wish I had read this first. Love my shoes, but still. Also, turns out, Tubbs repairs a lot of the stuff that breaks on them – which would have been useful to know last year before I threw the broken ones out!

  7. Benjamin Burner December 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    I purchased enormous snow shoes a few years ago, before reading this article. I'd have to agree, though, it depends on the conditions. I'm often breaking the trail in deep powder, so I usually enjoy the extra size / flotation.

  8. Andy Kowalczyk December 11, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    We first tried snowshoeing (after a bad day of trying to learn to cross country ski) at the Nordic area at Gunstock. We did that a couple of years and decided to buy our own – low and behold they were clearing out rental stock that weekend and we got a good deal!

    We came to the same conclusion you did about a smaller size – especially since our intent was just for fun trips in the woods. We used them all the time in the conservation lands when we lived in Lexington ( very much like pocket sized versions of the Middlesex Fells)

    I have gone overnight with the smaller shoe – but stay off the mountains and aim for frozen lakes and woods. I put all my gear on a sled to keep the weight off the shoes.

    This is my favorite sled
    http://www.emscogroup.com/products/product?id=31
    it has holes along the side to thread in a rope that can be used as a pull handle and to tie in the load. I bring the pull rope up to my back and stretch both sides around to the front where I clip them together with a 'biner – makes a thoroughly serviceable harness.

    If I was doing a serious expedition I would look into the purpose built pulks – but this is perfect for a weekend or for winter camping with a scout troop.

  9. David Priester October 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I am in the market for some modern snowshoes. I had suspected from other readings that the recommended sizes might be too large for my uses. My size and weight is about yours and I am not likely to be breaking trail in deep snow so I will be looking for a 25″ pair. Very useful information.

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