Introducing Max, Our Ace Snowshoe Tester
6:30 am: I’m lying in bed with a slowly-waking-up Max (aka “Boonie”), discreetly trying to keep his attention away from the windows. I’m not ready to get up yet, and I know something that he doesn’t: it snowed last night. He’s not the kind of boy to take this lightly. A heavy frost gets him excited.
6:45 am: He turns his head. It’s just light enough now that he can tell that the world is white. He’s silent for about a second and then, “Ohhhhhhhh…” He scrambles for the window and leans on the sill, banging his head on the glass. Groggy as I am, I smile as his high-pitched 3-year-old voice squeaks with delight, “Snow! I want to go outside!?” It’s a question, a statement and a plea all at once. Who can deny a child with that kind of passion? “Okay,” I say, “Let’s get dressed.”
“I want to go snowshoeing!”
“I know, Boonie, but you have to get dressed first.”
When to Start
Late last winter we had the opportunity to try out some snowshoes for Max. He was just beginning the transition from riding in a backpack carrier for most of our walks to doing more and more on his own two feet. It was time. Not only is he a strong, active boy, but he’s big for his age, and heavy, and it was increasingly obvious that it would soon be impractical to carry him for long distances. Perhaps more importantly, his independence was blossoming and he was eager to interact with the world on his own terms, inspecting and investigating things that caught HIS attention. This has brought so much wonder to my life; with him in the Ergo backpack carrier we used, I was able to share what I found interesting with him, but now he is an active participant, often pointing out, and asking questions about, things that I have missed, things I wouldn’t have thought to wonder about on my own.
In the winter of 2010/11, when Max was just two-and-a-half, we had a LOT of snow. My husband Doug plows the yard clear between our house and the barn, where our firewood is stacked. This gave Max a good start at playing outside, but he wanted to know what was going on in the rest of the yard. As soon as he tried to step off the plowed area or off the snowmobile trail that runs through our field, he would stumble, sink, and immediately get frustrated at his lack of forward motion. I shoveled some paths for him early in the year, but this obviously wasn’t a long-term solution. We hadn’t thought that he would need snowshoes so soon, but we knew that Max and snowshoes were inevitable, so we decided to start looking. This may sound crazy, but I like to start him on things before he’s ready. Not TOO much before, mind you; I don’t want to discourage him. But let’s put it this way: I wanted him to be comfortable with the IDEA of using snowshoes before he HAD to use them.
With this in mind, we started looking at what was available that would work for someone as small and eager as Max. It’s apparently not that common for a two- or three-year-old to snowshoe on his or her own, at least not very far. At first, the only snowshoes I could find designed to fit him appeared to be cheesy kid things, and I just wasn’t interested in that. I know my son well enough to know that he wouldn’t be, either. He wants his stuff to look and work like Mommy’s and Daddy’s. This is a kid who, when asked what he wanted for Christmas this year, said “Ummmm …chainsaw!” You get the picture.
Last year, we rented Tubbs snowshoes from EMS for him to try and they worked perfectly. Unfortunately, they changed that particular model and we weren’t able to find any to buy. So we started looking at what was on the market and found a number of other quality snowshoes designed for smaller kids. The question was, would they fit Max? And could he move independently on them?
Lucky for us, Max is big for his age, and his feet are bigger still. His boots last year were size 10s. For this test, he’s wearing size 11, so he was able to at least try all the models.
Looking At Kids’ Snowshoes: Do Kids Need Different Features?
Choosing snowshoes for adults who know what they want to do on them is difficult enough. Choosing snowshoes for Max seemed even more daunting. For example, adult snowshoes basically come in two forms which, I’ve found, make the snowshoes perform very differently. But this difference isn’t always visible just by looking at the snowshoe. It’s in the “toe cord” which is the connection between the binding, which holds the boot, and the deck, which provides flotation. Adult shoes have either “rotating toe cords” which let the tail of the snowshoe drop as you take a step, or “tight” or “fixed” toe cords which restrict the drop of the snowshoe’s tail to varying degrees. Basically, for adults, tight toe cords are more maneuverable, rotating toe cords work better in deep snow.
We found to our surprise that kids’ snowshoes also offer a third option: no toe cord. The snowshoe deck is bound directly to the foot. In theory, this should be the most maneuverable of all, and a possible advantage for the littlest snowshoers,
We tried to go into this test of kids’ snowshoes without any preconceived notions of which type of toe cord would work best. Keeping an open mind was not as easy as it sounds. I love my current snowshoes (2006 Tubbs Ventures), but my first pair of snowshoes were awful. They had very tight toe cords and constantly flipped snow onto my legs and back. I came home from every snowshoe trek cold and wet. I tolerated them for several years because I loved snowshoeing and I didn’t know there were options. Based on that experience I can’t think why an adult wouldn’t want a rotating toe cord on a snowshoe for general winter travel, and, in fact, that’s exactly what the entire EasternSlopes.com editorial team recommends. When I got the pair I use now it was like discovering that you could buy a car with a roof on it to keep the weather off you. What a great idea!
BUT, in the case of a little kids’ snowshoe, we saw it was possible for tight toe cords or even no toe cords to have their advantages. The maneuverability is definitely a plus. Kids rarely break trail for themselves for any distance. And when you send a little kid out in the snow, you’d better believe they are going to get it all over themselves, snowshoes or no snowshoes. Since they are probably going to be diving headfirst into it, having a little extra flung at them by their snowshoes isn’t going to matter all that much.
That being said, there are snowshoes for little ones that have a rotating toe cord. Somewhat bizarrely, Atlas touts the increased strength of the steel rotating toe cord on its Sprout 17 model while saying that the model for older kids, the Spark 20, has a fixed toe cord for easier maneuvering. Backwards logic? The question was: would a kid as young as three be able to handle the maneuverability issues inherent with a rotating toe cord?
We decided to let Max’s experience on the shoes be our guide to what worked.
Binding Adjustment, User Weight and Deck Size
The other matter of concern was the physical size of the snowshoes and the ability to fit them to little kids. Obviously there’s a balancing act here. Bigger snowshoes are harder for a small kid to maneuver–especially a three year old. But bigger snowshoes will hold bigger kids so you’ll get more years out of your investment. Though 21-inch adult trail shoes will work for larger kids, we confined our tests to real “kid size shoes,” 20 inches long or under.
Boot size is a hugely important factor when choosing a kids’ snowshoe. You absolutely must to be able to make the binding snug on their boot or the deal is off. Because Max has pretty big feet, we didn’t have too much trouble with this. Some of the bindings didn’t fit perfectly, but it was hard to tell whether that was because Max’s boots were on the small end of their range, or if it was just because of the design. I will say up front that if your child’s feet are smaller than size 10, I think only one of the recommended models, the MSR Tykers, will fit. Most of the manufacturers listed size 11 as the low end of the scale, but the few we tried last fall with Max’s size 10s tightened down enough to be perfectly functional.
The whole point of a snowshoe of course is to provide flotation in deep snow, keeping the wearer from sinking to their armpits. There is a lot of variability in what the manufacturers say regarding flotation. One 16″ shoe was supposed to provide enough flotation for 100 lbs, while another model, 3 inches longer, only claimed 90 lbs. I don’t think there’s a formula to come up with these numbers. How much sinking in what kind of snow is acceptable before you say someone needs more flotation? Our recommendation is to look at these numbers as a guideline only. According to the manufacturer’s specs, the weight range for the snowshoes we tested is 60-110 lbs. In general, a bigger deck is going to provide more flotation.
We found three models that worked particularly well for both Max and Mom, and we are giving these our top ratings. A fourth model gets a sort of lopsided thumbs up, and the final three didn’t make us so happy for some very specific reasons which may or may not be important to you and your little one. Our three favorite models are amazingly different from each other and worked well in very different ways. You might find that one particularly suits your child while another might not be as good; you’ll have to assess your child’s size, physical abilities and interest and patience levels to choose among the three. We’ve simply listed the top picks alphabetically by brand because they are so different we can’t really rate one as better than the others. Following those are shoes we didn’t rate as highly for our uses. We’ve tried to give very specific reasons why they didn’t work as well for us. Your child and your circumstances may be different and you may find they would work fine for you.
MSR Tykers: Dimensions: 6.5 x 17, Recommended Boot Size: 7.5 kid’s-4.5 men’s, Recommended Maximum Weight: 90 lbs, Toe cord: direct attachment.
Two strong points we noticed right away on the MSR Tykers: First, the overall quality. These are not cheap plastic toys. In fact, they are basically the long-proven Denali adult shoe in a kid size. In addition to a lot of weight-carrying capacity, they offer some serious traction as well. Second, the bindings are both easy to use and seriously adjustable; three heavy duty rubber straps with holes to hook over metal tabs. And there are so many holes in those straps that if your little one can walk, you’ll likely be able to get these snowshoes secured on his or her boots. And it’s easy for Mom or Dad to do now, and for the child to do later.
Back to traction for a moment: A lot of the traction material on the bottom of the Tykers is plastic instead of metal. Most parents (me included) would likely be a bit freaked out if they’d made a kid’s snowshoe with as much scary looking metal on the bottom as the adult MSR snowshoe. While the side traction bars are made of the same plastic as the decking, there is still a little metal, and there has to be. The plastic provides enough traction for snow, the metal helps dig in to crust and ice. Unless your wee one is going to be making icy, high-angle ascents, this is serious enough stuff to keep them moving. One caution, however: Because there is no articulation between boot/binding and the deck of the snowshoe, the wearer can’t point the toe crampon into a slope. Going up an icy or heavily crusted slope can be difficult. Keep that in mind if you and your little one climb lots of hills on hard snow.
The thing that really sets these MSRs apart is how tightly the snowshoe is held to the foot. There isn’t a toe cord at all; in fact, there’s no articulation between the boot/binding and the deck of the snowshoe. If you are concerned about your kid getting tangled and tripped by a snowshoe that swings down and away from the foot, these are an excellent choice. Max performed an unauthorized (Mom note: at least I did not authorize it!) experiment and proved that, with these snowshoes on, when Mom’s back is turned for a moment, you can actually climb into a freestanding wheelbarrow without tipping it over or falling on your head. So the snowshoes get an A+ for maneuverability. And because the boot is so tight to the deck you don’t get the snow-catapult action you get with a tight toe cord. Add the bonus that these will fit just about the tiniest foot out there, and overall we’d have to say that these are the best entry level snowshoes for really little ones.
TSL 302 Freeze: Dimensions: 7 x 19 Recommended Shoe Size: junior 11-men’s 6, Recommended Weight: 40-110 lbs Toe cord: full rotating
Do not let the wild look of this snowshoe fool you. They really work. We had our doubts whether plastic toe crampons and a few steel nubbins in the back would provide much traction, but they really do the job. Max hiked up a hill with snow-covered ice in spots and never slipped once. (Mom note: What kind of mother am I that I guide my child towards the ice to see if his crampons work? The kind of mother who wants to know if his gear works before I let him get into real trouble on what he’s gonna try anyway…)
This snowshoe was one of only two that had a full rotating toe cord, unusual in a kids’ shoe, for the maneuverability reasons stated above. The first time Max tried these it seemed like it might be a bit of an issue, but not much. The second time, he hiked about a mile in the woods on snowmobile tracks and unpacked trails, through puckerbrush and over logs, and he never had a problem. He ran in them, crossed brooks and stone walls, played hide-and-seek behind trees. Now, don’t get me wrong. He’s not quite three-and-a-half, but he’s been using snowshoes for a year and has tried different snowshoe models all winter. Be realistic when assessing not just your kid’s age and abilities, but temperament and interest level. If she or he’s easily frustrated or only tentatively interested, then getting tangled up a few times might just make her want to throw the snowshoes in the closet forever.
TSL’s website says shoe sizes for this model start at girls 13, a retailer says they fit junior 11 to men’s 6; we found that they fit Max’s 11s just fine. The binding on these shoes, like the snowshoe itself, is a bit weird looking, but again, don’t be put off by that. Pull on a tab and slide the heel cup back and forth to adjust the length for the individual boot. Once that is set, two Velcro straps hold the boot in. Just Velcro? Yup, just Velcro. As noted, Max walked a mile, over hill and dale, he crawled, he rolled, and the snowshoes didn’t budge.
TSL lists 110 pounds as the weight limit for these. It’s on the higher end, and one independent website says 90 pounds, but they are 19 inches long, two inches longer than the MSRs, so we can believe they’d give a little more flotation. And even as long as they are, the hourglass shape seems to make it easier for a little kid to walk with what amounts to really big feet.
Yukon Charlie’s Junior Series Dimensions: 16 x 7, Recommended Shoe Size: none given, Recommended Weight: up to 100 lbs, Toe cord: tight
The Yukon Charlie’s Junior Series Mountain Goat was the big surprise of the test. This is a really nice all-around snowshoe for kids! It has crampons where it needs crampons, front and back. They are aluminum and that’s more than fine on a kids’ snowshoe. Stainless might last longer but aluminum weighs less and if that means another quarter of a mile, out of him before he says, “Mommmmm…carry me!,” I’m good with that. Probably even more to the point, he isn’t likely to be in too many situations where he’ll be putting a lot of wear and tear on the crampons. When you’re crossing a rocky summit and the bare rock alternates with solid ice…that’s when your crampons really take a beating. It’ll be a few years before he’s on a winter hike of that caliber. Several of the other models we tried also had aluminum crampons, as do my snowshoes.
The toe cord on these is fixed. Does it throw a little snow? Yeah, a little. I see no reason to worry about this on a kids’ shoe. If your kid is anything like mine, no snowshoe can compete with the amount of snow he gets plastered on him just by being out in it. And at only 16 inches, there isn’t as much surface area to collect and throw snow to begin with.
I can’t find any mention of what size boot these Charlie’s will fit. They fit on Max’s 11s just fine.
The binding is super easy, not just to get into, but also out of. When the wearer is only three, “out-of” can be just as important as “in-to”. Emergencies happen.
The Yukon Charlie’s Juniors are rated at 100 pounds of flotation, which seems a bit high for the 16 inch long deck. But even as big as Max is, it’s going to be a while before he comes close to that. If you are looking for a quality first snowshoe for a little kid, these deserve serious consideration. They have become our go-to shoe for everyday use, and with Max, snowshoeing is an every day activity.
If It Ain’t Broke . . .
Tubbs Storm Dimensions: 19 x 7, Recommended Shoe Size: junior 11-men’s 6, Recommended Weight: 40-90 lbs, Toe cord: tight.
These snowshoes get a kind of lopsided thumbs-up from us. We’ve tried it in two versions, old and new and our verdict is: This snowshoe was perfect…before they changed it. The traction is great, right where it needs to be. The documentation that came with the shoe says the crampon is aluminum, while their website says it’s all stainless. It looks stainless. The deck gives plenty of flotation for his weight, and is rated up to 90 pounds, so there’s lots of room to grow. The toe cord is tight. With a 19 inch long deck you do get a little more snow thrown than with the Charlie’s, but again…adults may want to be out in the snow without being in the snow, but that’s not so true with a kid.
The primary difference between the old Storm and the new Storm, and the reason for our lukewarm recommendation of the new ones is in the bindings. The old Storm had a binding similar to the the React binding that’s on my adult snowshoes and it worked perfectly; easy to put on, and it stays secure forever. I believe it is the same binding they still use on the Glacier, for older kids. But someone, somewhere in the universe, decided to “improve” a binding that worked perfectly . . . It’s now a single very stiff plastic strap with a ratcheting buckle that requires you to pinch, push and pull all at the same time to snug it up adequately on small boots. While the new binding will fit Max’s boots, it ain’t quick or easy. When all is said and done, the bindings keep the snowshoes on, which is the point. But . . . based on our experience, we’d recommend looking for a pair of the older style. Some retailers may still have some in stock or you may find them on the used market.
Thumbs Down . . . For Specific Reasons
Redfeather Youth 20 Dimensions: 7 x 20, Recommended Shoe Size: none given, Recommended Weight: up to 80 lbs. Toe cord: tight
These snowshoes are pretty neat looking. They are 20 inches long, but part of that length is just tail, so it doesn’t add as much flotation as you might think. Redfeather rates them at 80 pounds.The toe cord is the common fixed style (Redfeather calls it a “live action hinge”). We didn’t get to try them in soft snow, but wouldn’t be surprised if the tapered tail reduced any snow-throwing tendencies. We didn’t encounter any “flip” as we tested these on hard-packed snow. And this brings us to our one complaint with this shoe: Where we live and play, crampons are really important. These shoes are lacking 50% of what they should have. There’s a perfectly respectable toe crampon, but nothing under the heel. And that causes problems.
Using these shoes, Max fell three times in rapid succession on a small hill covered with crusty, packed snow. He’d already negotiated this same hill without any trouble on several other shoes. Based on those falls, we immediately wrote these off as unacceptable for our needs. Yes, snowshoes were originally designed to keep the wearer from sinking in deep powder, but we all use our snowshoes for a lot more now and hard snow on hills is part of life, especially in the East.
However, if you live somewhere where the snow conditions are more consistently fluffy powder, or you always stay on level ground this might be a perfectly good choice; they are clearly well made.
We also had a minor complaint about the toe cap on these binding, a sort-of folded up rubber the toe of the boot slides into. No matter how they shape it, this type of binding while easy to use, always seems to fit less snugly than other designs, especially with a smaller boot. That being said, the bindings fit Max’s 11s, and the rest of the binding, two rubber straps with many holes (similar to the MSRs), was easily adjustable and easy to put on.
If it had a heel crampon, we’d have found this shoe recommendable.
L.L. Bean Winter Walker 16 Dimensions:16 x 8, Recommended Shoe Size: none given, Recommended Weight: up to 60 lbs, Toe cord: fixed
These snowshoes get some rave reviews from folks on the L.L. Bean website. I can only imagine they are from people with larger kids who don’t have to adjust the binding size to fit a little one. In all the above snowshoes, binding size is either adjusted by simply having a binding that cinches down to fit the boot currently in it (the most basic adjustment I can imagine). In the case of the TSLs, adjusting for larger or smaller boots is a very simple matter: Lift the tab and slide. Takes about five seconds. Tip: do it with an empty boot so you’re not trying to hold your kid’s weight up off the thing you are trying to slide, while trying to slide it.
The L.L. Bean shoes annoyed me right out of the box when I realized that, to properly adjust them, I was going to need a socket wrench and a screwdriver. We tried them without adjusting for length, but found on our first outing that with the heel cap in the “larger “position, Max had almost no weight over the toe crampons, rendering them basically useless.
That meant I was going to have to go the wrench and screwdriver route to have any sense of whether or not the shoes performed well for Max.. Now, I don’t mean to be a whiner, but having little fiddly bits of snowshoe (nuts, bolts, crampons) loose on the living room floor was not my idea of fun, especially with an anxious three-year-old on the prowl… Perhaps it annoyed me in particular because it’s not necessary. Not one of the other snowshoes required me to disassemble the binding to get Max’s weight functionally distributed on the heel and toe crampons.
The real problem with the Bean binding revealed itself only after the bindings were correctly sized for Max’s boots. Once the heel cap was adjusted so that his weight was properly over the crampons, the flat plastic bottom of the binding protruded beyond the tips of his boots, tripping him. After less than five minutes, he’d had it and asked to take the shoes off.
You could cut the excess off the front of the plate, but in so doing you would eliminate the possibility of adjusting the binding when your child grew. With the flotation listed for this snowshoe at 25-60 pounds, it’s not like Max was on the small end of the spectrum of potential users of the snowshoe.
Everything else about this snowshoe is fine and it should work very well for larger kids with feet large enough to use the larger binding setting. It has a fixed toe cord, aluminum crampons at toe and heel—all good. Change the binding to something like the one on the Yukon Charlie’s have and you’d have…well, the Yukon Charlie’s…one of our top choices.
The “Kiddie Shoe” Conundrum
While the other snowshoes we tested were, in essence, downsized versions of adult shoes, the two that follow are clearly designed as “kiddie shoes,” and they simply did not perform as well in our conditions.
Atlas Sprout 17 Dimensions: 6.25 x 17, Recommended Shoe Size: none given, Recommended Weight: 30-80 lbs., Toe cord: Rotating
Some of the snowshoes we tested were as short, or even shorter, than the Sprout, but those all had the bonus of looking, and generally, behaving like a small version of an adult shoe. The Sprout has hard plastic decking, like the MSR Tyker, but the MSR is a mini-version of a well-respected adult shoe. This isn’t.
The Sprout , like the TSL Freeze, features a full rotating toe cord. We found it puzzling that Atlas advertises the fixed toe cord on the Spark 20 model (for older kids, remember) as allowing easier maneuvering and then puts a rotating toe cord on the snowshoe for the younger, presumably less coordinated kids. But be that as it may, Max showed us with the TSL 302 that it’s at least possible for a three-year-old to handle a rotating toe cord.
The trouble with this shoe is similar to the problem we had with the Redfeathers reviewed above. While not totally lacking in rear traction, these have no crampon. The underside of the decking is molded into a snowflake pattern—which makes prints in the snow that your kids are supposed to love, by the way. It provides some traction, but not enough for our conditions. And, worse, even in dry snow (at least by eastern standards), we found that the whole bottom of the snowshoe filled up like a cookie cutter with the cookie still stuck in it. This wasn’t in super dry powder, but here in New England we have very variable snow conditions. We might have cured the problem buy spraying the underside of the deck with silicone spray, but that shouldn’t be necessary. Frankly we don’t want snowshoes that don’t perform admirably in, at the very least, most of the conditions we are likely to encounter.
Atlas rates these snowshoes at 80 pounds of flotation. The binding was OK. The toe cap didn’t fit as snugly as others, but it seemed fairly secure and was pretty easy to put on. They don’t mention what boot size it is supposed to fit, but say that the snowshoe is recommended for ages 4-8.
Atlas also makes the the Spark 20, which we did not review. It looks like a miniature version of an adult shoe with front and rear crampons, fixed toe cord, and 120 pound maximum weight. In retrospect, this model would have been more comparable to the others in the test. We intend to test this model as soon as possible. It has the same binding as the Sprout, meaning it should work reasonably well with Max’s boots.
TSL Trappeurs Dimensions: 20 x7, Recommended Shoe Size:10.5-4, Recommended Weight: 30-65 lbs., Toecord: tight
The TSL Trappeurs looked, on paper, like they might be a good first snowshoe for little kids. They mirror the shape of old-style snowshoe designs, including tails, but they are molded of an extremely rugged plastic that will stand up to hard “kid use.” When we first tested these last season, we went out in after a late-winter storm with no concerns about him getting in the mud where it was exposed. The snowshoes are very simple and plastic and muck rinsed off easily before we put them away.
The recommended weight range for the TSL Trappeurs is 30-65 pounds. The bindings on these are super-simple, just a rubber galoshes-type toe with an elastic heel loop, and should fit boot sizes 10.5 – 4. For some kids this might be great as they would be able to easily put on their own snowshoes as long as they had the finger strength to pull the sturdy rubber. Max. like most kids, likes to do things on his own; and that increases his desire to participate. But we found that, while the simplicity of this design is a great idea, the rubber is, by necessity, such a tight fit on the boot that we can’t imagine a little kid being able to pull it on all by himself or herself. Once they are strong enough to deal with the Trappeur binding, they are probably ready to figure out and use a more “complicated” design.
When Max was two-and-a-half, he had one issue with these snowshoes. He frequently tangled the tails in the lateral perforations in the decking. That long, skinny tail kept catching in the other shoe and tripping him up, which he found frustrating. An older kid with more experience just-plain-walking might not have so much trouble, but since these are supposed to be for little kids…
Our other concern with this shoe was traction. With three rounded-off metal points, two under the ball of the foot and one under the heel, they offer some traction, but it doesn’t compare to our recommended models above. On perfectly flat ground or always in soft snow, this might be fine, but I challenge you to stay on soft snow and flat ground while tramping in the woods in New England.
While it looks simple and cute, these shoes are too simple and too cute to really function. We felt that they would end up disappointing and frustrating a child rather than encouraging him or her to really develop a love of snowshoeing. Fortunately, TSL also makes the excellent 302 Freeze, a much better investment if you want serious snowshoes for your child.
What’s really amazing in this whole test is that we found so many quality snowshoes for kids. We proved that, literally, if your child can walk independently, you can choose snowshoe options that will work. Even the snowshoes we didn’t particularly like for our uses were well made and would likely suit someone else. In other words, you definitely don’t have to settle for cheap junk, nor do you need to spend a fortune to get snowshoes that will keep your child smiling and happy on snow until he or she is ready for adult-sized shoes.