As snowshoeing is enjoying a renaissance in winter recreation, there has been an explosion of new snowshoe designs made of strong, no-maintenance waterproof materials such as tubular aluminum frames and various high strength thermo-rubber decking, and crampons. They come with integral adjustable bindings of various designs. This large group of snowshoes is sometimes referred to as “high tech” or “synthetics”.
The good news is that there are some very high quality synthetics out there that are extremely strong and able to climb mountains and scramble over blowdown in the roughest of conditions, but the bad news is that there are some real dogs with cheap bindings that break, and the “axle”, which is what the high tech bindings articulates on, sometimes blows out due to cheap design. The market is evolving rapidly as you read this, so hopefully we are getting past the experimental stage in bindings, axles and decking, and settling down to higher confidence designs that are bomber.
The market is very fluid, being influenced and pulled in several directions by mountaineering, back country trekking, and of all things, snowshoe running and racing! New designs pop up every year, and it’s hard to keep up on trends.
Overall the synthetic snowshoe market is mostly a modified elongated bearpaw with round tail and narrow width, typically not wider than 10 inches (25cm). The advantage of the design is very easy walking and spinning in thick bush. However these designs have several disadvantages for the winter trekker traveling in deep soft early season snow and over lake slush. Most models are simply too small to provide adequate floatation in the deep soft stuff. Again, just like the traditionals, manufactures provide a body weight rating that I find skewed to very dense, crusted and icy spring snow conditions. I own an excellent pair of Faber Mountain Experts, which is one of their top of the line models, but I purchased the biggest model, 10×36 inches for all snow conditions, despite my 150 lb (68 kilo) short frame. I have no problem turning in these biggest of models, and I need every bit of floatation they provide.
There are some manufacturers making synthetic snowshoes wider than 10 inches. However most are this width or less, which can cause a problem when packing a snowshoe float trail for toboggans. Just like traditional modified bearpaws, in some snow conditions a snow ridge can be left in the float which causes the toboggan to ride up and tip over, or lean and cut down into slush. In other snow conditions, the toboggan flattens the snow ridge with no problem. So be aware of that, especially early in the season if packing your own float.
Where the modern synthetics truly excel is in late winter crusted icy snow, which is also encountered in some mountain areas all winter long with the fluctuating melting conditions across elevations. With the integral aluminum crampons, you can hike up slopes that you could never mange with traditionals. In lower elevations, typically the snow in late winter will become crusted after several freeze-thaw events, and choosing synthetics with crampons in these conditions is the way to go, especially when it gets above freezing and soaking wet during sunny days.
Where you don’t want crampons is on early and mid winter lake snow conditions with slush under the snow. You cannot afford to have the crampons chew down into the slush layer causing it to seep up to flash freeze on your sled. The crampons will also accumulate a big ball of ice.
I am still waiting for the high tech snowshoe manufacturers to make a range of snowshoes in traditional dimensions (which I think are better overall), but with their modern waterproof bomber materials, swappable bindings based on boot size and preference of binding design, with a robust field repairable axle, and an easily removable crampon set up. I think these would be the ultimate snowshoes, and perhaps this ultimate design is close, but we wait and see. In any case, I highly recommend obtaining a pair or two of synthetics for the wet or icy and crusted snow conditions, climbing steep terrain, and for extreme bushwhacking and heavy work through piles of blowdown debris where risk of snapping a traditional wooden snowshoe is high. The higher quality modern synthetic snowshoes can bridge your weight with low risk of breaking.