It’s no surprise that people have been using snowshoes for over 6,000 years. Snowshoes are one of the most elegant pieces of technology ever invented. Their purpose is simple: they keep you on top of the snow so that you can walk wherever you want, all year round.
Snowshoes are a great tool to extend the hiking season well into the winter. They can also help adventurous types push into harsher, more technical terrain. But which should you buy?
I put together this guide to compare some of the best mountaineering snowshoes on the market in 2023. So whatever your goal is, you’ll find the right pair doing what you love.
My Review Process
I’ve been exploring the forested, snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains my whole life. And if there’s anything I know that can ruin your day, it’s getting soaked up to your knees. So I’ve become obsessed with finding the perfect pair of snowshoes to help me get where I’m going in the dead of winter.
I’ve done extensive research on current technology, design, practical applications, and brands. My goal was to find the best snowshoes for every job. This guide is the product of that research. It also contains a buyers’ guide to help you know what to look for while shopping.
It’s no secret that MSR makes some of the best outdoor gear on the market. But their strongest products are their snowshoes. In my opinion, the MSR Lightning Ascent is the best of the best when it comes to recreational snowshoes.
The Lightning Ascent has everything you might need to tackle any kind of snow conditions. This includes fresh powder, slush, corn, and hard pack. Their design integrates crampons both underfoot and around the outer frame for excellent traction. They’re lightweight, rugged, and very ergonomic.
The downsides here aren’t outrageous, but there are a few. The straps are a little short, making them harder to use in big, warm boots. They also use hinged foot decks, which are not ideal for groomed trails.
In addition, they’re the most expensive snowshoes on this list. But if you’re willing to pay for premium gear, the Lightning Ascent is worth it.
If you’re new to snowshoeing, finding something cheap that won’t fall apart is a great place to start. The Franklin Arctic Trail provides awesome performance in a package that’s well worth the cost.
The Arctic Trail uses traditional tubular frames, which are super durable. The ratcheting straps are easy to use. They come in four sizes, which accommodates lots of users. Best of all, they’re the cheapest on this list.
But the Arctic Trail has a lot of limitations. They don’t have as much traction for snowshoeing off trail. They’re on the heavy side, too.
In addition, aluminum frames aren’t as ergonomic to walk in and you may find yourself tripping over them more. But if you’re planning to hike on trails and hard pack, they will get the job done.
If you’re a beginner with more wiggle room in their budget, the Atlas Helium Trail snowshoes are ideal. They feature a lot of the same features and designs as the MSR Lightning Ascent, at less than half the cost.
The Helium Trail is a clear winner for weight, ease of use, and ergonomics. They incorporate a more low-profile design that’s easy to walk in and easy to pack. The straps are great and easy to step into.
However, they’re not as good as the Lightning Ascent in deep snow or very technical terrain. While they do have crampons on the decks and frames, the traction is more suited to moderate terrain.
For covering high mileage with ease, the Helium Trail snowshoes get a gold star. This is a perfect jumping-off point for new snowshoers.
If you’re headed out into fresh snow, you want a traditional snowshoe with lots of surface area. The Crescent Moon Gold 10 does a great job of meeting this need while being easy to use.
The Gold 10's design is specifically for off-trail use in deep powder. They use aluminum frames to maximize floatation.
They also use ratcheting straps which do an excellent job of keeping your foot in place while you hike. Some small spikes underfoot add traction as well.
If you’re in steep or rolling terrain, Crescent Moon makes a compatible heel riser to improve uphill performance. This is a plus for exploring in the mountains.
The main design flaw I found with the Gold 10 comes from its floaty design. They are not very ergonomic and will take some getting used to to walk in without tripping. They’re a specialized tool that does their job well, but don’t expect them to perform as well on long trail days.
Snowshoeing is one of the best winter activities to do with the whole family. Kids love getting out and seeing the world dressed up in white. Because kids are so lightweight, it doesn’t take much to keep them on top of the snow. A little extra traction and surface area is all they need.
The MSR Tyker does a great job of giving kids the platform they need to hike in snow. These snowshoes are super easy to use and will help them quickly learn how to get used to snowshoes. The straps work so easily they won’t have trouble strapping themselves in.
The downside to the Tyker is how simple they are. They use basic plastic frames, which is great for kids to learn on, but little ones will outgrow them before long.
If you’re snowshoeing on trails, you want something small and light that will give you a ton of traction. The TSL Symbioz Phoenix is exactly that. They’re very comfortable, ergonomic, and easy to use thanks to a BOA binding system.
Underfoot, they feature a few crampon spikes to keep you from slipping. The profile is very slim, so they pack well and are a breeze to walk in. For the straightforward goal of trail hiking, the Phoenix will help you be fast on your feet.
But having a specialized design means they’re not very versatile. They won’t perform off trail, in deep snow, or on rolling terrain as well as the others on this list. They do one job, and they do it well.
When you move into steep slopes, the game of snowshoeing changes. Traction, ergonomics, and precision should be your main focus. For technical snowshoeing, the Tubbs Flex VRT is my clear winner.
These snowshoes feature BOA straps that keep your feet locked in place, a slim profile, and heavy duty crampons for extra traction. The frames are on the small side, trading some flotation for more dexterity when hiking uphill. They’re comfortable, dependable, and easy to use.
The loss of floatation, though, means they won’t perform as well in deep snow. These work best in spring conditions, where you need grip more than surface area.
Types of Snowshoes
There are as many kinds of snowshoes as there are kinds of snow. This translates to three broad categories: snowshoes for trails, spring conditions, and deep snow.
If you’re hiking trails, you need snowshoes that will provide a little extra traction to keep you from slipping. They’re small, which means a more ergonomic, natural stride. They’re also the smallest and lightest of the categories.
For spring conditions, with icy snow or slush, you’re looking for lots of traction. This means having crampons both under the foot decks and frames themselves.
It also means more medium-sized frames, because floatation isn’t as important. These snowshoes perform well in each type of terrain and are easy to walk in.
In soft snow, you want snowshoes with lots of surface area. These are the heaviest, most burly, and awkward snowshoes you’ll find. But they have to be - anything smaller or narrower wouldn’t keep you on top when you’re in powdery snow.
How To Shop For A Pair Of Snowshoes
Snowshoes vary a lot in their designs and intended uses. But which designs do better in which conditions? Here are a few things to consider when shopping for snowshoes.
Weight and Materials
The golden rule is: lighter is always better. But sometimes we have to make sacrifices. You should look for snowshoes that are as light as possible without losing too much floatation.
The heaviest snowshoes commonly have frames with aluminum tubing. This is most common on snowshoes designed for deep snow.
Others have a one-piece aluminum frame, or a combination of aluminum and nylon. The lightest trail snowshoes use plastic frames. These are extremely lightweight, but not very durable.
MSR is commonly viewed as the best manufacturer of snowshoes. They have been making high-quality outdoor gear since the late ‘60s. Atlas, Crescent Moon, TSR, and Tubbs are also reputable brands that make high-quality mountaineering gear.
If you need to carry your snowshoes on your back, you want them to fit together easily without poking you in the back of the head or legs. Snowshoes with flat aluminum frames typically pack the best.
In general, the more low-profile the frames and crampons are, the easier they will be to carry.
Surface area is a major consideration when you’re thinking about how you’ll use your snowshoes. More surface area means better floatation, but also more weight. If you’re going to be in deep snow, more surface area is better.
However, in mixed conditions, you can usually get away with a little less surface area than you think you might need. It’s good to find a snowshoe that balances surface area and traction if you’re shopping for an all-rounder.
Straps and Bindings
How your boots fit into your snowshoes makes a big difference. You want straps that will hold you in place without coming loose or slipping. What works best for you is partly a matter of personal preference.
The most common kinds of snowshoe straps are: rubber straps, ratchet straps, and BOA bindings. Rubber straps are the most straightforward, using a peg-and-hole system like a belt.
Ratchet straps work like snowboard bindings, and do well at holding your foot steady. BOA straps are also used in snowboard boots. They use a locking cable/wheel system and are the easiest to adjust on the fly.
Snowshoe sizing mostly has to do with your body weight. You want snowshoes that will support you and keep you from sinking, without being so big that they trip you. Snowshoe sizes show their “load,” or how much weight they’re designed to bear.
Most manufacturers will list their model-specific load capacities next to the sizes. But in general, 22” frames work up to 150 lb, 25” up to 175 lb, and 30” up to 220 or more lb. When picking snowshoes, don’t forget to account for the extra weight of your pack.
Traction and Heel Risers
Traction is most important in spring conditions and steep terrain. When there isn't soft snow, you want a snowshoe that’s grippy, not one that floats.
Snowshoes provide traction by incorporating metal spikes (or crampons) into their designs. More crampons equals more traction.
When hiking in steep terrain, adding a heel riser will give you better purchase. Heel risers are blocks of plastic that fit under your heel. They increase the angle at which you can walk with the snowshoe laying flat on the ground under you.
The MSR Lightning Ascent is the best snowshoe on the market. The best bang for your buck is the Franklin Sports Arctic Trail. For beginners, the Atlas Helium Trail snowshoe provides an excellent value for your money. In deep snow, the Crescent Moon Gold 10 is the clear winner.
Not necessarily. Snowshoes help on long, snowy ascents in mixed conditions with bad traction.
MSR is widely considered the best manufacturer of snowshoes.
21” snowshoes should support up to 150 lb. 25” snowshoes will support up to 200 lb. Don’t forget that you’ll weigh a little bit more when wearing a backpack.
Choose a snowshoe with the right amount of traction and float for the snow conditions you plan to use it in. The best all-around snowshoe is the MSR Lightning Ascent.
For beginners hiking only on packed trails, cheap snowshoes will get the job done. However, they're less versatile and ergonomic, and often aren’t as durable.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.