Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '09: Snowshoes stay in the groove

Snowshoes may not be grabbing the headlines they were a few years ago, but the market segment has found a certain groove, with a consistent flow of new ideas and fresh products. Here, we recount the latest trends and products coming out of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2009.

Snowshoes may not be grabbing the headlines they were a few years ago, but the market segment has found a certain groove, with a consistent flow of new ideas and fresh products. This winter we've seen the kids' snowshoe market mature, with manufacturers offering new models that fill the gaps in their lines and address more age groups. Another thing we noticed is that Tubbs and Redfeather are introducing their first adult snowshoes made of plastic. Meanwhile, Easton -- still a newcomer to the category -- has expanded its product offering with poles and other gear. While some companies made big moves, many focused their efforts on the small but important details. For example, binding materials continue to become more sleek, lightweight and functional, while deck colors and artwork clearly outshine what we saw just a few years ago. This year's product line-up is solid, and now the question is whether cash-strapped consumers really will choose snowshoeing as an affordable alternative to other forms of entertainment and recreation. If consumers will come to the table, they'll find that snowshoe companies have put out a nice spread.

MSR Shift Snowshoe

Atlas introduced a new Wrapp binding on its latest 10 Series of snowshoes. The first thing we noticed is that the Wrapp works very smoothly. This is largely because the company perfected the action of the webbing, which slides through hardware that has been set at optimum angles. Also, the binding secures by pulling a single loop, and the tail end of the webbing can be fastened neatly to the back of the binding. Good idea. There's also a toe stop, so people don't have to guess whether they've placed their foot in the right position. And EVA padding on the binding helps prevent pressure points.

Also, note that Atlas introduced new snowshoes for kids ages 4 to 8. The Sprout for boys and Mini for girls are both aluminum shoes that measure 17 inches long and retail for $70.

There were also little details we loved with the new Atlas snowshoes for women, like the lustrous coatings on the decks; the variety of deck textures that resemble Cordura, soft-shell fabric and embroidery; plus thin, sleek binding pulls made of silicone-impregnated tape. www.atlassnowshoe.com

We've known for a long time that Americans are getting heavier and heavier. Could this be the reason that Crescent Moon has suddenly seen a bump in sales of its larger snowshoes? Or, does it mean more people are exploring deeper powder? In any case, sales are up for shoes that measure 10 inches in length, and Crescent Moon owner Jake Thamm is relieved to see product moving. This past fall, the economic downturn caused him great concern, but when we caught up with him at Outdoor Retailer's Backcountry Base Camp, he seemed optimistic about the future, as was the case with other snowshoe manufacturers. Note that Crescent Moon improved the binding on its largest shoes by making the binding longer to capture more of the user's foot. Plus, a plastic plate has been placed underfoot to make the foot more stable. www.crescentmoonsnowshoes.com

TSL 325 Nature Snowshoe

Easton has been involved with the manufacture of trekking and ski poles for years, so it's logical for the company to introduce its own line of adjustable trekking poles (MSRP $80). In an effort to offer the market a new idea, the poles have a Rock-Lock adjustment system -- a design based on the clamp closure on ski boots. Made of 7075 aluminum, the poles are lightweight, and this first generation does not have a spring shock absorber. In other news, the deck of Easton's Backcountry snowshoe has been upgraded with a material that has TPU molded over a base fabric to add much more traction. www.eastonsnowshoes.com

Faber Snowshoes has put a new pivot system on the bindings of the Mountain Expert (MSRP $199-$229) and Mountain Master (MSRP $249-$289.) The single pivot rod made of steel is attached to the binding so that it can flex at each end. This is intended to provide more control when traversing and walking on uneven terrain. These shoes as well as the entry-level Mountain Venture shoe (MSRP $119-$159) are outfitted with a "pivot stop" that limits the rotation of the foot so your shin won't bang against the shoe. www.fabersnowshoes.com

GV Snowshoes modified several of its snowshoes to include a new heel lift rod that should prove more durable over time than previous heel lifters. Also, several shoes have a new crampon that is coated with a special paint to reduce the build-up of ice and snow. In addition, seven models now have a gel material on the inside of the binding straps to prevent pressure points and make the bindings more comfortable. Because consumers were asking GV for a lighter athletic snowshoe, it introduced the Cat Trail (MSRP $167). With a lighter binding and crampon than its predecessor, it weighs 2.6 pounds for an 8 x 25 model (it was previously 2.7 pounds). www.gvsnowshoes.com

Kahtoola expanded its Flightdeck TS series of snowshoes by adding a 29-inch model (MSRP $289). Like previous Flightdeck models, it includes the Two Step binding that separates from the snowshoe deck to be used as a traction device with any footwear. Kahtoola's high-end traction/snowshoe system is just starting to penetrate the snowshoe market, and you might look for the company to try to carve out a niche with athletes and adventure racers as it tries to stake out its place in the snowshoe world. www.kahtoola.com

Tubbs Flex TRK trail walking snowshoe

MSR's new Shift snowshoe (MSRP $90) bridges a previous gap in the MSR line. While the company has had shoes for adults and young kids, this is its first one for children ages 7 to 12. The Shift is an injection-molded shoe whose basic design resembles the Denali Evo, but has some tweaks. For example, the traction blades of the Shift are molded into the frame rather than bolted on to shave weight. www.msrgear.com

Redfeather is another company producing its first plastic snowshoe for adults. The new Conquest retails for $70, and the company entered the plastic snowshoe business in part to offer a shoe at a lower price than its previous models. The 25-inch-long Conquest is outfitted with the previously used Cross Country binding and a powder-coated crampon that is similar to the one on Redfeather's recreation shoes. www.redfeather.com

TSL Snowshoes has been doing many things over the past three years to reduce its impact on the environment. For example, it gets materials for bindings and crampons from local sources in Vermont. This winter, it introduced the 325 Nature snowshoe (MSRP $139), which has a deck made of recycled composite materials and binding straps made of bamboo fiber. The company has looked at the entire manufacturing process of the shoe to reduce its carbon footprint, and 95 percent of the Nature's components are manufactured at the TSL facility in Vermont. www.tsloutdoor.com

Tubbs Snowshoes is, somewhat surprisingly, venturing into the plastic snowshoe market. The company line is that the new composite shoes in the Flex series are more comfortable on packed snow than aluminum shoes. There's merit to this, but we suspect that Tubbs also wants to make a go of competing with the likes of TSL and GV in the plastic market. It makes sense for the Canadian market, which has totally bought into the concept, but it will be interesting to see how things go with U.S. consumers, many of whom see plastic shoes as less technical than aluminum models. The Flex series includes the TRK trail walking model (MSRP $150), the NRG hiking model (MSRP $180), and the ALP backcountry model (MSRP $220). Each snowshoe is available in models for men and women. www.tubbssnowshoes.com

Yukon Charlie's kids' snowshoes had been fairly plain until it introduced camouflage patterns last year, and the change has really boosted sales. We're told the shoes flew off the shelves in REI stores this past year. This season, kids' shoes have more eye-catching graphics, including flames and leopard prints. Also, Yukon Charlie's is putting together packages of kids' snowshoes, poles and bags with matching patterns, and they should retail for about $69. www.yukoncharlies.com

--Marcus Woolf



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