A Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoes and How to Use Them

A Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoes and How to Use Them

By Samantha Breza

Want to do something new this winter?  Try snowshoeing!

Snowshoeing is an easy sport to get into. The equipment is relatively cheap, snowshoers don’t have to register the equipment, or pay annual fees for it. Snowshoers don’t need to take classes or have special training to begin.

Traditionally snowshoes were used for getting around in snow without sinking into it with each step. They were used for hunting, trapping, collecting firewood from forests, or for doing daily chores on a farm. Using them for recreational use, such as hiking trails in the winter and competitive racing started a little over a hundred years ago, but snowshoes have been around for thousands of years. No one is entirely sure when the first snowshoes were invented, but archeologists think this happened in Central Asia around 4000 B.C. and were walked over the Bering Strait by the ancestors of modern Native Americans. The first snowshoes were most likely made of rawhide leather, wood, or bark.

Snowshoes have traditionally been made out of wood but most are made out of aluminum or plastic now. At different points in the twentieth century different manufacturers such as Tubbs and Atlas started to use aluminum to make snowshoes. There are a few differences between modern and wooden snowshoes. Modern snowshoes tend to weigh less, which means they are smaller than traditional snowshoes because they don’t need to balance out as much weight. Traditional snowshoes weaved wood across their frames whereas modern snowshoes use synthetic webbing to dispense a user’s weight. Whether they are aluminum, plastic or wood, every snowshoe has the same components. They have a board frame with webbing or lacing in it to prevent sinking into the snow. Snowshoes have turned-up tips at the front (or toe) that prevent snowshoers from getting stuck in loose snow. There are straps and a toe cord to keep feet on the snowshoes and a hole under the forefoot to let snowshoers flex their toes. Often there’s a tail at the end for extra stability.

Snowshoes models come in four basic types, but are called by several names and are used for different reasons:

  • The Yukon, Alaskan, Pickerel, or trail style snowshoe is oblong and usually four to five feet long and a foot wide. It has a turned-up toe and a long tail. It was made to walk on deep heavy snow over flat terrain, but can also be used to walk down steep hills on soft snow.
  • The Ojibwa snowshoe was first crafted in Central Canada, which has wide-open areas that are coated in deep snow every winter. It has a long tail that points up and a pointed turn-up toe, and comes in many different sizes. Modern snowshoes come with spiky metal traction devices under the snowshoes that grip the snow.
  • The Algonquin, beavertail, Maine, Michigan, or Huron snowshoe is ten to twenty inches wide and thirty to forty inches long. It has a long tail and a very flat toe and closely resembles tennis rackets.
  • Bearpaw snowshoes are shaped like ovals and are mostly flat. Some newer models have a tapered tail design, a raised toe, and size adjustments so they can travel through underbrush and thickets. They have been traditionally used for going up steep hills. Sizes vary dramatically, but the popular Green Mountain bearpaw model is ten inches wide and thirty-six inches long.

Most important is that the snowshoes fit, can support the wearer’s weight (including their winter clothes and supplies), and can transverse the snow and terrain the snowshoer is on. The Algonquin and bearpaw snowshoes are best for hills and mountains, while the Yukon and Ojibwa snowshoes were made for flat land. How big the snowshoes have to be depends on the snowshoer’s weight, what they are carrying, and what kind of snow they’re going to be on (it’s easier to sink in powdery snow). Snowshoe manufacturers post this information on charts in their catalogs and websites. Retailers can also give you similar advice.

Once you have your snowshoes just put them on and walk in them.  Walking in them is relatively easy. A wider stance accommodates the snowshoes best. Snowshoers shouldn’t lean backwards when descending a hill and should keep weight on their toes when they go up a hill. Turning in snowshoes required big graceful circles or U-turns. The rest involves putting one foot in front of the other.

The Snowshoes Experience by Claire Walter

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