Fact: walking in snowshoes is a clunky affair. From the wooden rackets worn by Adirondack trappers to modern aluminum-frame models, they're awkwardly large and rigid. Manufacturers know this, of course, and many have responded by designing snowshoes with added flex, which allows for a more natural and comfortable stride. There are a variety of ways of achieving this: frames that remain open at the tails, decks that give under pressure, and free-floating bindings that help you stay upright in off-camber terrain. Your job is to choose the formula that matches the conditions (powder, firm snow, or ice) and terrain (flat, steep, or variable) where you like to play. And remember to go with a size that can handle your weight when your pack is fully loaded.
BEST FOR: Backcountry excursions.
THE TEST: Designed for long days and overnights, the newest version of the Xpedition ($240) features a rockered, anodized-aluminum frame that Tubbs claims reduces impact on your joints. Our test team noted that the shape offered more float and made for all-around easier walking. The binding—two toe straps and a self-locking heel strap—is "a no-brainer to adjust," remarked one tester after a 14-mile outing on New Hampshire's Mount Isolation. Added lateral flex keeps your foot flat when contouring, underfoot carbon-steel teeth gripped impressively on steep descents (but slipped on climbs up harder surfaces), and the deck absorbed shocks without being overly bouncy.
THE VERDICT: Dependable and user-friendly. 4.5 lbs
EASE OF USE: 5
BEST FOR: Doing it all.
THE TEST: Faber takes a unique design approach with the Sommet ($230). First, the cambered aluminum frame is open at the tail, allowing the two sides to respond to terrain independently. Instead of a shark's mouth of teeth around the edge of the frame, the Sommet puts beefy steel crampons under your toes and heel. And by punching holes into the stiff plastic deck and twisting the material around the frame, the shoe gains traction without adding weight. The binding isn't as snug as others, but it's easy to operate and well designed: a stopper in the pivot lets the shoe spring back without kicking up snow.
THE VERDICT: The most versatile shoe here. 3.4 lbs
EASE OF USE: 5
BEST FOR: Day trips on technical terrain.
THE TEST: TSL's Symbioz ($259) pushes the flex concept to a new level. The curved frame and binding of this plastic-deck snowshoe readily conform to variable terrain, affording its five sets of underfoot claws superior purchase. The scored frame is reinforced with carbon strips that add spring to the Symbioz's step—you stride, you don't clomp. The telescoping, one-size-fits-all binding system is simpler to use than it seems—it adjusts with a squeeze release—but testers carrying heavier loads wished there were bigger deck options: the Symbioz is available in just one size.
THE VERDICT: A great shoe for tricky terrain. 3.9 lbs
EASE OF USE: 4
Next Up: The Best Snowshoes of 2014