Snowshoes have two reasons to exist: miles which cannot be skied due to terrain, circumstances, or lack of skill; and trips where the snow miles are exceeded by non-snow miles, as snowshoes should not require anything other than ideal hiking shoes. Because this second reason accounts for the overwhelming majority of my snowshoe use, I evaluate all snowshoe attributes on those grounds. In this respect I’m fortunate to live where I do, as while steep singletrack in thick timber is occasionally a part of a ski trip, it’s usually a fairly brief stretch. Folks in New England, for example, might have very different demands on and ways of conceptualizing snowshoes.
Snowshoe bindings for backpacking must be free pivot, that is the binding and snowshoe must move independently with limited or no resistance. Running snowshoes, otherwise ideal for shoulder season backpacking due to weight, usually have recoiling bindings, which in slushy conditions is a great way to soak the back of your legs from heel to pack. They must also be immune, as far as possible, from icing, which translates as having no uncoated nylon or fabric components. MSR snowshoe bindings, and the other companies like Northern Lites, which use a similar design, do both of these things well by using rubber straps with metal buckles, and a urethene or PVC frame. Unfortunately these bindings fail at the third and equally important task, having a secure yet pressure-free attachment to soft trail running shoes.
I’ve used current MSR snowshoes quite a bit with trail runners, and this combo gets the job done until conditions are cold or you have to snowshoe for more than four hours straight. Do both at the same time and your feet will not be pleased, especially if any sidehilling or steepish terrain is involved. The main MSR straps have to be in a constant state of tension to keep the tooth of the metal buckle from detaching, and with soft shoes and cold weather these bindings are a recipe for frostnip.
Thankfully I found a 50 dollar solution at the best used gear sale on earth a few years ago, in the form of some very old MSR Denalis. As the photo shows, the midfoot binding is a piece of urethene with metal hooks riveted to the top, through which a urethene strap laces. This bindings provide a secure fit that doesn’t slip or freeze, doesn’t require a tight fit, and is comfortable in soft shoes for a whole day. Using them for the last few years has shown that my snowshoe needs are for the moment met definitely.
I’m not sure how old these Denalis are, but they’re darn old. The oldest Wayback capture with a good picture is 2004, and by then the bindings already resembled the current versions. Apparently I was fortunate to find these in such good condition, as I’m not aware of anything equivalent which is currently made. If someone does, please let us know.
As for the other two snowshoe decision points: size and traction, I tend to be an all or nothing sort of person. If you want ‘shoes for deep winter in the trees where the snow is likely to be light, you really cannot go too big. 36 inchers are not excessive in powder, even for light folks. You can however have too much traction, as extensive crampons and steel rails add weight and tend to make that nice downhill powder slide jerky. For spring and early summer you want the opposite; compact, agile, light, and plenty of traction. The snowshoes shown above have enough traction for morning passes, though they’re a fair bit behind the class-leading MSR Ascent series, and are a bit on the large (specifically, wide) side. In the end I’m content to have a fatbike and quiver of skis, but only care to have one pair of snowshoes, and these are it.