When it comes to snow backpacking one of the most essential pieces of gear you need is snowshoes. A good pair of snowshoes can go a long way, not only when it comes to getting you to your destination, but also reducing the amount of strain you put on your legs.
Buying snowshoes can be a pretty confusing process and at first glance you might think, what’s the difference between an $100 pair of snowshoes and a $200 pair? Do I need shorter or longer snowshoes? Does any of it really matter, heck don’t I just want to be able to walk in the snow!
Like most things in life I can tell you, the devil is in the details, and yes – when you’re snow backpacking, all the details do matter. While preference comes into play, I do think there are some critical decisions you can make when it comes to buying snowshoes specifically for backpacking. I’ll outline why I choose the MSR Revo Explore’s and why I love them so much after using them. First, let’s take a look at what we’re working with here:
First things first, let’s talk about the three different categories of snowshoes that exist. Flat Terrain, Rolling Terrain, and Mountain Terrain.
Flat Terrain Snowshoes are good for day hikes and beginning snowshoers. They typically don’t have as aggressive of a traction system but they’re inexpensive and can get the job done. When it comes to snow backpacking I think you should avoid Flat Terrain Snowshoes. With a big heavy pack on these aren’t going to be what you’re looking for, but with a light backpack and a day hike, these will get you where you need to go without breaking the budget.
Rolling Terrain Snowshoes are what I use, they have more grip and tend to have beefier bindings that can take more of a beating. They’re not outrageously expensive and you can usually get a pair in the $200 or less range. When you get into this range of Snowshoe you’ll also find a handy metal bar you can flip up that makes a big difference when you’re climbing up a hill with a 50 lbs pack on your back.
Mountain Terrain Snowshoes are the most hardcore when it comes to snowshoes and also the most expensive. The reality is, yes – these will likely serve you even better than Rolling Terrain Snowshoes, but 90% of the time they’re going to be overkill. If you think you’re going to be in super icy terrain with endless uphills you might need these but like I said, in most cases these will be overkill and they tend to be quite pricey.
Now let’s talk about picking the right size snowshoe. While shorter snowshoes have a lot of advantages, one of the drawbacks is they aren’t as good when you’re carrying a heavy backpack. For backpackers you should usually opt for longer snowshoes, this will increase stability and make sure you don’t fall because let’s be honest, falling into the snow while wearing a heavy backpack is no fun.
You’ll notice the MSR Revo Explore snowshoes I have are pretty long, this definitely makes a difference on long hikes with a heavy backpack and provides some much-needed extra stability.
Okay, now let’s talk bindings. There’s really only two types of bindings you need to know about, rotating (sometimes called floating) bindings, and fixed bindings. Rotating bindings pivot at the ball of your foot which allows you to walk a bit more naturally when going up hills, the end result is less wear and tear on your legs. Fixed bindings on the other hand bring the tail of the snowshoe up with each step you take, this makes doing things like backing up or walking over obstacles easier, but you’ll probably kick up quite a bit of snow along the way.
At the end of the day, I feel like binding choice really is more a matter of preference.
Last but not least is heel lifts. While some people might disagree with me, I feel like these are a must for snow backpacking. You already have a heavy pack on your back, why make walking uphill harder? Hill lifts make a huge difference, seriously, it’s night and day, and they’re so darn simple. If you scroll up and look at the photo of my snowshoes, see that black metal bar behind the bindings? Flip those bad boys up and it’s like someone is helping you with every step you take up the hill. I used these on my last snow backpacking trip in Yosemite and they were a lifesaver!
So now to bring all of this together when it comes to my snowshoes, which I happen to be reviewing in this article. The MSR Evo Explore snowshoes are light, have bindings that are super easy to get in and out of, and with heel lifts make climbing steep hills with a heavy backpack look like child’s play. Couple this with strong crampons that grip well and you have what I think really is the perfect combination for snow backpacking. While they’re a bit north of $200 I consider these to be at the upper end of Rolling Terrain Snowshoes and I think they’d probably perform as well as quite a few different Mountain Terrain Snowshoes making the versatile and actually a solid value for what they offer.