Anything MSR. Now hit the trail! In reality, snowshoe shopping isn’t quite that easy–here’s the best way to determine what snowshoes to buy for use in the PNW.
TUBES VS. TEETH
There are two types of snowshoes–ones that are a metal tube, often aluminum, or ones with metal teeth around the edges. If you’re snowshoeing in the PNW, show me your teeth! As you might have noticed in this winter wonderland Washington is currently experiencing, we get a pattern of snow which then melts, and in cold night temperatures re-freezes. Like a layered cake, you could be stepping through multiple days of snow-ice-snow, while other parts of the country just have feet of fluffy powder. This phenomenon has our snow dubbed “Cascade Concrete.” Try to snowshoe on a hill in snowshoes with a tube–I did once and slipped and fell down the hill! Metal on ice works for ice skates to slide, but not for snowshoes to grip. While you can buy tube snowshoes for cheap at Costco, you could be wanting to upgrade to a better pair if you ever venture on steeper terrain–so I advocate for “buy once, cry once” and shelling out a bit more to get a pair with teeth.
MSR is known in the outdoors community as the gold standard for snowshoes, especially in this area. They are from Seattle and have been engineering snowshoes for our Cascade Concrete for more than 20 years. Since 1995, they’ve made a basic style, called the ‘Evo’ (formerly called the Denali). You can find these snowshoes often in rental shops or guided treks with the Forest Service and REI, which to me speaks highly of their quality. This is what I have used from the beginning and now own a pair of. They are unisex and lacking a few features though, which could steer your decision.
DO I NEED WOMEN’S?
Typically, the largest difference in ‘women’s’ snowshoes and ‘unisex’ is width. Women typically have a different gait compared to men, so some women find more narrow snowshoes to be helpful when walking. If you’re on a trail that is narrow, less width will be extremely helpful to not have to walk it like a tightrope, one foot directly in front of the other. The bindings might be better for smaller feet on women’s snowshoes as well, which can be useful. My size 7.5 feet do typically have to be on one of the tighter settings with my Evos. Ultimately, the choice is up to you. I’ve only used unisex snowshoes, so cannot speak to if they are better. However, to my knowledge most rental places only have unisex MSR Evos, so trying a pair of women’s snowshoes before you buy might be more difficult.
SELECTING A MODEL
If you decide to go with MSR, for both women’s and unisex there are three styles of feature: Trail, Explore, Ascent. Trail models ($140-220) are all designed to be best for flat terrain (Revo Trail being slightly nicer than Evo, and Lightning Trail the top-of the line, lightest weight version). The Explore line ($220 Revo and the lightweight $280 Lightning) adds a new feature–a ‘lift’ bar. With most snowshoes, when you go uphill you have to kind of stab with your toes to dig in, leaving your heels hanging (agony for those with plantar fasciitis or Achilles issues). These offer a lift bar you can just flip up for steep gains to make your heel rest level on the bar. If you intend to be doing any steeper or off-trail exploring, these bars are worth every penny. Lastly, the Ascent series ($200-$300) is designed for serious mountaineering and climbing. What trails you do will help you guide what features you need–no need to shell out $300 if you’re only going to be doing flat, easy terrain.
One new feature added to the Revo and Lightning Ascent is a new, net-like binding system for the top of the foot. I decided the liftbar alone was worth it and now also own a pair of Revo Ascents, and that binding is a game-changer! No more hot spots, no more straps flying open that need to be adjusted, so far, a wonderful change. MSR does sell replacement net-bindings in case of disaster (they also sell replacement straps of other models, few gear that gets well-loved doesn’t need repair). The Revo and Lightning Explore also have new bindings, that are straps like the old pair, but ratchet tight instead of buckling, so again, no more straps flying open (not like I love that happening on the mountainside or anything!).
Snowshoes, for both men and women, come in different sizes. However, the sizes aren’t based on height or foot size, but weight. Typically, 21 or 22-inch snowshoes (depending on brand) are recommended for those who in winter clothes, with a pack on, weigh in at 180 pounds or less. However, our crunchy Cascade Concrete throws another wrench in the mix. Weight distribution matters a lot more in fluffy snow found elsewhere compared to here, where you aren’t going to be sinking as much. I’ve seen people who weigh 225 say they use 22-inch snowshoes just fine. Many other people have informed me that 25-inch snowshoes (the next size up) are bulky and unwieldy, so the general consensus is to stick with a smaller size. If you are concerned about your weight or are bringing overnight gear, MSR sells flotation tails that can be added to snowshoes for more even weight distribution. Having a pair in your pack can bring on added peace of mind if you start sinking.
DO I HAVE TO BUY?
Absolutely not! There’s tons of local businesses in the greater Seattle area up to the mountains that will rent you gear. A rental at REI, including tails and poles, was $36 and included three–yes, three–trips to return them (due to a fire in the store and then an early closure due to snow). However, my on-sale snowshoes and poles will only take three trips to be cheaper than renting, and certainly are more convenient, so it can all depend on how often you plan on going. If you do choose to buy, you can look into used or discount ones, especially as winter ends. I checked Craigslist, Amazon, Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and REI every day, until one morning I saw MSR Evos for 50% off at REI. I tried to buy two, as then I could goad my friends into joining without the hassle of renting, but they sold so fast I was lucky to get just one! Patience pays off with looking for a deal.
Overall, you are the best source of knowledge on the frequency of use, as well as the terrain and trail you’ll be on. Do your research, ask around, and try a pair out for yourself before buying. If you have already purchased snowshoes, what do you own, and how do you feel about them?
I have not been paid or compensated for these opinions or asked to provide them.