Buyer’s Guide: Snowshoes for Mountaineering

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Snowshoeing can be a pleasurable pastime when the powder isn’t that deep or you’re following an established track. (Which, ironically, often means flotation isn’t even necessary.) When snowshoes are actually needed, it would be difficult to describe one’s relationship with the four-pound torture devices as anything less than abusive.

Breaking trail in untracked snow is about as enjoyable as slamming your hand in a car door, except you repeat it a few thousand times over a multi-hour outing. It’s tiring. It’s awkward. Your hip flexors hate you. You look like a big nerd. If you want to venture anywhere other than the most popular trails in winter, however, mountaineering snowshoes are a necessary evil.

Luckily for us, gear designers seem to understand how much snowshoeing sucks. Manufacturers in recent years have made incredible advancements in flotation technology. Nowadays, it’s more like just crushing your pinky instead of your entire hand. The negative effect is that the market has become saturated with dozens of different offerings, and it’s difficult for the uninitiated to understand what to purchase.

For the purposes of this guide, I’ve refrained from mentioning other less conniption-inducing flotation options. I doubt you’ll find anyone arguing that a backcountry ski setup isn’t worlds better than even the most advanced snowshoes, but skis require additional skill and at least six times the entry-level investment. Mountaineering snowshoes are also more versatile on steep, rocky alpine terrain. If you have $200, a pair of sturdy legs and an ample supply of self-loathing, they’ll take you anywhere you want to go.

Here are the factors to consider if you’re in the market for a new pair of mountaineering snowshoes:

Cost

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t skimp on price. Sure, you can get a great deal at Costco or Walmart or wherever, but those models will break at the first opportunity and provide a maximum misery factor: insecure bindings, poor traction, heavy weight. Plan to spend $200-300 for a pair from an established name brand. Not only will you appreciate the enhanced features, they’ll also last a decade or more.

Traction

Buy a pair with steel crampons, for durability and traction on both snow and ice. They should also have teeth running along the side edges for stability on uneven terrain. This is perhaps the most crucial feature of a mountaineering snowshoe. If your footing slips even a little, especially on steep slopes, you’re going to have a bad time. An added bonus is that snowshoes with aggressive traction can be used fluidly on slopes up to about 30 degrees, without the hassle of stopping to swap into traditional crampons or MICROspikes.

Length

This will depend entirely on your stature. If you’re a heavier person, you’ll need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat. That said, for longer days and vertical ascents, gear weight is at a premium. The MSR Evo line is fantastic in that you can get a shorter snowshoe — 22-25 inches — with removable 6-inch tails for deep powder days. I’m a 6’0” and 185-pound adult male, and I’ve never once regretted owning 22-inch snowshoes. Consider also that these loathful beasts will spend a significant amount of time riding on your back as you’re traversing dry, wind-swept or hard-packed terrain. The 30+ inch varieties might as well be five-pound windsails, if they fit on your pack at all.

Heel Lift

Snowshoeing is hard. Snowshoeing on high-angle terrain is harder. The idea behind a heel lift is to remove some of the awkward strain on your calves, and it’s far from just a novelty. Used appropriately, a heel lift can turn a steep straight-up sufferfest into a relative pleasure cruise. It basically cuts the required work of snowshoeing uphill in half. Plenty of great snowshoes exist without heel lifts, but if you plan to regularly do more than 1,000 feet of vertical, spring for a pair with this amazing and underrated feature.

Bindings

The snowshoes, obviously, have to stay on your feet. You should be able to comfortably wear them for hours without any slippage, including on steep and uneven ground. You’ll also be putting them on and taking them off all the freakin’ time, so make sure you can easily manipulate the straps. You should be able secure or remove a pair in 30-60 seconds, while wearing gloves. Each company has a different take on bindings. Play around with what works for you and your winter boots. Flexible straps that lay flat are a nice bonus for when you have to carry your snowshoes on your pack.

Durability

You can’t go wrong with higher-end models from any the major brands carried at dedicated gear shops. Look for an aluminum or plastic frame to ensure the snowshoes don’t shatter the first time you fall through trap-door snow and make friends with a rock. I’ve spent eight years abusing my MSR Evo Tours, which are pictured above and sadly discontinued. They’re showing no signs of wearing out despite frequent encounters with rocks, dirt and pavement.

The Other 5 Essentials

How you choose to fill your backpack on a given day is about as personal as picking your own bellybutton.

Most people who have ever set foot in the backcountry know of The 10 Essentials. Even hikers who skimp are likely to take along sunscreen, food and water, an extra layer and a basic first-aid kit on every excursion. Beyond that, what goes into a backpack varies wildly from person to person and trip to trip.

There’s seasonal gear, there’s gear you only carry on overnight backpacks or snowshoeing trips or to the crag, and there’s gear you excitedly bought on a whim that’s done nothing but accrue dust in the corner of your garage. The indispensables that never leave your side are few, and even those are seldom agreed upon.

Over the years, however, I’ve discovered fringe items that I almost always carry. They’re as essential as sunscreen and Snickers bars. You won’t find more appreciated gifts this holiday season, whether it’s for the outdoors-lover in your life — or yourself.

 

1. Vacuum Thermos

 

img_1198
Subliminal Message: JOIN THE CMC.

 

I often joke that of the thousands of dollars of outdoor gear I’ve garnered over nearly a decade, the best purchase I ever made was an $11 vacuum thermos. The more I say it, the more I realize it’s true. That rugged little sucker comes with me on nearly every adventure, whether it’s an alpine dayhike, Mt. Rainier, a morning ice climb or simply traipsing around the city during a snowstorm.

Thermoses come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. I bought mine on sale, REI brand, back before there was an explosion in companies specializing in such products. Though most are much more than $11 these days, you can’t put a price on 12 fluid ounces of bliss when you’re eight miles into a winter 14er climb and can’t remember what it’s like to feel your appendages. I can’t speak for all brands, but mine can keep liquid steaming hot for nearly 10 hours.

It never hurts to have something to look forward to in the midst of a sufferfest. The possibilities are endless: Black coffee (there is no other acceptable form), peppermint tea, tomato soup, hot chocolate, spiced apple cider. Hell, you can even add some liquor. Speaking of…

 

2. Flask

 

img_7091
Subliminal Message: BUY ARC’TERYX.

 

It’s small, it weighs little and you’ll never find a better morale boost. It can be a victory celebration. It can be a bonding experience around a campfire. It can be the only thing that keeps you and your partner sane on hour 18 of being tentbound in a whiteout. A summit beer is great as well, but it’s heavier and takes up more space. There’s really not much reason not to carry vitality, warmth and courage in an easily transportable container. Of course, liquor should only be consumed responsibly once you’re in a safe location. (Hi mom!)

 

3. MICROspikes

 

10167947_10101078575133986_708853930885757043_n
The one guy not wearing MICROspikes was never seen again.

 

I’d say traction devices, but this is a rare case in which I’ve developed such absurd brand loyalty that I look down my nose at anyone not using Kahtoola MICROspikes. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anything close to their ease of use, durability and assured function. Kahtoola has perfected the concept. Everyone else is just trying to find something they can lure people into buying at a lower pricepoint.

Now that I’ve assured my future Kahtoola sponsorship, I can’t overstate the convenience of lightweight traction devices in Colorado. I carry MICROspikes in my backpack 10 months out of the year, whether it’s walking Zia around the Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area in January or attempting a 14er in September. They’re on my boots as much as snowshoes or crampons, if not moreso. In certain situations, they’re absolutely essential to safe travel.

Just buy them. Carry them. Use them. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

 

4. Multiclava

 

13173703_10101533303025646_1022535398922068710_n
John is using his multiclava for yet another function, blowing hot air into it to unfreeze his eyelid.

 

Known colloquially by the brand name Buff, many companies are now making quality versions of a multiclava. What can’t these things do? They’re sun protection, sweatbands, face warmers, helmet liners, washcloths, potholders and a cool way to accentuate your campfire pirate impression. They’re like a pocket knife but more useful and with cool artwork. Buff even makes one with a neat Colorado flag print if you want everyone to know you just moved here from Iowa three months ago.

Seriously, I don’t go anywhere without a multiclava. Year-round. It’s the perfect piece of outdoor gear and I will fight you if you insinuate otherwise. There’s no better feeling you can have with your clothes on than dipping a multiclava into ice-cold creek water and putting it on your head during a hot summer afternoon in the mountains. Most of the hikes I go on in August are simply to chase that dragon.

 

5. Summit Pack

 

13707561_10100991528820211_7562892920669130175_n
You can barely see the summit pack? Yeah, that’s the point.

 

It’s a common sight on peaks across the world. The summit-day mountaineer taking the final few steps to the top, shapeless five-pound 70-liter pack on their back filled only with a handful of granola and a headlamp, overworked compression straps flapping solemnly in the breeze like some sort of flag representing the Republic of Suffering Climbers. Stop! Just stop. There’s a better way.

A good summit pack weighs 10-12 ounces and compresses to the size of Donald Trump’s hands. You can find them for as little as $30. Some even have ice ax attachments, water bladder sleeves, extra compartments and tons of other useful features. Sure, it’s another thing to carry in an already heavy backpack. I’m the first person to throw out all unnecessary luxuries for a long climb. You’ll never catch me with a camp pillow or a tent lantern on an overnight. A summit pack, however, is always worth it.

I hauled my Arc’teryx Cierzo 28 this summer on the entirety of the 40-mile round-trip trek to summit Gannett Peak in Wyoming. It was in my pack for four days out of five. Summit day, usually the most arduous on any mountaineering trip, made it all worth it. I’ll gladly trade an extra 10 ounces on the approach for infinitely improved comfort and functionality when the chips are on the table.

The real kicker? A quality summit pack can serve double duty for shorter, more leisurely hikes. I’ve long since ditched heavy daypacks that weigh three pounds and have more features than a 2016 Mercedes-Benz S-class in favor of the simplicity and lightness of the summit pack.

 

Have your own extra essential that you carry on every hike? Share it in the comments.