A blanket of snow over your favorite trail is no reason to stop hiking -- it's a chance to get the snowshoes out and explore fresh, new terrain. Don't have a pair? No problem. I recommend you skip the generic brands sold in most general stores/supermarkets and go straight to an outdoor equipment retailer (or website) to do your shopping*. (You might be able to score a great deal at some of these places.)
Before You Hit the Store
- Put on your winter hiking boots and socks. Once you're in the store you'll be able to double-check that they fit the bindings of the snowshoes you've chosen.
- Weigh yourself in typical winter hiking layers plus your full backpack, hiking footwear, hiking poles, and anything else you expect to carry while on snowshoes. If you don't have a scale at home, you'll have to carry everything to the store and weigh yourself there.
In the Store
- Detour past any racing snowshoes. You want snowshoes with metal cleats on the bottoms -- they provide extra traction as you're going up or down hills. Not only do racing snowshoes lack those cleats, they're also shaped for speed instead of the maximum flotation you want when tromping across new snow.
- Look for snowshoes with front, back and side cleats or crampons. Some of the cheaper pairs may have only front cleats, which are really only useful for going up hills. How do the manufacturers expect you to get back down? The back and side cleats help you maintain traction no matter which way you're facing in relation to the slope.
- Weigh your hinge options. Snowshoe bindings mounted to a pivotal or free-floating hinge let the back of the snowshoe drag along the ground. This is helpful when you're going up hills, but can get tiring because you end up drag the shoes through the snow with every step. Going backwards in this type of snowshoe is quite awkward, and they're a little harder to maneuver through tight quarters than spring-hinge-mounted bindings.
Snowshoe bindings mounted to a spring-loaded hinge snap back up against your heel with every step. This makes it easier to maneuver in general, and also makes going backwards a lot easier. The downside is that the spring-loaded hinges will snap any snow that was on your snowshoes up against your back with every step, and they're a little harder to handle on uphill slopes.
- Compare your weight against the weight range listed on the snowshoes' tag. Remember to take into account the extra weight of any gear you intend to carry while you're on the snowshoes. If you fall near the top end of a given pair's weight scale, consider sizing up so you'll have the freedom to carry heavier loads if need be.
That said, avoid buying too-large snowshoes "just in case"; they'll be extremely unwieldy and uncomfortable to walk around in.
- If you expect to travel in avalanche terrain, purchase snowshoes with fast-release bindings you can escape from quickly at need.
Once You Find Your Snowshoes
Once you've narrowed down your snowshoe choices with the criteria above, it's time to try them on. Sit down and put the bindings on -- most have a toe buckle and a heel buckle. Adjust the bindings so they're snug all the way around your feet and take a few steps to see how they feel on your feet.
Choose the snowshoes that feel comfortable on your feet and are reasonably easy to get in and out of; you should be able to operate the bindings easily with gloves on.
* If you're not sure you want to invest in a pair of snowshoes, you can rent a trial pair from many university outdoor/recreation programs and some outdoor retailers.