When choosing the correct snowshoe for your needs, there are a few things to consider. Determining how you plan on using the snowshoes and what you want them to do for you will narrow your choices down considerably.
Your anticipated activity will greatly influence the snowshoe you choose. Many snowshoers are looking for something recreational for short winter hikes. They will want something with adequate flotation but comfortable to stride in, adjustable bindings to accommodate various types of footwear, and a snowshoe that doesn't break the budget.
Others may be looking at industrial or hard recreational use, such as working on job sites or hunting. Their snowshoes need to be beefier, and more surface area is desirable if carrying heavy loads.
Mountain adventurers require snowshoes that can handle steep terrain, traverses (walking across a slope rather than up or down it) and ice. They will be looking for features that make this type of travel easier such as rotational bindings, longitudinal traction bars and heel risers.
And in a very "meanwhile in Canada..." flavour, snowshoe racing has been getting more and more popular. Runners and racers prefer a snowshoe that is smaller with short tails and fixed bindings.
On flatter terrain you won't need aggressive grip. Often less expensive/beginner snowshoes will function just fine. What you are looking for is a shoe that is easy to use. If you might be wearing different types of footwear, look for a binding that has lots of adjustability.
The more rolling the terrain, the more important your traction is. You'll want more aggressive crampons and a more rugged snowshoe and binding that can handle the added torque and stress you will put on them.
Generally you will want a smaller, more maneuverable snowshoe in steep or forested areas. However it is imperative to consider snow type before going too small.
For traveling on packed trails or the firm windswept drifts around Saskatoon you can pretty much follow the sizing charts on the snowshoe tags. If you are in the middle of the weight range and not too close to the max load you'll be good. Don't forget to take into account the mass of your clothing and footwear and any loads you may be carrying.
In the woods the snow is soft and dry. If you plan on snowshoeing in forested areas we recommend sizing up. Even in a properly sized snowshoe expect to sink in the snow; this is normal and is a function of the powdery nature of the snow.
Some brands such as MSR offer separate tail extenders that you can attach on to your snowshoes to increase their surface area if required.
There are two main types of snowshoe bindings: rotating and fixed. Rotating (or floating) bindings pivot at an attachment point under the forefoot so the snowshoe tails fall away as you stride. This sheds snow and keeps your legs from getting as tired. In deep snow the dragging tails help track the shoe in your direction of travel; however the pivoting bindings can make it difficult when navigating debris or backing up.
Fixed bindings bring the snowshoe tail up when walking. These are common on running snowshoes because they are easy to control and your stride feels more natural. While good on packed and firm snow these tend to throw up snow in softer conditions.
Bindings are made of various materials and in a variety of designs most of which function well if made by a reputable brand. You want to be able to adjust the binding easily and not have loose straps flapping around to get caught in everything.
If you look underneath the snowshoe you'll see what it has for traction. Most will have toe crampons (teeth) and/or something grippy under the instep. There may be crampons under the heel shaped in a V; the V fills with snow to reduce slippage on a slope. You may also see side traction bars which help prevent side slipping when traversing a slope.
Some snowshoes have additional traction on the frame, such as MSR's Lightning series with teeth cut into the frame, or Faber's Northlander on which the decking creates traction where mounted on the frame (pictured below).
Originally made of wood, snowshoe frames determine the shape and rigidity of the shoe. Modern snowshoe frames are often tubular aluminum rigged with a synthetic decking. Don't be put off by looks - good brand names use quality materials that may look brittle but are meant to withstand cold temperatures.
Some snowshoes have plastic decking with no separate frame. These are often lightweight and affordable but tend to be noisier and stiffer, which may make make your stride feel less natural.
The shape of the frame affects your stride as well. Running snowshoes and women's specific snowshoes often have tapered tails for a more natural stride. This reduces the flotation of the shoe but makes it easier to use.
Other things to consider
Poles can make snowshoeing a lot easier by taking some off the stress off your legs and increasing your stability. Look for poles with wide baskets (meant for loose snow) and large comfortable straps that will accommodate winter mitts.
If you are ascending hills, climbing bars (or heel lifts) take a lot of strain off your calves and Achilles. Simply flip them up when needed.
As for footwear, almost all snowshoes will accommodate anything from a light hiker to a lined winter boot. The more snug fitting the footwear the better control you will have of your snowshoes and the more ankle support you will have; however warmth must be a consideration.
Women's specific snowshoes are designed for lighter people. They are often tapered at the back for a more natural gait and usually have less surface area. The bindings and traction areas are placed with a smaller foot in mind.
There are a few models of snowshoe/ski hybrids out there. These are really fun in the backcountry or for playing along the riverbank areas near Saskatoon. The S-Line is a new hybrid from Faber which is a narrow elongated snowshoe with removable glide and traction pads. Erik Sports makes the Outlander, which is more ski-like than the S-Line and has sidecut for carving turns. You can learn more about the Outlander here.
For maps and information on where to snowshoe around Saskatoon click here.