Gear Review: Snowshoes

I got an email from a reader, and it prompted me. I mean, maybe the snow on the ground should have been a cue, but duh, sometimes my filters are misaligned. Anyway, it’s getting on toward winter, and maybe some discussion of traction is timely… right? Right!

So first, I want to make an appeal. Perhaps Santa will bring you an awesome pair of Grivel G-10 crampons. And if so, I’m psyched. I’ve had a pair for years, and frankly, they’re amazing. But maybe you’re looking at a glorious, silky-smooth monorail, and wondering. Yep, maybe those spikes aren’t the right tool for the job, because they’ll leave divots, and you’ll probably post-hole more than a few times. When you’ve got the option, please preserve the monorail. Consider how your footwear will impact the ground. Those of us following after on snowshoes will thank you.

OK, ’nuff said.

The shoulder seasons leave me befuddled. It’s not uncommon for me to be anywhere along a trail and wanting to be in this or that for traction devices. Microspikes, light crampons, full-on crampons, snowshoes… which ones? And the answer is “yes, one of those.” If it’s got you in fits, rest assured, you’re not the only one. I’ve carried multiple options when I wasn’t sure, which added weight to my pack — and “oomph” to my workout, I keep telling myself.

That being said… if you’re hiking in the shoulder seasons at all, and you don’t have Microspikes, seriously consider them. At a basic level, they should be somewhere in your pack at this point, even if they’re not on your feet just yet. I was on Monadnock the other week, and bare-booted the whole thing. But I had traction with me, in case things got that little bit more icy — and believe me, the White Dot trail was leaning that way. Lightweight insurance for your trip. Besides, you don’t know if you’ll need to take another trail down which has more ice than the one you’ve already trekked up. I’ve been asked in the past by a ranger to take White Dot down, because it was the safer option. (And if you’ve hiked that trail, you know it’s pretty wet — and so, icy — up top… for a pretty long distance.)

Setting that aside, I’ll assume by now that you’ve got religion where Microspikes are concerned. You’re thinking about December, and snowshoes are coming to mind. Not a bad train of thought. But… which ones?

Short form, I’ve been wearing MSR Lightning Explore ‘shoes, in the one-inch narrower women’s model, for the past couple seasons now. If that’s what you came for, there’s your answer. Got ’em at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway, for what that’s worth.

But why? I started out on Tecumseh in a pair of Tubbs Katahdins which, at least initially, did me well. They have a tubular frame, plastic deck, and a pretty aggressive crampon. They’re ancient, but honestly, I like their binding better than the MSRs. However, that tubular frame wasn’t doing me any favors when things ventured away from moving forward. Traversing was problematic, as I found out on Tripyramid (when I made that foolish attempt on the north slide. Wow, don’t do that.) If all I had to hike on was fairly easy-going trails… Starr-King on Waumbek, Crawford Path up Pierce, or that kind of thing, I’d be OK. I wish that it were all that easy.

Unfortunately, the Whites are what they are, and so an aggressive snowshoe is called for. Those Katahdins are great for easy going terrain. When it comes to rock hopping, water crossings, climbing over fallen trees, and the other kinds of realities the Whites throw at you in winter, they fell short. The MSRs have an aggressive side profile that digs into ice when you’re traversing. There’s a couple of “rungs” that help keep me from sliding forwards or backwards. And the crampon is great with front-pointing up things like Blueberry Ledge, or that last bit up Tripyramid. A huge detail is the “televators” that support your heels on sustained uphills. Even things like Mt Cabot are well taken care of with these.

Are they cheap? Hoo-boy, not so much. I think I paid around $300 for mine. But break that out a little: I’ve hiked 26 four-thousand footers in full-on winter. At least half that in springtime or autumnal conditions that approximate winter. Let’s call it around 40+ outings. In all that time, the paint is certainly beat to hell. Lovingly. But everything else is trucking along just fine. I might send them back to MSR in around 3-5 more seasons just to get them tuned back up. If I even bother to do that much. So if I amortize it, they’ve cost me about $7.50 per outing. Go ahead, try to rent ski boots for that much. Let me know how that works out.

So there you have it. My typical load-out for traction these days tends to be Microspikes for around right now, where it’s expected that I’m on a thin layer of snow. But as things thicken up, and we start seeing a stable monorail of snow, I’m in my MSR Lightning snowshoes. They’ve been worth every penny I spent on them.

And really, don’t be dogmatic about this. MSR makes great stuff, but occasionally, I see folks sporting Tubbs, Atlas, and even Louis Garneaut snowshoes. MSR is indeed the very well known brand, but they’re not the only game in town. Get what fits — both your body, your pack weight, and your wallet. But look for models that have aggressive crampons, as well as a very toothy side profile. Thank me later.

Note: Neither Kahtoola nor MSR compensated me in the slightest for this post. Every opinion expressed is mine, without any external influence.

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