There is simply nothing better for trekking (and this is a key point) OVER freshly accumulated snow, than a good pair of snowshoes. Nature is, as people who design these kinds of things have recently started to notice, well ahead of us on this idea. The snowshoe hare is aptly named because its built-in version of the “go over instead of through” paws got the job done long before humans were tying bits of wood to their feet and calling them snowshoes.
That being said, we humans have been trying our hand at this idea as well, for quite some time. It is speculated that the first example of primitive snowshoes cropped up in central Asia around 4,000 – 6,000 years ago. As populations migrated and the need to traverse different landscapes increased, these early models eventually diverged and gave birth to the cousin of snow footwear, the Scandinavian ski.
No matter your reason for purchasing snowshoes, knowing the basic parts of your snow floaties, before you buy them, is the best way not to end up stranded waist deep in a snow bank.
Traditionally, snowshoe frames were made of wood. Strips of pliable tree innards were steamed and stretched into various shapes to create the basic shape and structure of the shoe.
Modern snowshoe frames are made with aluminum tubing. This allows the frame to weigh very little indeed. Metal also has the much desired property of being quite permanent. No rotting, warping, or breakage in these modern models. Wood does not wear as well when kicked into rocks, compared to aluminum.
Bindings provide the necessary function of keeping your snowshoe attached to you and your boot. It is the binding that keeps you attached to the shoe and vice versa. Adjusting the bindings to help them do their job is critical. Too loose and your newly expanded feet will stay behind as you step right off the snowshoe leaving you in a state of tilt, perched sideways with one foot buried in the deep snow and the other supported by the snowshoe still on. Too snug and hotspots and blisters are probable.
Choosing the type of binding you want shouldn’t be hard but the number of choices now available is an expression of psychologist Barry Schwartz’s example of buying blue jeans in which more choices are less meaningful. I am convinced that makers of snowshoes have the interests of consumers at heart. I just think that their logic when designing bindings may be a little flawed. I imagine the scenario to be something like this.
The choices in bindings tracks with the footwear and available material and technology humans have used traveling in snow. Back in the day, people just wanted to run trap lines where climbing mountains was not a priority, much less snowboarding. We humans, being the playful sort, are always finding new ways to have fun in the snow. Sports like snowboarding and alpine climbing have played a part in the evolution of snowshoe bindings. Bindings come in two general types. The fist is a binding that is attached to the decking of the snowshoe. This type of binding moves the tail of the snowshoe when taking a step. If you are new to snowshoeing, the tail following your heel when stepping will seem more natural. If you want to run on more packed snow, a binding that lifts the tail will also be preferable. The other type of binding is one that will allow the tail of the snowshoe to stay in contact with the snow as the heel is lifted. Allowing the tail of the snowshoe to glide across the top of the snow conserves energy when snowshoeing in deep snow for longer distances.
Two types, doesn’t sound like an immobilizing array of choices. The cornucopia of choices is how you strap these bindings to your boots. As noted earlier, the expansion of snow sport activities has also expanded the choice of attachments that bindings use. There are bindings that use a one handed release; ones that use a post and strap for quickly securing and loosening with mitts on; there are those that you adjust to the boots you will always use and then just step in and secure your snowshoes to your boots. The snowshoe and binding that will work best for you will be the ones that most closely work in the activity you will use the snowshoe in.
Today, most snowshoes are sold with bindings already included. Consider the entire snowshoe and binding combination, when deciding which pair will best suit your needs.
Decking is the material that stretches across the frame of your snowshoe. I hesitate to call it the most important part of your snowshoe, as by now you should see that all parts are integral, but snowshoes without decking are like a life jacket without foam. Remove it, and you will sink rather quickly. Decking gives your snowshoe the surface area needed to spread your weight out evenly and keep you above the snow. It’s what creates the flotation you need to stay on top.
If bison could speak, they would probably have been big NASA advocates. Take a close look at the decking on any frail old decorative pair of snowshoes and you will see why. To keep the weight down, rawhide was traditionally used as the primary material when lending lightweight surface area to snowshoes. Only with the invention of super light, sturdy, space-age plastics did snowshoes start to take on their modern form. These new varieties of synthetic decking material have allowed the weight of snowshoes to be reduced substantially while still providing superior flotation.
While not entirely necessary for every hike, crampons are certainly useful at their worst and life saving at their best. Crampons are like the sports cleat of the hiking world. This jagged metal claw on the bottom of many modern snowshoes allows the wearer to dig in and grip in hard packed snow. A useful feature when negotiating ice or crusty snow.
Now that you know what goes into a snowshoe, take a minute to appreciate the fact that you are partaking in a very long tradition of treading above powder. Snowshoes have come a long way in 6,000 years!