Traditional snowshoes have a hardwood frame with rawhide lacings. Some modern snowshoes are similar, but most are made of light metal while others are a single piece of plastic attached to the foot to spread the weight. In addition to distributing the weight, snowshoes are generally raised at the toe for maneuverability. They must not accumulate snow, hence the latticework, and require bindings to attach them to the feet. While today they are mainly used for recreation, primarily by hikers and runners who like to continue their hobby in wintertime, in the past they were essential tools for fur traders, trappers and anyone whose life or living depended on the ability to get around in areas of deep and frequent snowfall. Even today, snowshoes are necessary equipment for forest rangers and others who must be able to get around areas inaccessible to motorized vehicles when the snow is deep.
Before humanity built snowshoes, nature provided examples. Several animals, most notably the snowshoe hare, had evolved over the years with oversized feet enabling them to move more quickly through deep snow.
The origin and age of snowshoes are not precisely known, although historians believe they were invented from 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, probably starting in Central Asia. British archaeologist Jacqui Wood hypothesized that the equipment interpreted to be the frame of a backpack of the Chalcolithic mummy Ötzi was actually part of a snowshoe. Strabo wrote that the inhabitants of the Caucasus used to attach flat surfaces of leather under their feet and that the Armenians used round wooden surfaces, something akin to blocks, instead. However, the "traditional" webbed snowshoe as we know it today had direct origins to Northern First Nations people, e.g., the Huron, Cree, and so forth. Samuel de Champlain wrote, referencing the Huron and Algonquin First Nations, in his travel memoirs (V.III, pg. 164), "Winter, when there is much snow, they (the Indians) make a kind of snowshoe that are two to three times larger than those in France, that they tie to their feet, and thus go on the snow, without sinking into it, otherwise they would not be able to hunt or go from one location to the other".
Two groups of snowshoe pioneers diverged early on, setting patterns that can still be seen today. One group abandoned the snowshoe as it migrated north to what is now Scandinavia, eventually turning the design into the forerunners of the Nordic ski. The other went northeast, eventually crossing the Bering Strait into North America.
Southward the shoe becomes gradually narrower and longer, the largest being the hunting snow-shoe of the Cree, which is nearly long and turned up at the toe. Even smaller models, developed most notably by the Iroquois, are narrower and shorter, reflecting the need for maneuverability in forested areas where wetter and shallower snow cover during winter made flotation less important.
The Plains Indians wore snowshoes on their wintertime buffalo hunts before horses were introduced. Despite their great diversity in form, snowshoes were, in fact, one of the few cultural elements common to all First Nations tribes that lived where the winters were snowy, in particular, the Northern regions.
Snowshoes were slowly adopted by Europeans in what became Canada and the United States, with the French voyageurs well in advance of British settlers. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, French Voyageurs were primarily 18th and 19th century French Canadian fur traders who explored the frontier waterways by canoe. Superior French snowshoeing skill almost turned the French and Indian War, a conflict that saw two engagements named the Battle on Snowshoes, to their favor.
But the British were quick learners. The Oxford English Dictionary reports the term being used in English as early as 1674. Sixteen years later, after a French-Indian raiding party attacked a British settlement near what is today Schenectady, New York, the British took to their own snowshoes and pursued the attackers for almost 50 miles (90 km), ultimately recovering both people and goods taken by their attackers.
The "teardrop" snowshoes worn by lumberjacks are about 40 inches (1 m) long and broad in proportion, while the tracker's shoe is over long and very narrow. This form, the stereotypical snowshoe, resembles a tennis racquet, and indeed the French term is raquette de neige.
This form was copied by the Canadian snowshoe clubs of the late 18th century. Originally founded for military training purposes, they became the earliest recreational users of snowshoes.
The snowshoe clubs such as the Montreal Snowshoe club (1840) shortened the teardrop to about 40 inches long (110 cm) and to broad, slightly turned up at the toe and terminating in a kind of tail behind. This is made very light for racing purposes, but much stouter for touring or hunting. The tail keeps the shoe straight while walking.
Another variant, the "bearpaw," ends in a curved heel instead of a tail. While many early enthusiasts found this more difficult to learn on, as they were thicker in the middle and rather cumbersome, they did have the advantage of being easier to pack and nimbler in tight spaces. Two forms of traditional bearpaw snowshoes developed; an eastern version used by "spruce gummers" consisting of an oval frame with wooden cross braces, and a western version with a rounded triangular frame and no wooden bracing.
Traditional snowshoes are made of a single strip of some tough wood, usually white ash, curved round and fastened together at the ends and supported in the middle by a light cross-bar, the space within the frame thus made being filled with a close webbing of dressed caribou or neat's-hide strips, leaving a small opening just behind the cross-bar for the toe of the moccasined foot. They are fastened to the moccasin by leather thongs, sometimes by buckles. Such shoes are still made and sold by native peoples.
Outside of indigenous populations and some competitions such as Arctic Winter Games, very few of the old-fashioned snowshoes are actually used by enthusiasts anymore, although some value them for the artisanship involved in their construction. They are most commonly seen as decorations, mounted on walls, or on mantels, in ski lodges.
Even though many enthusiasts prefer aluminum snowshoes there is still a large group or snowshoe enthusiasts that prefer wooden snowshoes. Wood snowshoes provide more than twice the flotation that metal snow shoes do while weighing the same. Plus the frames on wood snowshoes can’t freeze like their metal counterparts. Many enthusiasts also prefer a wood snowshoes because they are very quiet.
While recreational use of snowshoes began with snowshoe clubs in Quebec, Canada (who held events where races and hikes were combined with fine food and drink), the manufacture of snowshoes for recreational purposes really began in the late 19th century, when serious recreational use became more widespread.
In the late 20th century the snowshoe underwent a radical redesign. It started in the 1950s when the Vermont-based Tubbs company created the Green Mountain Bearpaw, which combined the shortness of that style with an even narrower width than had previously been used. This rapidly became one of the most popular snowshoes of its day.
The Sherpa Snowshoe company started manufacturing these "Western" shoes and they proved very popular. Eastern snowshoers were a bit more skeptical at first, believing that the style was unnecessary in the east, until the Praters demonstrated their improved effectiveness on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. In time all users switched to the Sherpas.
These use an aluminum or stainless steel frame and take advantage of technical advances in plastics and injection molding to make a lighter and more durable shoe. They require little maintenance, and usually incorporate aggressive crampons.
Some, such as those made by Mountain Safety Research, use no metal at all and also come with detachable tail extenders. Newer models have heel-lifters, called "ascenders", that flip up to facilitate hill climbing.
The use of solid decking in place of the standard latticework of lacing came as a surprise to many enthusiasts, since it challenged a long-held belief that the lattice was necessary to prevent snow from accumulating on the shoe. In practice, however, it seems that very little snow comes through the openings in either type of shoe.
Neoprene/nylon decks also displayed superior water resistance, neither stretching as rawhide will when wet nor requiring annual treatment with shellac, features that were immediately appreciated. Eventually they were replaced with even lighter materials such as polypropylene.
These more athletic designs have helped the sport enjoy a renaissance after a period of eclipse when winter recreationists showed more interest in skiing. In the U.S., the number of snowshoers tripled during the 1990s.
In fact, ski resorts with available land are beginning to offer snowshoe trails to visitors, and some popular hiking areas are almost as busy in the colder months as they are on warm summer weekends.
As many winter recreationists rediscover snowshoeing, many more new models of snowshoe are becoming available. Ski areas and outdoor equipment stores are also offering snowshoes for rent; it is an excellent way for those interested in snowshoeing to decide what type of shoe is right for them.
Snowshoes today are divided into three types: aerobic/running (small and light; not intended for backcountry use); recreational (a bit larger; meant for use in gentle to moderate walks of 3-5 miles (5-8 km) at a time) and mountaineering (the largest, meant for serious hill-climbing, long-distance trips and off-trail use). Sizes are often given in inches, even though snowshoes are nowhere near perfectly rectangular. Mountaineering shoes can be at least 30 inches (76 cm) long by 10 inches (25 cm) wide; a lighter pair of racing shoes can be slightly narrower and 25 inches (64 cm) or shorter.
Regardless of configuration, all wooden shoes are referred to as "traditional" and all shoes made of other materials are called "modern."
Not withstanding these variations in planned use, larger users should plan on buying larger snowshoes. A common formula is that for every pound (0.45 kg) of body weight, there should be one square inch (6.5 cm²) of snowshoe surface per snowshoe to adequately support the wearer. Users should also consider the weight of any gear they will be packing, especially if they expect to break trail. Those planning to travel into deep powder look for even larger shoes.
Many manufacturers now include weight-based flotation ratings for their shoes, although there is no standard for setting this as of yet.
When traditional wooden shoes were still popular, it was common to buy the bindings separately, much like downhill skis (and many wooden shoes are still sold this way). They were commonly called "H" bindings, since they consisted of a strap around the heel crossing a strap around the toe and one at the instep, forming a rough version of that letter.
On modern shoes, there are two styles of binding: limited-rotation, in which the toe is not allowed to go below the decking; and free-rotation, in which it is. The former is preferred for racing purposes as it prevents the tail from dragging, the latter for climbing steep slopes as it allows kick steps. The heel is always left free.
A series of straps, usually three, are used to fasten the foot to the snowshoe. Some styles of binding utilize a cup for the toe. It is important that a user be able to manipulate these straps easily, as removing or securing the foot often must be done outdoors in cold weather with bare hands, exposing him or her to the possibility of frostbite.
The loose ends of the straps are always placed outside the direction of travel to avoid stepping on them while snowshoeing. Under some conditions, however, accumulations of snow develop into ball-shaped attachments to them, which must periodically be removed as they become annoying.
In 1994, Bill torres and a younger associate developed the step-in binding, designed to make it easier for snowshoers wearing hard-shelled plastic boots (serious mountaineers) to change from snowshoes to crampons and back again as needed.
Snowshoers often use trekking poles as an accessory to help them keep their balance on the snow. Some manufacturers have begun making special snowshoeing models of their poles, with larger baskets more like those found on ski poles (which can also be used). It is not necessary to have them, however.
Other than that, no other special accessories are required. Most types of footwear can be worn with snowshoes, although hiking boots are the preferred choice among most recreational users (except racers, who prefer running shoes). Ski boots, however, will not work with snowshoes, requiring backcountry skiers to carry other footwear for the snowshoe portion of their trip.
If going into deep snow, snowshoers will often take along gaiters to keep snow from getting into their boots from above. Some manufacturers make their snowshoes with boot or toe covers to provide the same protection.
A carrier of some type is also advisable, particularly if the trip will not take place entirely on snowshoes. Some backpack manufacturers have designed special packs with "daisy chains," strips of looped nylon webbing on which the shoes can be secured for the duration of the journey. Snowshoe manufacturers, too, have begun including carriers and tote bags for their products, if for no other reason than to prevent the often-sharp cleats on the bottom from damaging surfaces they come in contact with.
Since snowshoeing is commonly done in cold weather, users typically prepare for it by dressing in layers and carrying the appropriate equipment.
When putting on snowshoes, left is distinguished from right by which way the loose ends of the binding straps point: always outward, to avoid stepping on them repeatedly.
Snowshoes function best when there is enough snow beneath them to pack a layer between them and the ground, usually at a depth of 8 inches (20 cm) or more.
Snowshoeing can be done anywhere there is sufficient snow. There is no need to go to a special area of any kind, although such areas may offer some amenities not found in the typical woodlot or golf course.
The method of walking is to lift the shoes slightly and slide the overlapping inner edges over each other, thus avoiding the unnatural and fatiguing "straddle-gait" that would otherwise be necessary. A snowshoer must be willing to roll his or her feet slightly as well. An exaggerated stride works best when starting out, particularly with larger or traditional shoes.
New snowshoers find the learning curve to be quite steep. It helps that accidental, humiliating and potentially injurious falls are far less common to snowshoeing than other winter sports.
Kick turns do, however, put considerable strain on the hip muscles, and if many have to be made during a snowshoeing trip, these can be very sore the next day.
Alternatively, snowshoers can use two techniques borrowed from skis: the herringbone (walking uphill with the shoes spread outward at an angle to increase their support) and the sidestep.
Great distances can be descended by glissading, and any number of methods to control one's speed and direction are available to the experienced snowshoer: the shoes, poles, hands (if properly gloved), body English and self-arrest techniques.
In situations where they must break trail downhill and thus cannot glissade, snowshoers sometimes run downhill in exaggerated steps, sliding slightly on the snow as they do, an option sometimes called "step sliding." If carrying poles and properly experienced, they can also employ skiing techniques such as telemarking.
On newfallen snow it is necessary for a snowshoer to "break" a trail. This is very exhausting (it may require up to 50% more energy than simply following behind) even on level terrain, and frequently in groups this work is shared among all participants, sometimes in shifts as short as three minutes. It is thus not recommended to snowshoe solo, particularly up a mountain, without a broken route.
A trail breaker can improve the quality of the ensuing route by using a technique, similar to the hiking rest step, called "stamping": pausing momentarily after each step before putting full weight on the foot. This helps smooth the snow underneath and compacts it even better for the next user.
A well-broken trail is usually a rut in the snow about 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) deep and 2 feet (61 cm) wide. While it may appear after heavy use as if it is possible to "bareboot" or walk it without benefit of snowshoes, this practice is frowned upon by serious snowshoers as it leads to "postholing," or roughening of the trail from places where boots have fallen through (initial appearances to the contrary, the snow in a broken trail is not sufficiently packed to support the more concentrated weight of a foot).
Snowshoeing expands the potential for exercise available in the wintertime. As of 2006, at least 500 American schools, mostly but not exclusively in the Northeast have started offering snowshoe programs in their physical education classes to help combat obesity. It had the added benefit of being gentler on the feet than walking or running the equivalent routes, since snow cushions the foot's impact.
For the same reason, it is less detrimental to the environment, since the snow likewise buffers the earth against the impact of so many hikers and campers, cutting back on trail erosion and other effects of heavy use.
While the cold creates its own safety risks, there is less chance of a hiker getting lost on snowshoes, since they can follow their own trail back.
Snowshoeing makes even familiar hikes different and new. If the snow is deep enough, obstacles such as large boulders and fallen logs can be more easily bypassed. Winter transforms familiar forests into something wonderful and strange, and clearer, bluer skies in winter often afford more sweeping, longer-range views from favorite lookouts than are available in summer situations. The stillness of the air, quiet and snow cover give nature a pristine feel that is sometimes lacking at other times of year.
As Florence Page Jaques put it in her book, Snowshoe Country, "I love the deep silence of the midwinter woods. It is a stillness you can rest your whole weight against ... This silence is so profound you are sure it will hold and last."
Nonetheless, many snowshoers find that their legs, particularly their calf muscles, take some time to get used to snowshoeing again at the start of each winter. Frequently the first serious trip leaves them sore for several days afterwards.
The resurgence of interest in snowshoeing in the late 20th century was in some part due to snowboarders, who took to them as a way to reach backcountry powder bowls and other areas while they were still banned from most ski areas. Their similarities to snowboards, in shape and binding, led many of them to continue use even after snowboarders were allowed to use most ski slopes.
Downhill skiers, too, found snowshoes useful in reaching the same areas.
Another popular expedition, particularly among hikers, is the "ski-shoe" trip combining a cross-country ski portion on a level, wide trail with a snowshoe up a less skiable section, usually to a mountain summit.
Snowshoe segments have become common in many multisport events and adventure races, including a required snowshoe segment in the winter quadrathlon. Some competitors in those events like Sally Edwards and Tom Sobal have emerged as stars.
While snowshoe racing has probably been around as long as there have been snowshoes, as an organized sport it is relatively new. The United States Snowshoe Association was founded in 1977 to serve as a governing body for competitive snowshoeing. It is headquartered in Corinth, New York, which considers itself the "Snowshoe Capital of the World" as a result. Similar organizations, such as the European Snowshoe Committee and Japan's Chikyu Network, exist in other countries and there is an international competitive level as well.
The rawhide webbing of traditional snowshoes, as noted above, needed regular waterproofing. Spar varnish is the preferred waterproofing for traditional snowshoes. A light sanding is preferred before 3 coats of spar varnish is applied. Modern snowshoes need no regular maintenance save a sharpening of cleats if desired.
Both kinds of snowshoe, however, can and do break. The most common damage suffered is to the frame, which can be splinted with a stick or piece of wood if necessary. Decking rarely gets broken, but if it is punctured and the hole looks as if it might continue to grow, the best solution is the patching kits made for tents.
Cable ties can serve many purposes in repairing snowshoes. They can splint frames in a pinch, replace a broken rivet, secure a tie or lace, and repair winter clothing as well.