Snowshoe Comparative Review
By Kelly Chamberlain

We all know snowshoeing is a fast growing sport. It is no surprise to anyone who watches the outdoor industry that outdoor enthusiasts are flocking to the backcountry in the winter in record numbers. Whether they head out in pursuit of virgin powder to board or ski, or just into snow-blanketed alpine meadows for solitude and recreation, these explorers employ new methods to reach their winter destinations. Traversing deep snow requires new tools.

Enter the snowshoe. While snowshoes have been around for over 3000 years, their use grew out of necessity and was limited to northern-dwelling cultures, hunters and trappers in the Arctic and Scandinavian cultures, for example. Today's recreational and mountaineering snowshoes certainly have their roots in the designs of those early models, but benefit from the science, experience, and technology of today.

Like all product categories with burgeoning success, snowshoe choices proliferate. Just look at the number of snowshoe manufacturers cropping up at trade shows, such as the Winter Outdoor Retailer show. Purchasing questions abound as well. Which manufacturer makes the best product? Will my boots fit? Which features best meet my needs? How large a snowshoe do I need? How does it perform in the snow? How much money should I spend? What type of warranty does this brand of snowshoes have? Like all outdoor gear purchases, correctly assessing your needs helps ensure their satisfaction with your purchase.

Our Field Test staff looked at five snowshoe models with these questions in mind.

Powder Wings 10700
Alchemy Backcountry Mystic
Atlas Summit 1233
Tubbs Altitude Khatadin (Altitude 25)
MSR Denail Ascent

Powder Wings 10700

Powder Wings 10700

Powder Wings snowshoe claim to fame is the unique, completely collapsible, design. When collapsed, you store the shoes in the included fanny pack, making them much more transportable. The original idea was to design a snowshoe for snowmobilers, who occasional stranded their machines in deep snow and can't walk out. The design caught on with outdoor enthusiasts who like the ability to break them down, slip them into the fanny pack, and ski, board, or walk around with out carrying cumbersome snowshoes.

One other unique aspect of the Powder Wings is the small diameter tubing. Made from aircraft-strength aluminum, the smaller tubes allow the collapsed shoes to fit into a smaller area and reduce their overall weight.

The model 10700 we tested measures 9" X 28", and weighs 4lbs 14 oz per pair. These top-of-the-line shoes support up to 275 lbs, making them suitable for everything from backcountry hiking, to winter backpacking and mountain ascents.

Powder Wings are difficult to assemble or adjust with gloves or mittens. Make sure that you have practiced putting the shoes together several times before attempting this in the backcountry. You should practice in the cold a time or two--assembling cold metal tubing outdoors is much more difficult than in the warmth of your home. Powder Wings feature government-standard one-directional snaps, which connect the one-piece hypalon decking to the frame, preventing the snowshoe from coming apart during use. Our testers experienced no problems with the snaps popping open unexpectedly.

My initial concerns with the Powder Wings were that they would not provide the stability and traction of a "standard" snowshoe. I wondered if the binding system would sway while traversing. My fears were unfounded. The Powder Wings perform well. Traversing a steep hill, the shoe tracked right along with my feet, ascending and descending very well. I also noticed that the shoe had great floatation.

The Summit Tracker binding--a plate extending from toe to heel with a zip-cord lacing system to secure the foot--combined with front and rear cleats provide good stability. The lace-up binding system allows a tight, custom fit. If you have bigger boots, you will have trouble putting the whole boot into the laces, a concern since you'll need your toes to reach the end of the binding for maximum performance.

At a retail price of $309 the Powder Wings are the most expensive models tested, but the collapsibility may justify the price. Powder Wings come with a lifetime warranty against manufacturer's defects.

For more information contact Powder Wings at (800)453-1192 or online at www.powderwings.com.

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Alchemy Backcountry Mystic

Alchemy Backcountry Mystic

The Alchemy Mystic feels light on your feet. Its 8" X 24" teardrop shape creates a narrow profile, the narrowest in this test. A narrower shoe works best for fitness activities and backcountry recreation, rather than winter backpacking. If you plan to spend time in fresh powder, the Mystic will post hole more than a wider shoe. As you'd expect from a shorter, narrower shoe the Mystic weighs in at a light 3 lbs 11.5 oz.

The seamless aluminum frame eliminates potential weak spots at seams, and provides uniform strength. Lightweight, sturdy hypalon decking adds strength and flotation.

A fully ratcheting radium strap binding system creates a tight fit, allowing high fitness performance. The binding features a quick release cord for easy step out. A dual position heel lifts to ease calf strain in ascents. Stationary forefoot tooth-like picks, adjacent to the primary claw, increase stability and gripping power. On ascents and descents, you can feel the effects of those front picks adding traction and stability.

The Mystic has two heel lifts on each shoe, which allow you to customize the feel according to the angle of the hill. The heel lifts are a nice feature, also adding comfort and stability when ascending.

A few words of caution. Check the nuts and bolts on the Alchemy before each use, and bring tools for repair. I learned this lesson the hard way, as I almost lost hardware out in the snow. Alchemy's snowshoe is the only one in this test that with nuts and bolts that need to be checked. If you lose hardware, your binding system may completely separate from the frame, leaving the shoe incapacitated. This was our least favorite aspect of the Mystic. Also, make sure this shoe fits your feet. My thicker size 12 boots wouldn't fit into the Mystic's bindings.

At $289 retail, these are expensive snowshoes. Alchemy reports that for Fall 2000 the heel lift will be optional. Without the lift the Fall 2000 Mystic will sell around $250, and with it for the $289. Alchemy offers a lifetime warranty against manufacturer's defects.

For more information contact Alchemy at (877)748-4808 or online at www.alchemysnowshoes.com.

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Atlas Summit Series 1233

Atlas Summit Series 1233

The Atlas Summit 1233 is a very solid snowshoe--the Cadillac of snowshoes. At 5 lbs 2 oz, the Summit was the heaviest snowshoe in the test, but it was also the largest, measuring 9" X 29.5". As you'd expect, the Atlas outperforms the rest in deep snow. Designed for backcountry snowboarding, skiing and mountaineering, it handles loads up to 275 lbs.

The 1233's most notable feature is the binding system. Atlas uses a ratchet buckle harness that performs admirably. You can adjust the binding to fit snowboard boots, and larger shoes. This saves weight when you spend a lot of time in the backcountry--you don't have to carry snowshoe boots and snowboard/mountaineering boots. I found that even with snowboard boots on the Atlas binding fit well, and allowed a full range of motion. Exiting the ratcheted binding is very easy. The Summit did very well in all traverse, ascent, and descent tests.

The binding is spring-loaded, meaning it lifts the nose of the snowshoe with every step, keeping your foot more stable on traverses, and allowing an easier stride. Hypalon decking and a contoured footbed, which grips your heel to guide foot placement, round out the 1233's feature set.

A unique offering is the Atlas upgrade program. When Atlas introduces a new technology, often it can be retrofitted to older Atlas snowshoes. You pay only the upgrade charge to retrofit your shoes, giving you the newest technology without having to buy a brand new pair.

Another high-price-range snowshoe, the Atlas 1233 retails at $279, and carries a lifetime warranty against manufacturer's defects. You also get a storage/carrying case to protect the shoe's cleats.

For more information contact Atlas at (888)48-Atlas or online at www.atlassnowshoe.com.

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Tubbs Altitude Khatadin (Altitude 25)

Tubbs Altitude Khatadin (Altitude 25)

I tested the Tubbs Altitude Khatadin, which Tubbs renamed the Altitude 25. The major change from the Khatadin to the Altitude 25 is the binding system. It's a good thing to have changed as our testers uniformly panned the Khatadin's binding as hard to adjust and tighten, especially with gloves on.

On the Khatadin, you wrap the binding strap around your heel, and then wrap the same strap over your foot into a buckle. In the new Altitude design, Tubbs separates the buckle into two straps, one each for the heel and instep. We did not test the new binding, but believe that the changed buckle system will be a big improvement.

Both models measure 8" X 25", weigh 3.6 lbs, and feature an aluminum frame. Hiking, backcountry recreation, and backpacking are the intended uses. The Tubbs is rated up to 180 lbs.

Tubbs employs a unique trademarked decking material called ArcTec, which Tubbs claims to be 30% stronger than hypalon. I did not verify this claim, but our test crew didn't have any tearing problems with either the ArcTec or hypalon. ArcTec reportedly withstands temperatures down to -40 degrees F.

The Tubbs Khatadin was an average performer. I had a hard time fitting my larger boots into this shoe, but it can be done. Hopefully the new bindings will solve the fit and adjustment issues. The Khatadin retails for $218 and offers a lifetime warranty against manufacturer's defects.

For more information contact Tubbs at (800)882-2748 or online at www.tubbssnowshoes.com.

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MSR Denali Ascent

MSR Denali Ascent

The Denali is a favorite of our testers. The simple binding system makes it a breeze to get on and off. The semi-rigid stand-up binding allows you to easily strap in, even with gloves, for a snug and secure fit. The binding consists of two straps, one over the toe and another around the heel.

As the smallest snowshoe tested (8" X 22", 3 lbs 12 oz), the Denali post holed more than the other snowshoes. However, its modular design accepts 4" or 8" extension tails which increase the shoe's floatation. If you plan to wear the MSRs in deep powder, the tails would be a necessity. The extension tails also allow you to have a single snowshoe for multiple purposes. On one outing you could easily track across icy mixed snow without the tails and on the next outing, ascend through deep powder. Or perhaps these uses occur on the same trip as you move up the mountain. The Denali is certainly the undisputed king of snowshoe versatility.

Televators, or heel lifts, were the MSR's feature most noted by our test crew. The televator is situated so as to force the back of the snowshoe down onto the snow when ascending giving your more stability and traction. On long ascents the televators greatly reduce calf strain.

Traction bars run the length of the shoe, offering grip on traverses. Saber Teeth protrude 3/8" below the traction bars for increased traction on icy snow. For really icy condition crampons are still preferred.

One tester noted that the Denali is difficult to pack due to the semi-rigid binding system. This semi-rigid system allows for easier strap in, but it does take up more room.

The single best feature of the Denali is its price, only $149.95. The limited 3-year warranty doesn't match the lifetime warranty of the rest of the snowshoes in this review, but I feel it is adequate.

For more information contact MSR at (800)877-9677 or online at www.msrcorp.com.

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In this review, the two standouts were the Atlas Summit 1233 and the MSR Denali Ascent.

The Atlas Summit excelled in deep powdery snow. Although you can purchase extension tails for the MSR Denali Ascent for increased flotation, the Summit still outperforms the Denali with heavy loads. However, the MSR Denali is priced well below all of the other snowshoes in this test. You could purchase the extensions tails for the Denali Ascents, and still be nearly $100 less than the Atlas Summit 1233.

The Atlas has a sturdy, solid feel. You can tell it is a very strong, quality snowshoe. The Summit fits larger boots, and allows you to use snowboard boots and still have full performance. The Denali Ascent doesn't fit larger boots as well, especially snowboard boots, or as securely as the Atlas.

MSR's televators flat-out work. I was amazed at the difference the televators made during test ascents. You'll have more traction and greater endurance because the televators eases the strain of ascents on your calves.

Bottom line: Our first choice is the MSR Denali Ascent. It offers great value. Not only does the MSR Denali Ascent have the lowest price tag in our test and outstanding versatility, it also offers outstanding performance features. The Atlas 1233 is our second choice, as a sturdy snowshoe for serious winter backpacking in deep snow. The Powder Wings warrant honorable mention for their collapsible design, a big plus when storability and transportability are a must.

Kelly is a new contributing editor to GearReview.com. Kelly specializes in winter backcountry gear.

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