Snowshoes were invented centuries ago by the aboriginal peoples of North America. Snowshoes made it easy for people to walk through the winter conditions without sinking into the snow with every step. This was important both for nomadic tribes and those which needed to hunt to survive the cold winters. The first European settlers quickly adopted snowshoes to help travel around the many trap lines they established.
Originally snowshoes were made from a wood frame that was strung with sinew webbing. Each tribe had their own distinct style of snowshoe based on the terrain they were travelling and what materials were available to them. Some of the classic spoon shapes were designed by the Algonquin and Ojibwa peoples. Round shaped bear paw and elongated bear paw styles were also invented by the aboriginal people and are still sold today.
Modern snowshoes have evolved largely based on the elongated bear paw design. Frames are rectangular in shape and made from aluminum. The webbing has been replaced with light weight, yet strong plastics and water resistant fabrics. Aluminum framed snowshoes are durable if you are expecting to use them often or will be racing, but they are almost double the price of traditional or hybrid snowshoes. Hybrid snowshoes are made with a wood frame and synthetic webbing. They are extremely light weight and unlike the aluminum frames, ice doesn’t freeze to them.
Snowshoes need to be chosen based on their intended use. If you are hiking through fresh snow in back country conditions then a high quality model is suggested as the trekker could be miles from civilization and this would not be a good time for equipment to break. Snowshoes are available for trails as well where snow is likely packed down requiring less flotation.
Snowshoes work by floating the wearer on top of the snow preventing them from sinking down. By floating on the snow it is much easier to walk and reduces greatly the amount of energy needed to move. In some areas of Canada and Alaska, snow can be over 10’ deep and would be impossible to walk through otherwise.
In mountain areas with fresh unpacked snow a snowshoes that is short and narrow is best as it quickly lets you change direction and dig in with your tow while walking uphill.
In open areas with a variety of terrain a long and narrow snowshoe is best. In forested areas with a variety of terrain a large snowshoe is best. The larger size will have good flotation and still make it easy to step around or over obstacles such as fallen trees, bushes, or rocks. If you will be snowshoeing on packed trails then a narrow snowshoe is best.
The binding is what attaches your foot to the snowshoe. A good binding should be comfortable and allow the wearer to wiggle their toes with it falling off. Natural leather bindings are available as well as synthetic models. The binding also allows crampons to be attached to the snowshoe to increase traction on ice and give grip when going up or down hill to prevent slipping.
Whichever snow shoe you choose, make sure the binding pivots properly based on the terrain you will be travelling. If the toe pivots too much on packed or icy terrain the toe can hit your shin bone. On loose snow more pivoting makes it easier to lift the snowshoe with each step and sheds snow which can accumulate on the shoe faster. If the toe can dig in more then the snowshoe wearer will have better grip on hills.
Snowshoes are also chosen based on the weight of the person who will be wearing them. When choosing a snowshoe, be sure include the weight of all clothing, backpacks, gear and accessories you will be carrying. This is important as a snowshoe could be fine in the store but become insufficient once the trek starts.
Women when choosing snowshoes need to remember that they have a smaller gait than most men and likely will need a slightly narrower snowshoe.
Snowshoes can be a lot of fun when travelling through the forest and mountains or just hiking around your neighborhood after a big snowfall. Check manufacturer’s websites (such as Faber) to make sure you are fully informed about the type of snowshoe you need.
Many snowshoe enthusiasts will also use ski poles for added stability and balance on ice and hills while snowshoeing. Before purchasing try on the snowshoes to make sure you can comfortably walk in them and that they will support your weight before you head out on your next winter adventure.
Copyright 2016 Mike Wilson