Only people who love winter will love snowshoes. To me, snowshoes are cumbersome, uncomfortable and a very slow way to travel. The only times I’ve wanted snowshoes were when I didn’t bring them along and punched my way hip deep through early spring snowdrifts for a couple of miles. In the right circumstances they’re essential for winter travel. If you don’t own a pair you should at least learn to make them in an emergency. I’ve actually had to do that on spring hikes, realizing at the turn-around point that if I didn’t I’d not make it back. I’m not sure I’d call my hasty rigs snowshoes or skis, but the improvised gear I made from slide alder actually held up long enough to slide me back to warmer altitudes.
Modern snowshoes often don’t provide the “float” of traditional designs. Today’s snowshoes combine ice crampons with a fairly wide support platform that functions better on packed snow than fresh powder. Racing snowshoes have a narrower profile and bear less load than snowshoes designed for back country trekking. The smaller shoes put less strain on legs and make walking easier, but in deep soft snow they may not hold you up.
Heavy users (above 200 lbs) experience the most problems and need the largest snowshoes. The efficiency of snowshoes depends on the snow type. A hard crust gives more support than fresh snow and heavy wet snow doesn’t compress as easily but does stick to gear. Walking into a back area in the morning could be lots easier than walking out again later in the day when the sun softens things up. There’s still no question that snowshoes outperform boots. In fact, if you buy snowshoes make sure you get good ones and carry straps and cords for emergency repairs. If the rigging breaks and you’re left standing on one foot, you could be stuck for awhile.
Powder coated rigging helps prevent snow from building up on the shoes, a problem which seems only cosmetic until you start lugging an extra pound or two of snow with you on top of each snowshoe. This was a serious problem in the old days when trappers traveled many miles daily on snowshoes of split wood and hide netting. The downward pull of the heavy snowshoes caused nearly crippling pain in the arches of the feet after a day’s travel. Some of the old mountain men compared it to the agony of broken bones, and it’s certainly a problem modern snowshoers should avoid. Stop and clear your shoes every now and then, even if you’re just out for the exercise. The term “float” is more a sales pitch than an accurate description, when it comes to snowshoes.