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Originally published November 19, 2009 at 12:20 AM | Page modified November 19, 2009 at 12:43 PM

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Snowshoes open winter wilderness to everyday hikers — young and old

Gear reviewer Dan A. Nelson's roundup review of the best snowshoes, for children as well as adults.

Special to The Seattle Times

Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more at seattletimes.com/snowsports

For hundreds of years, snowshoe technology remained unchanged. Wood and rawhide provided the foundation of design. Then came the revolution.

In the 1970s, brothers Bill and Gene Prater founded Sherpa Snowshoe Co., with snowshoes featuring aluminum frames and synthetic decking. In the 30-plus years since then, snowshoe design and construction has continued to evolve and change.

Today, modern materials have replaced the ash-wood and rawhide of the last century, as well as the stout aluminum and neoprene used in the 1980s and 1990s. When compared to the models of even 10 years ago, today's snowshoes are lighter, with easier-to-use bindings and more reliable traction. What's more, today's lineup includes several models for kids as young as 5 years old, and several high-quality adult models are available for around $250. That means snowshoeing has become a sport to be enjoyed by the whole family.

Starting at the younger end of the family, we found a couple worthwhile models for youngsters:

MSR Denali Tyker

Though designed for kids, the Denali Tyker snowshoes aren't toys. With a design based on the original MSR snowshoe (the Denali), the Tyker provides youngsters with a fully functional snowshoe. The injection-molded decks give adequate flotation in all kinds of snow for kids weighing up to 90 pounds. We found kids as young as 5 had no trouble cinching on the simple strap bindings, and those same kids discovered they could ramble alongside their parents — or aunts and uncles — with no trouble when exploring rolling snow terrain. Steel crampons provide sure grip on crusty snow, while the MSR Denali design keeps kids stable on side hills and even steep descents. The bindings fit footwear sizes from Kids 7 ½ to 13 ½. Snowshoes are 17 inches long. $59.95. See www.msrcorp.com.

Redfeather Youth 2

As much as some parents may dispute it, preteens are people, too. The Youth 2 snowshoe from Redfeather is aimed at kids who aren't quite ready for a full-size adult snowshoe, but who need a shoe with all the features found on the adult models. The V-tail design of the aluminum frame largely eliminates crossover striding (no stepping on the tails). The 3-strap Cross Country binding is easy to use with a variety of footwear, and the 22-inch frame provides adequate flotation for kids up to 120 pounds in soft, dry snow, or 150 pounds on compacted or heavy snow. Aluminum crampons dig firmly into compact snow and crust, though they are not stout enough for ice. It's a solid recreational snowshoe for youths in moderate terrain. $74.95. See www.redfeather.com.

For adults, our tests unveiled some true gems:

MSR Lightning Ascent

When something works, change isn't needed. That's the position of MSR with its top-end snowshoes. Virtually unchanged since its introduction in 2004, the Lightning Ascent proved to us once more it's the best snowshoe available for hikers who need outstanding flotation and unbeatable traction on steep terrain and deep snow. As we climbed the steep flanks of Mount St. Helens, the aluminum bar frames and aggressive steel crampons sliced firmly into the crustiest snow, eliminating slips and sliding. The four-strap bindings locked the snowshoes securely to boots without undue compression or pinching. $259.95 Sizes: 22, 25 and 30 inches for men, and 22 and 25 inches for women. See www.msrcorp.com.

Atlas 10 Series

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Testers unanimously agreed that the 10 Series trail snowshoes from Atlas are well-suited for flat walks and modest ascents. They worked exceptionally well on the trails around Mount Baker's lower slopes, and in the rolling terrain of the William O. Douglas Wilderness north of White Pass. The tempered-steel crampons dig into ice and heavy crust with no trouble. Angled heel cleats provide firm lateral grip, preventing heel slip even on icy slopes. The men's version provides adequate flotation in all but the softest snow.

The women's versions, dubbed the Elektras, are slightly undersized, and as a result, the flotation is less than ideal except in compact snow. The webbing straps of the binding comfortably held the shoes in place with no pressure or pinch points. When that webbing got wet, however, the bindings were difficult to release. $199.95. Sizes: 25, 30 and 35 inches for men; 23 and 27 inches for women. See www.atlassnowshoe.com.

Redfeather LaCrosse (with Pilot II bindings)

Utilizing Redfeather's classic V-tail design, the LaCrosse series virtually eliminates crossover (one shoe stepping on the other). The powder-coated crampons resist snow buildup, even in wet, sticky conditions like those commonly found around Snoqualmie Pass. The long teeth bite firmly in crusty snow and even ice. The Pilot II binding, though, really makes the LaCrosse a mountain workhorse. A simple X-pattern of webbing straps locks in the forefoot, while a sliding heel section gives the binding its stability and versatility. The binding accommodates virtually any boot — we even fit them on a pair of size 12 alpine touring ski boots. All in all this is a solid snowshoe for deep powder and big mountains. $269.95 (25-inch). Sizes: 25, 30 and 35 inches. See www.redfeather.com.

Tubbs Couloir

Our testers raved about the ease of use and functionality of the Couloir from Tubbs. Whether we were climbing in the Hurricane Ridge area or hiking off-trail around Stevens Pass, the Couloirs performed admirably. The shoes go on quickly thanks to the single-pull bindings. Steel crampons dig into firm snow and ice, and the shoes float heavy loads atop all forms of snow, including deep powder. Said our tester, "For big-mountain climbs or trips with a heavy pack, these are perfect. They did it all — floated atop fresh snow, resisted clumping on wet snow, hinged smoothly on each step, and bit into steep, wind-hardened slopes." $249.95. Sizes: 25, 30 and 36 inches. See www.tubbssnowshoes.com.

Freelancer Dan A. Nelson, of Puyallup, is a regular contributor to Backpacker magazine, and an author of outdoor guides with The Mountaineers Books. For the purpose of review, gear manufacturers lend products, which are returned after a typical use of six to eight weeks. There is no payment from manufacturers and they have no control over the content of reviews. Contact Dan with gear-related questions at gearguy@adventuresnw.net.

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