While snowshoeing has gained in popularity recently, it is believed to have originated more than 6,000 years ago in Central Asia. Our ancestors relied on snowshoes, not for recreational purposes, but as a means of survival, to forage and move from one hunting ground to the next when the ground was covered by deep snow. By distributing a person’s weight over a wider surface area, snowshoes provided mobility and flotation in packed, dense snow, without sinking in. Thus they became a critical tool in both survival and migration as people explored and settled onto the varied landscapes of the Northern Hemisphere.
After arriving on the North American continent, snowshoes were traditionally handcrafted from wood and rawhide materials by skilled Native American artisans. Through the ages, snowshoes evolved to meet the environmental needs and intended use of the wearer. For the peat bogs of the Alaska and north woods, a long snowshoe like the Ojibwa and the Alaskan snowshoe were developed to spread the weight over the snow, front to rear. These long snowshoes are not good for climbing but are fantastic for travel in very deep snow, over peat bogs and frozen lakes. Other terrains led to the development of the Huron beavertail and bear paw snowshoes styles. These snowshoes are wider and not as long making them very maneuverable in hilly terrain and in deep forest.
Though still made today, snowshoes have changed dramatically in their construction and intended uses. Beginning in the 1960s, modern manufacturers replaced wood and rawhide materials with neoprene, aluminum and reinforced vinyl. Neoprene is used for the lacing system instead of untanned caribou, moose or deer hide strips, and aluminum has replaced the wooden frame. Since snowshoes are currently designed mainly for adventure and recreational purposes, they are lighter, sleeker and easier to maintain. In essence, snowshoes allow you to travel and hike in the woods, on trail or off, in a variety of snow conditions. With so many models now being offered, how do you know which model and size to choose? Like the Native Americans, your choice will be determined by region and terrain. If venturing out west, where snow tends to be deeper and lighter, then a larger snowshoe is necessary as it provides better flotation. Flotation simply means the weight is distributed over a larger area to prevent the wearer from sinking down into the snow. The more you sink, the more tiring each step will be. It’s most energy efficient to sink as little as possible. If the snow is dense, wet and more compact, like conditions you may encounter in the east, a smaller size snowshoe is adequate, as flotation is not as critical.
Fixed Toe Cord
Rotating Toe Cord
Snowshoes feature two styles of bindings; fixed-toe cord and rotating-toe cord. The rotating-toe cord style is easier to use, as the snowshoe tail drags behind the user without them having to lift it up with each step, and so less energy is required. With the fixed-toe cord snowshoe, the entire snowshoe is lifted up with each step. This requires more energy, however it also is simpler if you are new to snowshoeing or want to run in your snowshoes. The fixed-toe cord tail follows your step up which makes it easier to step over obstacles and to run on packed trails.
Bindings also feature crampons, which are essentially spikes providing traction and stability, especially for snow over ice that is often found when climbing. Crampons become more heavy duty as one moves from recreational snowshoeing, to backcountry, and mountaineering snowshoeing.
You may ask, “What are the proper boots to wear with my snowshoes?”. The answer depends on weather conditions and the individual user. Backpacking boots provide sufficient support and stability, but are not insulated. Winter boots are more flexible, meaning they provide less support, but they feature insulation normally rated to minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit. I have used snowshoes extensively in the Northeast, particularly through the Catskill Mountains in New York State and the Green Mountains of Vermont, where temperatures ranged in the mid-20s. I chose to wear non-insulated boots because I sweat profusely, and it is hard to remain relatively dry and warm once your feet and socks are excessively damp. Your decision, therefore, will be determined by your own physiology and the severity of the elements.
Finally, whether or not to use snowshoe poles will depend on the individual’s personal preference, but they do help with balance, especially when trekking over fallen logs on trail.
While winter and colder temperatures may be the perfect excuse to stay indoors and hibernate, you may be missing out on a fabulous opportunity to experience the outdoors as a winter wonderland. A unique sensation of peace and serenity prevails in the woods unlike during the other seasons. As long as you have the appropriate clothing and gear, such as gaiters, why not continue hiking all year round?