How To Snowshoe
Snowshoeing today is mainly a sport. The snowshoe, a form of footwear, originally was a survival tool among primitive peoples of polar regions. In the first half of the 20th century, before the invention of the snowmobile, snowshoes were widely used in Canada and the northern parts of the United States by people working in wilderness areas covered by heavy snow.
Trappers, forest rangers, lumberjacks, and land surveyors all used snowshoes during the winter months to traverse ground buried under deep snow. For many of them, winter was the ideal time to work. Non-hibernating fur-bearing animals yielded their best pelts during the winter months. Travelling through undergrowth in a northern forest was easier with a deep layer of snow on the ground. Annoying mosquitoes and deerflies were absent.
The snowshoes used then were made with a framework of wood (ash and hickory being the most common) which was filled in with webbing of rawhide, sinew and gut (provided by moose, caribou, elk or deer). Large hides were needed as the webbing required long strips of lacing material. Today you can purchase snowshoes produced entirely with man-made materials. Purists can still buy the traditional wood frame snowshoe, but the webbing and foot bindings are made of polypropylene and nylon-reinforced neoprene. This is an advantage during the early spring months, as prolonged exposure to wet or slushy snow will cause bindings of animal origin to stretch and webbing to sag.
The concept of a snowshoe is that it distributes your weight over a larger area than the surface of your foot. This prevents you from sinking into the snow. An ideal snowshoe is light in weight yet sturdy enough to support your weight and it allows you to walk on snow as if you were walking on terra firma. There is no ideal snowshoe. Compromises must be made.
A very wide, nearly round snowshoe, such as a "bearpaw" or a "beavertail" will provide the best support but forces you to walk in an awkward and fatiguing position with your legs spread apart. A narrow snowshoe allows you to walk in a more normal fashion but it must be much longer than it is wide to provide sufficent webbing surface to support your weight. The longer the snowshoe is, the harder it is to turn around and the more likely you are to catch the front tip, or toe, in tangled brush or crusty snow. Unlike the bearpaw, a long, narrow snowshoe has a "tail", which is the end of the snowshoe where the two ends of the piece of wood forming the framework are joined together with no webbing between them. This tail adds to the overall length but is a necessary part of the construction and is useful when you want to make an about-face.
In addition to the bearpaw, there are two other basic snowshoes. One, very long and very narrow, is referred to as the "hunting" or "racing" snowshoe. This is useful in heavy brush but does not work well in dry, powdery snow. A third type has a more pronounced teardrop shape and is called the Michigan, the Huron, or the Maine. It is used in more open country. Both types have a tail and an upturned "toe" to avoid snagging the snowshoe in brush. There is also a modified bearpaw with a slight tail and a more teardrop shape but it does not have the same weight-bearing capacity as the standard bearpaw.
These three types are made with the traditional wood frame construction. Modern aluminum snowshoes are made of round aluminum tubing with a solid piece of synthetic woven texture "decking" instead of webbing. These aluminum models are, for the most part, shaped like a rectangle with rounded corners and a slight uplift on the toe end. Some are made with stainless steel crampons on the bottom for walking on ice or climbing hills. Injection-molded
plastic snowshoes are also available in the more traditional teardrop design with a tail.
When choosing snowshoes you must consider your weight and the length of your stride. Taking the style as well as these two factors into consideration, the dimensions of your snowshoe can be anywhere between 8"x30" to 8"x36" for the modern ones or 10"x32" to 13"x46" for the wood frame and injection-molded models. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $100 to $130 for the aluminum and injection-molded versions (equipped with bindings) or between $130 and $150 for the traditional ones, with bindings at an additional cost of $25 to $50 per pair.
How to put on your snowshoes: All types of snowshoes have an opening in the front third of the decking or webbing where your toe will rest without touching the front edge of the opening. The ball of your foot will rest on the back, or opposite, edge of this opening. There will also be a crossbar in the frame just behind this edge. Behind the opening, in the middle third of the snowshoe, the decking or webbing is stronger than in the other sections. This is where your heel will rest. The binding consists of a strap that goes over the top of your foot just behind your toes and another strap that goes around your heel. The heel must be free to rise from the surface of the snowshoe; your toe must be able to enter the opening when your ankle is flexed in taking a step.
Put your snowshoes on in a spot where there is level, shallow snow. Lay the snowshoes side by side and step onto them. What you are wearing on your feet is unimportant as long as it is suitable for the weather and has a fairly firm heel. While Indians and "woodsies" wore leather moccasins, today's snowshoer wears some type of a leather or rubber ankle-high cold weather boot. Position your feet so that the ball of your foot is just in front of the mid-section crossbar. Tighten the strap over your foot first, then secure the strap that goes around your heel. Make sure that your toe will clear the front edge of the opening. You will want your ankle to flex as naturally as possible.
Let's start walking: Lift one foot and move it forward with the inner edge of the snowshoe as close as possible to the ankle of the opposite leg. If you are wearing a teardrop or modified bearpaw snowshoe, be sure to put your foot down with the inner curve at the back of the snowshoe just ahead of the front curve of the other snowshoe. Don't step on your own feet! (If you are wearing long, narrow snowshoes you will not have to pay very much attention to this). Now do the same with the other foot. Try not to spread your legs in a waddling gait. Most of the movement will come from the hips. You will learn to give your foot a slight twitch when lifting it so any snow piled on the tip of the snowshoe will be flicked off.
How to turn around: You can, of course, walk in a tight circle. You can hang onto a tree or a fence post with one hand and reach down with the other hand to steer the tail of the snowshoe. Some people take one snowshoe off, turn around, then put the shoe back on. Or you can try this: Stand with your feet parallel and lift one foot away from your body with the snowshoe as perpendicular as possible. Keeping your knee straight, swing your leg as far to the side as you can, then lower it until the tail of the snowshoe almost touches the snow. Twist your knee to put your foot flat on the snow. Turning your entire body, quickly bring the other foot around and put it flat. Most of the movement is done with your hips.
What to do when you fall down: Roll over onto your back. Raise your legs in the air with your feet as close together as possible. Roll onto your side and lower your legs. Keeping your legs together and flat on the ground, use your hands and elbows to raise your upper body into a semi-upright position. Bend your knees to pull your legs near your body and then twist them so you can get at least one snowshoe flat on the snow. Sit up a bit further and get the other snowshoe flat on the snow. Now you can use the tails and back webbing to support your hands while you maneuver yourself into a crouching position. From here you can either stand or pull yourself upright (it helps to do this near something solid you can hang onto -- if that is at all possible).
Traversing rocky ground: If you must cross a stretch of boulder-strewn ground with light snow cover, take your snowshoes off and carry them. The best way to crack the frames is to attempt a balancing act from boulder to boulder. If you can see bare rock, chances are the snow is shallow enough to wade through.
Climbing over fallen trees, barbed wire fences, etc.: Providing the obstacle is no higher than your hip,
stand parallel to it, find something at arm's length to hang onto, and position yourself so your upper body is parallel to the ground. Now you can swing one leg up and over. In order to have the snowshoe clear the obstacle, be sure you keep it parallel to the ground while doing this.
Straighten up while you straddle the obstacle. If it is a tree trunk you can usually sit on it, then swing the other leg over. If you are dealing with barbed wire, proceed with extreme caution.
Personal experience: my father put
me on snowshoes at age three