What is a good point to put on your snow shoes?

If the snow is up to my ankles, I feel almost no extra resistance when hiking. If it's about 20 cm, walking is more exhausting, however, snow shoes also cause some extra strain. If I sink up to my knees, it's quite obvious, snow shoes are a great help.

From which point is it more effective to go with snow shoes than without them? Is there a rule of the thumb, or is it fully individual?

  • Does this answer your question? Are snow shoes useful in mountaineering?
    – Martin F
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 20:55
  • 1
    @MartinF no, because the answers are the start point for my question. I know when snowshoes are useful, and where they are not, but I'm interesting in finding out when they start to be more efficient than going without them. Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 21:05

2 Answers 2


I used to run outdoor orienteering constests in winter at a boarding school. The kids had to bring snowshoes, but whether they wore them was a team decision. At 2-3 inches no one wore snowshoes. At 8 inches almost everyone did.

The big difference for me was the ability of snowshoes to bridge things you couldn't see under the snow. Rocks and pocket gopher mounds in pasture and small logs in bush; hummock bogs, were the main things.

If on established trail, the boundary happened when you had to consciously lift your foot up to place it, rather than the 'just enough to clear the dirt' that is a normal walking pace.

Another determinate is the size of your group. Snowshoes are a win at shallower depths with a larger group. The first two people create a trail. Everyone behind them just walks on snowshoes.

On crusted snow, and frozen creeks, snowshoes give traction. And they help on elevator snow. (The snow that has a crust almost strong enough to hold your weight)

You can also get a situation where the crust will 'almost' support you on snowshoes. This often results in your tips getting caught under the crust. Sharply upturned wooden snowshoes made from separate side rails (Ojibway style) have less problem this way,

Note that on broken trail, snowshoes can be faster than walking. In our winter program the winning time on the 47 mile senior race was 12 hours and change, with most teams coming in in under 15 hours. (Boys, grades 10-12, teams of 5-7 that had to move as a unit, 1 hour stop for lunch, 30 minute stop for supper.)

  • 4
    I've never heard the term "elevator snow." Do you know why it's called that? Is it only used by this group, or does everyone you know use it?
    – csk
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 16:01
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    @csk, I don't know how widespread the term is, but it's called "elevator snow" because you step on it and suddenly find yourself going down.
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 18:19
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    @Mark A much better name would be actually "descender snow", because elevator didn't get its name from the ability to go down.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 14:14
  • My neologism. I've never heard it used outside of my school. Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 16:58
  • In German this type of snow is known as "Bruchharsch", literally translating breaking crust
    – Manziel
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 18:51

It depends on a lot of factors, and I don't think there are any general rules. As you've noted, snowshoes are mainly for deep, soft snow that you'd otherwise posthole in. If the conditions are icy, you want crampons. If it's 50% dirt and 50% snow, you want boots or microspikes. Some snowshoes have heel lifts and built-in crampons, which makes them more usable on steep terrain or somewhat icy conditions. If your snowshoes don't have those features, then you may find they're useless on steep terrain. If you're on a trail that's too narrow, with steep slopes on either side, you may find that you can't manage it with snowshoes because there's not enough room. If there's a nice boot track up a hill, you may want to walk in that and not use the snowshoes. For cruising down a steep snow field, you might find it just as easy to plunge step in boots as to use snowshoes.

  • Exactly. I was squirrel hunting once, and somehow found myself in the middle of a large field covered in what I though was snow maybe 3-4" deep, where I would not consider snow shoes. It turned out to be a very wet slush, maybe an inch or two deeper than what I thought it was, and I was wishing for snowshoes for the entire crossing. Wouldn't have been so bad if it was just snow. Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 20:07

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