Floating Above the Snow: Your Guide to Snowshoes Part 1
Snowshoeing, a classic Canadian pastime; is a great way to explore the winter outdoors, stay in shape, and most importantly: have fun. There is something special about hearing crunch of the snow underneath your feet with every step and just taking in the vastness of the backcountry during a good snowshoe. The role of the snowshoe is to increase the surface area of your feet, thereby distributing your weight over a wider space and allowing you to “float” on the snow.
Much like any type of sports equipment, not all snowshoes are created equal. Each brand, each shape, and each form have different functions, and are made for a variety of things/activities. I’m going to show you a couple different types, what they do, and what type of stuff to look for when eyeing-up some new snowshoes.
Below is a picture of my collection of snowshoes. Now, don’t freak out and think you’re going to have to buy four pairs of snowshoes just to go into the backcountry. The four pairs are just what I have accumulated over the years; and really you only need one good pair to serve 99% of your outdoor adventuring needs. Starting from left to right:
1) MSR Lightning Ascent (30 inch)
2) Atlas 1025 (25 inch)
3) Atlas RUN
4) TSL 305 Step-in Race
As you can see they all look slightly different. Despite these differences which I will describe below, (especially between the MSR Lightning Ascents and the Atlas 1025) they are all very good, high quality snowshoes.
Backcountry All Terrain Snowshoes:
MSR Lightning Ascent and Atlas 1025These are made for your typical outdoor snowshoeing adventures, and are what 99% of people would want. Featuring a large surface area, straps for attaching your boots, and a number of spikes for traction – these are standard snowshoes for all types of terrain.
Typically offered in both Men’s and Women’s (Women’s are usually skinnier) they also come in a number of different lengths. The longer the snowshoe, the more weight you can carry because your surface area is increased. However, a longer snowshoe is more cumbersome and heavier, so you’ll want to determine your length based on what you’ll typically be doing (day hikes, short multi-day trips or long expeditions). Just look at the specs for each length and determine how much load you’ll be putting on your snowshoes. For example, for me, I’m 160 lbs, then I add say 55 lbs for a large pack if I wanted to be able to do a long expedition, for a total of 215 lbs. Therefore the MSR Lightning Ascent 25 would be a good match since it can bear a max load of 220 lbs. If I was planning on doing only day hikes, the Ascent 22 inch length (max load 180 lbs) would be better. The pair of Ascents you see in the picture are actually 30 inches long, but that is only because I was planning on using them on Denali, (with a pack load exceeding 75 lbs) so I need the extra length. I would not recommend snowshoes that long for anyone really unless there was legitimate pressing need.
There is an option to temporarily extend the length of your snowshoes if need be, through the use of tails. Tails are an extra accessory that’s available for some models for bearing extra weight. They are available for the Lightning Ascents here. I’ve never tried them before, but they seem to be good option if you typically do smaller hikes and occasionally go on longer trips once in a while; but not enough to necessitate bearing the longer snowshoe all the time.
Construction & Traction:Here is what I feel is the most important and differentiating factor between the MSR Lightning Ascents and the Atlas 1025s.
The Atlas 1025 features a rolled aluminum tube around the edges with a number of steel spikes around the binding and foot area. While the aluminum tubing can offer a little bit of friction in the snow, its main function is just to shape and strengthen the snowshoe itself. What this means is all your grip is pretty much just the large spikes and nothing much else. This becomes of a problem if you’re traversing (moving sideways along a slope and not straight up it) or going up a very steep incline as IMO, there isn’t enough grip – thereby permitting the possibility of a slide. Most snowshoes are designed like this, not just the Atlas.
The MSR Lightning Ascent features a rigid thin flat aluminum frame that in itself is made to dig in and grip the snow. That means the entire circumference of the frame plus the extra middle horizontal bars will provide traction. Therefore, there is is a huge difference in the amount of effective traction bearing surfaces between the Lightning Ascent and the Atlas 1025. Going uphill, traversing, or whatever terrain, the Lightning Ascents grip a lot better than any other snowshoe I’ve seen to date. I believe they have patented the thin aluminum frame concept so you won’t see anything like it anywhere else.
A feature of both the Lightning Ascents and new Atlas 1025s, (mine is a older model so it doesn’t have it) is that these things will save your calve muscles on long uphills. When ascending, you can raise the climbing bar so your heel sits elevated above the snowshoe. This changes the angle of your foot so it is more parallel to flat ground instead of the grade of the slope. This makes it much more comfortable to ascend and allows you to use more leg muscles instead of just your calves and toes. A very recommended feature!
Overall the MSR Lightning Ascents are the top of the line, best snowshoes out there. They are also (unfortunately) the most costly. Atlas snowshoes are still very good and still expensive but they easily beat out cheapo snowshoes you might find at Costco/Zellers/Kmart. Here is some of their pricing at MEC:MSR Lightning Ascent 25 Mens- $269 (22 and 30 inch lengths also available)MSR Lightning Ascent 22 Womens – $269 (25 and 30 inch lengths also available)Atlas 1025 – $195
Of course, you don’t have to run out and buy snowshoes to get snowshoeing. They can easily be rented atMEC and many mountain resorts but now you know what to look for and what you’re getting.
** Stay tuned for part 2 when I write about the other 2 snowshoes in that pic, Running Snowshoes! **