Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snowshoes: Traditional, Modern, or Hybrid.

Hopefully, like me you've enjoyed some snowshoeing this season. If  your new to the sport and you are in the market for a new pair you have quite the decision ahead of you. There is so many options in the market today. There are specific snowshoes for different types of activities in the snow, different materials, and lots of different sizes and shapes. Within this post I am going to talk more about the different materials and types of snowshoes, be it traditional, modern, and or even new hybrid types. I will list some of the pros and cons to each, and hopefully help in some to way steer you in what your lifestyle might require.

Let me start by saying that buying a snowshoe that is manufactured in Canada or US is pretty easy, as there are plenty of them around. There is at least half a dozen big names for sure. I myself, have tried and will touch base on four types available today. They are traditional wood and rawhide, Aluminium tube and vinyl decking, the all plastic type, and a ski snowshoe hybrid. All of them can be easily purchased to fit the users weight and function.

The first pair of snowshoes I got were made of bent wood and rawhide. They were made in Canada and they work great( I still have them). They are classically styled, are definitely time tested and durable. However one major downside for some people is maintenance. Every year you have to give them some love by applying Spar varnish to stop the rawhide from absorbing water. While some people enjoy the extra "hands on effort" to be a part of their equipment, some people just want a pair they can pick-up and go. These snowshoes typically use old style harness' that in my experience function beautifully. There are two basic harnesses for these snowshoes, the first is a thick rubber slip on harness that makes it quick to put on or take off. The other is a strap and buckle style harness that cinches down tight. The major downfall in the performance of wood/rawhide snowshoes as opposed to modern ones is the lack of cramp-ons in their construction. Without our spiky friends, they can make navigating some hills and snow conditions difficult and very slippery.

The other popular and more affordable are the Tubular aluminum and vinyl decking type. I use the term "affordable" loosely, as these come in a huge range from very cheap to big time expensive. Most rental places I have seen use these, as they are durable and provide newbies with ease of use. They have built in cramp-ons to help in icy conditions and scramble up hills. They also usually use a "clicky" binding system similar to downhill ski boots. I am not a huge fan of this type of snowshoe, as I find the bindings tend to break quite easy, or hard to adjust with gloves on. I also tend to find that these snowshoes can be too light. I like having the extra weight on my feet, it makes me aware that something is attached to me and I need to pay attention to my footing when traversing obstacles. These aluminum snowshoes also tend to have an extreme or should I say Xtreme!!! technical / futuristic look to them, with bright flashy colours and patterned nylon straps criss-crossing every which way around your foot.  They are easy to use for beginners, with their narrow widths, making walking more natural for the first timers. This type of snowshoes fill up about 70%-80% of what is on the market today, as you can buy them from Wally World to high end outfitters.

Another type of snowshoe is the all-plastic models. Made from a solid plastic deck that is a composite that does not get brittle in the cold, and resists UV light. They have cramp-ons just like the aluminum ones, but also have toothed rails running the length of the snowshoe. They provide to be the best traction on any snow or ice. They usually have a binding system similar to the aluminum style mentioned above. My wife and I use MSR Denali Classics. We have had the best luck with these shoes. They use a cinch system to attach to your feet, and have had no problem with the compound of the straps and have had no breakages. They are very adjustable and the same snowshoe fits my Wife's size 8 to my size 12 with no problem. These MSR snowshoes have a customizable tail system that use of different lengths of tails on the end of the main snowshoe to add more or less flotation to them depending on your weight. With the tails off it makes a great general winter hiking add-on for icy conditions. All plastic snowshoes are very light and easily to strap to a pack while hiking in, and some can even be "broken down"a bit to put inside a pack if needed.  The only downside of the all-plastic snowshoes is the noise, as they are loud. The bottoms crunch and bang on ice and rocks, as swell they scrape on trees, possibly startling any wildlife in the area away. While durable, they make a bloody racket!

Lastly, there is the hybrid, products like Marquette Backcountry Ski. I was recently asked to put them through their paces against the typical snowshoes that I have been talking about above. These skis, that are made in Marquette, MI. are marketed as "70% ski, 30% snowshoe, 100% fun". These are a new item to the back country ski and snowshoe world, and are a viable option for winter activities. They are made of 100% recyclable material, and can be set up with numerous different binding systems depending how aggressive you want to take your ski/snowshoeing. They lack a metal edge, but come fairly sharp out of the box. Re-edging can be done with a razor and smoothed with a torch if need be. The manufacturers suggestion for maximum control is a hard plastic telemark boot and tele binding. I used what I had lying around, and in the end my set up was some lighter weight NNN bindings and my Alpina XC touring boots.

As a tester I want to be able to actually put the items in question through the ropes to see if they are everything that we are told, and I was fortunate enough to be able to try these new skis in some pretty extreme conditions. This past weekend I was in the Bala, Ontario and on the ground was over 30" of snow. When my brother in law and I left the camp for a 3 hour ski, up hills, through bush, along trails, and down some slopes we were amazing at how well they held me up on the snow. In the 30" deep snow I was sinking perhaps about 7".  I followed Andy and his metal edged backcountry ski's fairly close with decent speed in the damp snow . You could definitely tell there was excessive friction, but it was completely expected as the width is almost double the normal backcountry ski. As we made our way up some decent ascends, that is one place that this hybrid greatly flourished. I could whip up the hills with ease usually in a light jog, the fish scales grip amazingly well in the deep snow, and the couple times there was slippage, waiting a second for the scales to bite cured that right quick.  Once on top of the hills this is where the Marquettes take their place. Take a look, pick a line, and give yourself a nudge, and down you go. While the snow was very damp and sticky, the skis had no problem knocking me on my ass, as they slipped out from under me the first few runs. Due to the lack of control from the NNN system for downhill skiing (soft boots and all), the ski style best used is straight, fast and as little obstacles in front as possible. The ski's length of 140cm however made for some easy maneuvering while in the thick of the bush. It also made for easy get ups after a spill, as I didn't have to swing full length skis around to parallel to stand up. I did have difficulty using the edge of the skis to climb a packed icy hill that was maybe 6 feet tall, but again I think it was due to the boot binding set up and lack of rigidity. It took me about 5 min to get up this hill and I did wear the part of the edge down quite a bit doing so, and will have to be repaired at a later date.

I found that with these skis, I kept treating them as snowshoes. Rather than kick and sliding, I was tromping. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but it seemed to work just fine as the length and width makes this easily doable. It worked so well that I feel they should really consider changing their percentages to possibly 50% ski / 50% snowshoe. Chatting with Andy as we progressed along the trail and myself caring a 20lb pack, we could really see taking these into the deep backcountry and on weekend winter camping trips. Too big and bulky for the "slopes", but take them into some deep snowy forests and your golden. The plastic is tough and the hardware simple, two components that one needs to trust.  After a weekend of putting these skis to the test, I have a couple of tips for anyone considering purchasing a pair for themselves.

1. I would recommend them as snowshoes. Snowshoes with the bonus of a lot more fun getting to the bottom of the hill
2. Get telemark bindings, used ones if you have to. This will help if you want to take the descends serious and have decent turning control. My toes killed the next day from being torqued back and forth from the soft toe boots.

Snowshoeing has a long and loved history in North America, it's great to see innovative new ideas like MBS hitting the market. Whether you stick with standard snowshoes, or try something fresh and exciting like Marquette Backcountry Skis, rest assured that either way your going to have a blast. I realize I could keep going on about the small details of each, but if you have any questions about any of the snowshoe styles please let me know and I would be glad to assist.

Tips over the edge. One of my first runs.


The skis thickness, hollow but sturdy.

Climbing, Actually steeper than it looks!

Super wide keeps this guy afloat.

Jogging across terrain.

This is the nasty hill that took me 5 min to climb, and shredded the edge of my ski.

Trying to start my line down a 50 year old ski hill.

Too much flexibility in the boots can make this ski perform poorly for more then straight runs.

A great purchase for those seeking deep woods adventure.


  1. Nice write up!
    Hopefully there is still some winter left in Ontario.

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  3. My brother-in-law who lives in Canada is quite handy and deft in making his own snowshoes! When we visited him last year, he showed us how he made his own and customized it according to his own needs. All I can say is Wow! I don't have the talent for that so all I can do is just buy the best ones in the market. Although I got curious and researched on how snowshoes are done - it was very informative! Here's one site that piqued my interest, well-written and provided simple step by step guides