Snowshoeing is one of the oldest forms of transportation around. Snowshoes were first created to make walking on snow easier without sinking in. It is plausible to think that our ancestors were inspired by the winter fauna. They observed how animals were able to move around efficiently on snow without sinking into it, and copied their adaptations. Then, they must have tested various materials and various forms in order to optimize the floating.
During several thousands of years, the snowshoe was an object of prime necessity, strictly necessary for all peoples to hunt, move around on short and long distances, communicate and survive in winter. It is likely that different tribes and groups of people, who had to deal with such conditions, invented the snowshoe simultaneously.
However, there is one theory which is considered most accurate. Historians believe that snowshoes were invented sometime between 4000 and 6000 years ago in Central Asia. At this time, they were very different to what we use today. Inhabitants of the Caucasus, in fact, used to attach round wooden planks to their feet.
As these ancestors of the Inuits and Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait and moved from Asia to North America, they brought snowshoes with them and adapted to the new surroundings. Before long, snowshoes evolved into the traditional wooden ones.
The “traditional” webbed snowshoes as we know them today were developed by the indigenous people of North America, while the models from Europe and Asia kept a primitive stage during several thousands of years. People in the old world preferred to develop a different type of transportation on snow: the ski. The native Americans developed the most advanced and diverse snowshoes prior to the 20th century, and every tribe had their own specific type, adapted according to the needs of the environment in which they lived.
Traditional snowshoes were made of a single strip of some tough wood (normally white ash or birch) curved round and fastened together at the ends and supported in the middle by a cross-bar. The space within the frame was filled with a webbing of rawhide (red deer, caribou or moose), leaving a small opening just behind the cross-bar for the foot, and they were fastened to the foot by leather straps.
It was possible to determine from what region an Indian came from solely by the form of his snowshoes.
The wooden snowshoes are generally categorized in three different styles or shapes:
The oval shaped bear paw was designed for use in forested conditions, where maneuverability was most important. They were almost circular, reflecting the need for high flotation in deep, loose and powdery snow. This simplest and most primitive snowshoe was developed by the populations of the north-east.
The long Yukon snowshoe, so called because it was common in the north-west, was developed for traversing deep powder-covered open areas. It was designed for travelling long distances with a heavy load, and the long tail would help keep the snowshoe track straight.
The beavertail or swallotail seemed to take advantage of the best features of both the bear paw and the Yukon, and has been utilized in all types of snow conditions.
The snowshoe, in its developed form, was introduced in Europe by the return of the first settlers around 1600 who, physically or by accounts, brought them back from travelling in New France (North America).
Snowshoes were, in fact, slowly adopted by Europeans during early colonialism in North America, and they played an important role during the colonisation of the new world. French fur traders began to travel through the land of the natives in the late 17th century, to trap animals and trade goods. In order to travel effectively in the terrain and climate, they used the tools of the native populations, and snowshoes became popular amongst them.
In ancient times, the snowshoe was an instrument of primary necessity in winter. The white settlers put on the snowshoe only because that was the only means to move around on the snow, until they were able to modify the surrounding environment.
Recreational use of snowshoes
The recreational use of snowshoes began with snowshoe clubs in Canada in the mid 1800s. Seeing that the practice of snowshoeing was declining, groups of people gathered together, organized, made rules and formed Snowshoe Clubs. The first one to be established was the Montreal Snowshoe Club, established in 1840 in the Canadian metropolis, but many more followed. They held events that combined races and hikes with fine food and drink. For decades, these clubs were reserved only for men. But the manufacture of snowshoes for recreational purposes really began in the late 19th century, when recreational use became more widespread. But this popularity was not going to last long.
The arrival of European immigrants to North America during the first and second world wars permitted the expansion of a new winter sport unknown to Canadians until then: skiing. This was to become the new fashionable winter sport.
Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing were part of the European culture and once in Canada, the European immigrants were able to appreciate the Canadian Mountains and the long winters covered with thick layers of snow. Alpine ski resorts and maintained circuits for long-distance skiing appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, and that changed the sporting customs of Canadians.
The snowshoe practice then lost in popularity and the snowshoe clubs drastically disappeared. Only a few survived these new winter sport. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first technological revolution revived snowshoeing from its ashes, and that is the introduction of plastic matters and aluminium in the manufacture process. The composite materials allowed to revolutionize the forms, dimensions, weight and features of modern snowshoes.
Gene and Bill Prater
Snowshoes would have never become what we know today without Gene and Bill Prater. Gene and Bill were passionate mountaineers, who used traditional wooden snowshoes to approach their climbs in the Cascade Mountains in North America. They soon realised that these wooden models were not suitable for technical climbs and steep ascents and descents, so in the early 50s they started researching. They started using aluminium tubing to create the frame, and replaced the webbing with neoprene and nylon decking. Moreover, to make them easier to use in steeper terrain, they developed a hinged binding and added crampons to the bottom of the snowshoe.
After two decades of designing and testing, in 1974 they created Sherpa Designs and released a revolutionary snowshoe, which amazed everyone who had struggled with traditional snowshoes. The synthetic decking provided more floatation within a smaller frame compared to older models, and the aluminium kept the snow from sticking. The hinged binding enabled the wearer to move his boot, and it easily adjusted to any boot’s size.
By the mid-80s, Sherpa was the leading snowshoe brand.
After this initial revolution, snowshoes have evolved into what we know today. They are now almost exclusively used for recreational use, and snowshoeing is one of the fastest growing winter sports in the world.