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How to Size Snowshoes

Snowshoe Fit Guide
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.

Updated 2016

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19 comments

  1. 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. A compelling reason to buy local, no?

  3. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  10. I am in the market for new snowshoes. It will be my first time purchasing and using them. I have researched a bunch and found that crampons sound like a good idea as well as heel lifts. Are there any other characteristics hat are important that I should be looking for? The terrain I will be on is in the Northeast……rocky, hilly, packed snow for the most part, and trails in the woods. Also are poles helpful or not necessary?

    Thank you!
    Stacy

    • You want to get snowshoes with televators that lift your heel when climbing up hill. Also, buy them one size smaller than recommended for your weight…we don’t have the snow depth in the northeast to warrant the floatation they have out west. You also want the poles. They prevent you from tipping over.

  11. Philip, In November of this year I used snowshoes for the very first time at Lake Tahoe. It was exciting, but I had rented this pair of Tubbs, and they were probably just 20 inchers. Virtually the whole 5 mile hike was on broken trail left by two hikers who had just returned down my route up. There was generally a foot of snow, on some lesser inch base. Sizing was just right for staying within their track , and ease of travel, until I decided to take a mapped side trail. I began to posthole through where I thought the trail should be. Temperatures had never risen above 26 degrees since the snow fell, and at times this unbroken powder was 2.5 feet deep. I had no flotation in it at all, and could slightly feel the shape of the rocks below my feet. I shortly turned around as the mountain draw was narrowing, but I certainly needed more floatation with my 35 lb pack. It was an incredible hike for me. I weigh 195 lbs and expect with pack to typically be around 225 lbs. My son, who one day may own what I buy, is larger than I and could have a combined weight of 250 lbs.To note your choice in snowshoes, last winter, I did a lot of figuring and came upon the exact choice as you, the 25″ MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoe, figuring, instead of 30 inchers, I could always add tails to increase our flotation if desired. So I am preparing – I have just about all that I need now, I just ordered a cuben DuoMid XL for my overnight protection, have the Whisperlite Universal for cooking, and will probably get these snowshoes for the planned trip at the start of next winter season. I was excited to read your article above – thanks. Isn’t this a great experience!

  12. I weigh 170 lbs and pack weighs around 30 pounds. For 200 lbs to 210 lbs, Does MSR Lightning Ascent 22 inch size (upto 180 lbs) work fine? This is my first pair of snowshoe

  13. Hi Everyone!

    I was wondering what the benefit is of getting a more expensive shnowshoe?

    My wife and I just want to walk on some near by trails and logging roads, nothing too extreme.

    We tried some snow shoes. I wore ones that were 30″, I thought it would be perfect as I weigh about 175LB (so maybe 185 with winter clothes) but I found that my feet still sunk into the snow about 8″ making it hard to walk. (it was crunchy snow too)

    Is that partially because they were cheaply made inexpensive snow shoes?
    or I just need bigger ones? like say 40″ ?

    thanks

    Dylan

  14. Thanks for your post.

    I’ve been looking for a snowshoe and been waffling between the 24 or 28 Tubbs Flex Alpine. My weight and pack puts me into the larger size but I don’t want the extra weight to lug around. Most of my hiking will be in the White Mountains (4000 footers) on icy or snow packed trails. I’ve been using trailsnh.com to research trail conditions.

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