Snow Flotation for Climbers: Skis or Snowshoes?

Dylan Taylor Small

by Dylan Taylor, IFMGA
AAI Instructor and Guide

In the mountaineering courses and expeditions that we run at AAI, there are many instances where we must bring some form of snow travel gear. In places like the Sierra and Cascades (in winter and spring), and especially in the Alaska Range, we frequently travel on deep, unconsolidated snow, fragile sun crust, and sometimes on wet spring snow (which, while rock-hard when frozen, can be armpit-deep when thawed under a mid-day sun). All of these difficult snow conditions necessitate snow travel gear - either skis or snowshoes. We have to choose our equipment carefully because one or the other will be better depending on a lengthy list of criteria. These criteria may include (but are not limited to):

  • Terrain type (steep, flat, glaciated, heavily timbered, rocky, lots of streams, etc.)
  • Personal skill level or background
  • Type of locomotion chosen by the rest of the group
  • Goal of trip (expedition, personal trip, instructional course, summit climbs, etc.)
  • Pack weight
  • Anticipated snow conditions
  • Distance to travel

I will address these criteria in later paragraphs, but first I want to briefly discuss some of the characteristics of modern ski and snowshoe equipment.


Skis are the most traditional, and in many ways the most "fun", method of snow travel. They are also the most difficult and potentially frustrating to use. Their uses are diverse: they may be appropriate for approaching a climbing objective, touring the backcountry, or descending powder slopes for pure joy. Ski equipment for mountaineering and backcountry use falls into a category called alpine touring, or "AT" (AT gear is also referred to as "ski-mountaineering" or "randonnée" equipment).It is made up of an integrated system of skis, boots, and bindings that allow the skier

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to ascend with a free heel, then lock down the heel and back of the bindings for the descent. For up-hill movement, the back of the binding is freed so that the boot and binding can hinge at the toe as the skier ascends, allowing for a normal "walking" action that cannot be accomplished with traditional downhill bindings. Prior to descent, the binding is locked into a fixed-heel position similar to any conventional downhill ski binding and providing similar control.

Most AT bindings are very versatile and can accept a wide range of boot types, including dedicated randonneé boots, downhill ski boots, or plastic mountaineering boots. As one might expect, the boots best suited for downhill skiing are the worst for climbing, and vice versa. The skis themselves may range from top of the line downhill (a.k.a. "alpine" skis) to super fat powder skis to short, ultralight ski mountaineering boards that are best suited for going uphill fast.

Climbing skins are an important part of the backcountry ski package. They are long strips of synthetic "skin" which allow the skis to slide forward but not backward. They are attached to the skis with reusable glue for ascending slopes, and are peeled off for the descent. They take a few minutes to put on and take off, but they save huge amounts of effort on the ascent.

The skis themselves may range from top of the line downhill (a.k.a. "alpine" skis) and super- fat powder skis to short, ultralight ski mountaineering boards that are best suited for going uphill fast. Because skis are generally more "high performance" than snowshoes, they require more skill and experience to use them properly. Skiing with a heavy pack and mountaineering boots is slow, tedious, and frustratingly difficult. It should only be done by those with adequate skills and fitness.

Some mountaineers have asked about the appropriateness oftelemarkski gear. Many skiers enjoy telemark, or "freeheel" gear because it offers a fun, melodic, and traditional approach to the enjoyment of mountain glisse. Telemark equipment is perfectly appropriate for backcountry skiing in its own right (though it does suffer from some safety issues because the bindings are not releasable), but it is often a poor choice for approaching climbs and for general ski-mountaineering. The boots do not kick steps well, nor do they hold mountaineering crampons well. Furthermore, the vast majority of telemark bindings do not tour efficiently, due to a spring-loaded binding, nor do most of them offer the option of ski crampons (though companies like Black Diamond and Genuine Guide Gear do offer telemark crampons that mount onto the skis).

Though they are relatively slow and offer less pleasure on the downhill, snowshoes offer the benefit of being the lightest, most compact, and easiest form of snow travel gear available. In a matter of minutes, most any novice can strap on a pair of snowshoes and be off and running. As any visitor to a modern mountaineering shop can attest, snowshoe technology has come along way since the fur-trapper tennis rackets worn in the days of yore. Modern snowshoes are lightweight, have aggressive crampon teeth for ascending and traversing steep slopes, and they attach securely to almost any boot.

Snowshoes come in two types. One is made of solid molded plastic (e.g. The MSR Denali) that is light, durable, and simple. The other is made by stretching a neoprene-type material (decking) between a rigid metal frame, such as some models offered by Atlas and Tubbs. Some brands of snowshoes can be bought in several lengths, allowing the user to customize the amount of flotation.

Many types of modern snowshoes work well for approaching climbs and for use on expeditions, but for this type of use shoppers should search for snowshoes that are narrow and relatively short. Also, snowshoes for this purpose need to have good traction: aggressive, built-in crampons that hinge while you walk, as well as a substantial amount of serrated rails and teeth on other parts, will help the snowshoes ascend and traverse steeper slopes. One final feature that may not be obvious at first: the best expedition snowshoes will have simple binding systems (often a selection of rubber straps that are easy to grab and pull with mittens on). Nylon webbing bindings, though secure, are not recommended for expedition use because they are more time consuming to adjust over large double boots, and the nylon often absorbs water and freezes.

For general use by the recreational snowshoer, snowshoes that have a large surface area and therefore offer plenty of flotation are optimal.


Now that I have discussed the characteristics of backcountry skis and snowshoes, let's look at the proper application of each so that you can make the right choice for your next winter trip in the backcountry. Before I go any further, please be aware that I am biased: I am a skier at heart, and skiing is how I reap the most enjoyment out of a snowy slope. However, during certain times throughout a winter and spring, I occasionally choose snowshoes because they offer more benefits for specific circumstances.

Again, here is a list of considerations when making a choice between skis and snowshoes:

  • Terrain type (steep, flat, glaciated, heavily timbered, rocky, lots of streams, etc.)
  • Personal skill level or background
  • Type of locomotion chosen by the rest of the group
  • Goal of trip (expedition, personal trip, instructional course, summit climbs, etc.)
  • Pack weight
  • Anticipated snow conditions
  • Distance to travel

Above all, the choice between skis or snowshoes should be a matter of what is safest for the user and for their group. For example, it could be potentially dangerous to take skis on a serious mountaineering objective where unfamiliarity with skis, heavy packs, and steep, tangled terrain could slow the group down or create a fall hazard.

Terrain type
Terrain type is very critical in my own decision-making. When the terrain is wide-open, such as on low-angled glaciers, broad slopes above tree line, or flat valley bottoms, travel on skis is speedy and efficient. However, snowshoes work better than skis on tight, steep, heavily forested approaches where the path is narrow, turns frequently, and crosses hazards such as steep stream banks and log bridges. Falling in a stream is not an option, but it is easy to do when wearing a heavy pack in thick brush while trying to break trail on skis (especially if you are not very skilled with them).

Skill level or background
Our skill level or background often affects our choice of gear. People who are already familiar with the use of skis in the backcountry usually take skis. People who are not usually take snowshoes. The exception, of course, is when a beginner wishes to learn new skills, and in that case, it's important to choose a mellow, low-commitment objective.

Type of locomotion chosen by the rest of the group
If traveling in a group, it is best to have all group members using the same form of snow travel equipment. Skiers and snowshoers travel at a different pace because of the glide offered by ski skins and the increased length of stride. This becomes even more critical if the group is roped together on glaciated terrain. For example, on a Denali climb using the West Buttress Route, it is critical that each member of the rope team travel at the same speed in order to keep proper tension in the rope in order to reduce consequences in the event of a crevasse fall. This is almost impossible if some members are on skis and others are on snowshoes - and it isespecially difficult when the rope team is descending steeper slopes.

Goal of trip
The goal of the outing can dictate the choice of gear. On a particular trip is it just as important to have fun along the way, cutting some turns, as it is to get from point A to point B? Or is arriving at the destination as quickly as possible or with the least possible energy expended most important? Some people would chose skis in the first case but snowshoes in the second, while expert skiers might prefer skis in both instances, depending the match of terrain and snow conditions with the proficiency of each team member. Choose the gear that best matches what everyone agrees is the primary objective.

Pack weight
Choose a method of snow travel that is appropriate for the amount of weight in your pack, given your skill level. Skiing down even the slightest grade with a heavy expedition pack is extremely difficult. Couple that with a sled and floppy mountaineering boots on your feet and it is easy to see why the vast majority of expedition climbers on Denali choose snowshoes over skis. For those that wish to take skis on expeditions, it isn't impossible, but it will most likely require that each climber make a commitment to a lightweight philosophy and approach by refining their equipment choices and eliminating most luxuries.

Anticipated snow conditions
What are the snow conditions the group is expecting to encounter? Either method of snow locomotion is appropriate for snow too deep or soft to walk on with boots only - but skis will always offer more flotation in soft snow than snowshoes because they simply have more surface area. However, snowshoes are a better choice for a thin, variable snowpack (where wind distributes snow into deep drifts, but leaves lots of cumbersome vegetation and rocks exposed). Less skilled skiers may also prefer snowshoes when the snow pack has a bad crust, is wet and heavy, or is extremely variable and difficult to ski.

Distance to travel
How far do you need to go? If the distance is short (a few hours to a single-day ice climbing objective, for instance), then the speed benefits offered by skis may be surpassed by the light weight and convenience of snowshoes. But if the distance you will travel is great [no comma] and/or there is a need to travel fast, skis can offer many advantages. They are obviously much faster on the downhill, and because AT bindings allow a long touring stride in addition to a few inches of glide with every stroke, skis are a bit faster on the uphill as well.


The bottom line is that most people will find snowshoes easier to use - especially when packs are heavy and snow conditions and terrain are difficult. Skis are better suited for folks who are adept at using them, traveling light, planning to travel on appropriate terrain (glaciers, open bowls, etc), or who need to travel great distances quickly. But in any event, both choices offer great utility and a lot of personal reward. They are great tools for you to use to access the snow-covered backcountry.

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