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GEAR REVIEW: Lighter, Flashier, Grippier: The season’s best new running snowshoe and traction devices

The popularity of snowshoe running has taken off over the past few seasons.

The popularity of snowshoe running has taken off over the past few seasons. Runners are not only looking to have an alternative means of training throughout the long Canadian winters, but are also competing in snowshoe races on the winter racing calendar.

With the recent growth of the sport, many snowshoe companies are taking a lesson from the ski industry and injecting some sex appeal to the traditional sport. This season’s running snowshoes are flashier and lighter than they have been in past years. The latest models also offer increased traction and a smoother snowshoe running gait – both critical to enjoyment and performance.

Whether your goal is to compete at the Canadian Snowshoe Running Championship or just put in a few kilometres as an alternative to slogging through the slushy and slippery streets, running snowshoes are sure to help you enjoy the sport to its fullest.

For times when the trails aren’t suitable for snowshoe running, we’ve also included some of the best traction systems to help you plough through the worst winter running conditions.

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Yarker, Ont.’s Derrick Spafford offers running coaching through Spafford Health and Adventure (healthandadventure.com) and is the Canadian importer of Dion snowshoes.

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132 – $210 (Snowshoes)
Dion (Frame Size: 7.5 x 21 inches (19 x 53 cm); Weight: 1.21 kg per pair)
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Dion frames, cleats and bindings are sold individually, so you can customize your snowshoe system for your running needs and trail conditions. New for the 2011 season is the Dion 132, which is a basic, no-frills sibling to the popular lightweight 121 racing snowshoe. The 132 is well-suited to a wide range of snowshoe runners, with a larger surface area offering greater floatation in deep snow. It’s also a good fit for heavier runners. Dion has kept the width of their running and racing snowshoes the narrowest of any snowshoe on the market, allowing for a surprisingly natural running stride. Combine the 132 frame with the standard, deep or ice cleat (depending on your snow conditions) and a quick-fit binding and you have a lightweight, durable snowshoe that will hold up to the rigours of training and racing. www.dionsnowshoes.com

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Cat Trail – $186 (Snowshoes)
GV (Frame Size: 8 x 25 inches (20 x 64 cm); Weight: 1.18 kg per pair)
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GV has a rich history in making quality snowshoes in Canada, from traditional wooden snowshoes right up to injection-moulded and aluminum models. The Cat Trail is GV’s running snowshoe and features lightweight Aerolite T7-7075 aluminum. The asymmetrical tail assists in providing a smooth running stride while reducing the risk of hitting the inside of your ankles or lower legs. The ratchet binding system keeps your foot securely centred in the snowshoe and is easy to adjust even with gloves on. The new rear cleat is a welcome addition and provides better traction on downhills. GV is also now offering the Cat Trail in larger sizes for heavier runners or those looking for better floatation in deeper snow. www.gvsnowshoes.com

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Elite Racer – $219 (Snowshoes)
Northern Lites (Frame Size: 8 x 20 inches (20 x 51 cm); Weight: 907 g per pair)
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If you are looking for the barefoot or minimalist equivalent in snowshoe running, the featherweight Northern Lites Elite Racer is probably the closest that you’ll find. Northern Lites is a relatively small snowshoe company in Wisconsin, so they may be tough to locate in retail stores. Even though gram-shaving is the ultimate goal for the Northern Lites, they also offer a wide range of features to ensure good traction and smooth running economy. The Elite Racer’s heel and toe cleats are made of a specially processed aluminum, which Northern Lites claims has greater strength and abrasion resistance than many titanium alloys. The three-strap polyurethane forefoot binding provides a secure fit even while running on traverses. www.northernlites.com

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Race – $287 (Snowshoes)
Atlas (Frame Size: 8 x 22 inches (20 x 56 cm); Weight: 943 g per pair)
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While the Atlas Run has been the workhorse model within the Atlas line for a number of years, it’s the Race that gets the attention on race day with its lightweight and sleek design. The spring-loaded suspension allows for a smooth running stride at race pace. Like many other running snowshoes, the frame is made of lightweight 7075 aluminum, but the weight-savings really show up in the ultralight titanium forefoot and rearfoot cleats for traction. The one-pull race bindings allow runners to quickly tighten their snowshoes mid-race if they become loose. If your winters involve running over exposed rocks and roots, though, you may appreciate the durability of the Run instead. www.atlassnowshoe.com

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Pro – $30 (Traction Devices)
Yaktrax
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Yaktrax have been the go-to traction device for runners in Canada for years. They can be slipped on and off in seconds, and are light enough to be carried in your hands or slipped into a pocket when not needed. Yaktrax use a coil system that wraps under your foot to give traction on snow and ice. Runners should go with the Pro model over the Walker model, which has a Velcro strap on the upper to prevent them from accidentally slipping off. To increase the life of the coils on your Yaktrax, it is best to avoid running for prolonged distances over paved surfaces. www.yaktrax.com

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Microspikes – $55 (Traction Devices)
Kahtoola
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I once heard Kahtoola Microspikes described as Yaktrax on steroids, which sounds about right. These lightweight running crampons feature a chain system that weaves under your foot, holding mini crampons in place for excellent traction in the worst snow and ice conditions possible. The four mini forefoot cleats and one rearfoot cleat perform almost like a snowshoe, minus the floatation. Though lightweight, the aggressive cleat design of the Microspikes offers exceptional traction, while being remarkably durable. Slipped over your shoes, they’re held securely in place with a flexible elastomer upper that is quick and easy to pull on and off. www.kahtoola.com

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Hobnails – $45 (Traction Devices)
La Sportiva
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Unlike the other traction devices listed, these spikes are inserted directly into your shoes to provide excellent traction on ice and snow. The technology was originally taken from high-end auto racing tires to provide grip in poor weather conditions. The hobnails are made of wear-resistant, corrosion-resistant, high-temper tungsten alloy. Simply screw them into the outsole of your shoe and you’ll get the surefooted feel of track spikes with the comfort of your regular training shoes. They’re also easy to remove.  www.sportiva.com