History of Snowshoeing



Jim Tucker


Historical Development:  Snowshoeing is known to have been practiced in present-day central Asia about 6,000 years ago.  It is believed that as these ancestors to the Inuits and Native Americans, migrated from Asia to North America, they brought the snowshoes with them, which were modified slabs of wood.   It was not too long before this evolved into the white ash framed snowshoes with the raw hide lacing that we associate with snowshoeing today.

Until the 1970’s, snowshoes were used primarily for employment and survival rather than recreation, and the primary materials utilized in the construction were wood (white ash) and rawhide.  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.  The truly long (46+ inches) Yukon snowshoe was developed for traversing deep powder-covered open areas, common in the Northwest.  The beavertail 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.

Neoprene Decking:  During the 1960’s, snowshoe manufacturers began to offer neoprene lacing as a man-made option to the rawhide laced deck.  Modern recreational users and professionals appreciated how neoprene did not stretch like rawhide when it became wet, and did not require annual treatment with shellac.

Difficulties with Woodies:  Those introduced to wood framed snowshoes often-encountered difficulty with the bindings and keeping the snowshoes on.  Users also experienced a lack of traction on ascents and lateral traverses on wood-framed snowshoes, unless they took the time to fabricate their own traction devices and adhered them directly onto their decking.  Those who used wooden framed snowshoes also found that the straddle walk required by the wide snowshoes brought on the feeling of tired hips after a few miles of steady walking.   These difficulties were all overcome with the modern snowshoes. 

Aluminum Framed Snowshoes:  Gene and Bill Prater developed the oval-shaped aluminum framed Sherpa snowshoe and steel hinge rod in 1972 in Ellensburg, WA to overcome some of the deficiencies they encountered with wooden snowshoes while doing winter mountaineering in the Cascades.  The Sherpas steadily replaced wooden snowshoes among professional users, including foresters, rangers, trappers, guides, mountaineers, and the military.  Sherpa’s neoprene decking was replaced with polypropylene in 1989, making the snowshoes much lighter. 

Redfeather Leads the Way:  Redfeather introduced the aluminum framed beaver tail snowshoe with hypolon decking in 1990.  A hypolon toe cord was utilized rather than the Sherpa-patented steel hinge rod, as Sherpa retained these patent rights for another two years.  Ironically, the Redfeather Snowshoe Company probably spawned the original boom in snowshoe racing, as Tom Sobol of Leadville, Colorado as well as several other running enthusiasts captured onto the sport, and held several well-advertised events in the state of Colorado.   The light-weight design of the Redfeather Snowshoe, with its red anodized aluminum 8” X 25” frame, retained the traditional symmetrical tailed design of the Michigans that have existed for centuries.  The excitement of racing being done by those who were summer participants in triathlons and marathons brought credibility and attention to the sport of snowshoeing, and started the wave of snowshoeing that continues today.  Redfeather Snowshoes promoted Tom Kettlehut as President and CEO in January 2002, from General Manager and Director of Operations.  Redfeather experienced growth of 21% in 2000-01, and he hopes to continue with 15-20% growth over the next three years. (Outdoor Retailer, Jan, ’02)

Tubbs Snowshoe Company, owned by Ed Kiniry in Stowe, VT introduced the Katahdin and Sierra in 1991 after extensive research and development work coordinated by Rick Howell.  An interesting side note for Alpine skiers and cyclists:  Rick Howell invented the step-in ski bindings while attending high school, and then invented the step-in cycling pedal system after waiting at a stop light and observing a cyclist who in his attempt to release his feet from the pedal straps, crashed onto the highway beside Rick’s car.  

Sales Growth:  Snowshoeing’s boom followed the growth of running, cycling, triathlons, and Nordic skiing in the 1980’s, and the development of modern aluminum framed snowshoes enabled users to enjoy snowshoeing from their first step.  The marketing strategy employed by Tubbs’ General Manager, Kathy Murphy, along with Kiniry’s financial backing, enabled Tubbs to ride the wave, as snowshoe sales have increased at more than 20% per year through the 1990’s.  According to the National Sporting Equipment Association, US outdoor enthusiasts purchased 444,000 snowshoes in 1994, while 640,000 were purchased in 1995.   For the first time ever, over a million pairs were purchased in 1996. 

More than 5 million Americans went snowshoeing in 2000 – 3 % of all Americans over the age of 15 – according to the Outdoor Industry of America.   There appears to be no slump for the sport, which has mushroomed over a decade with annual increases of 20 – 30%.  (Outdoor Retailer, January, 2002)

Over thirty manufacturers currently market aluminum-framed snowshoes, led primarily by Tubbs, Atlas (owned by Tubbs), Redfeather, Sherpa, and TSL.  TSL, based in France claims about a third of the Global market, maintaining a solid hold on European sales. (Outdoor Retailer, Jan. ’02) 

Heel Mounted Traction Devices, Plastic Decks & Elastic Bindings:  Since 1994, snowshoe manufacturers have included a second traction device under the heel, to complement the traction device under the ball of the foot, near the toe cord or hinge rod.  This heel mounted cramp-on or traction device has again aided on lateral traverses, ice covered ridges, as well as ascents and descents.  Snowshoe consultants designed their own heel cramp-on, which was adopted by Tubbs for the Kathadin and Sierra models.  Within a single season, both Tubbs and Sherpa made the heel cramp-on available for those who already own their snowshoes.  The dual cramp-ons are now a standard feature on most models sold.

Mountain Safety Research (MSR) introduced a well-received one-piece plastic decked snowshoe in 1995-96, which was followed by several other manufacturers in 1996-97, including Tubbs and Redfeather.  The elastic material used in the MSR and Northern Lites binding is manufactured by Voile, and enables users the ability to quickly put on and take off the snowshoes.  Another MSR development is the tail extenders, which can quickly and easily be installed or removed for quick storage.  The most recent innovation is the heal elevator, that was developed by Bill Forest, who developed the snowshoes for MSR. 

The small, but enthusiast racing community drove many of the developments.  The primary concerns of the athletes - light weight, durability, traction, positive response and price are usually the same requirements of the recreational, backcountry and professional user as well.  Each user group places varying degrees of importance to each of these concerns, depending on their own personal needs.

Step-In Bindings:  One of the most recent innovations include the step in binding, designed by Bill Prater of Ellensburg, Washington with collaborative efforts from Andy Davis, a ’97 Forest Recreation graduate of Paul Smith’s College.  The step - in binding enables users with crampon compatible boots to easily step from the snowshoes to their crampons and then back to snowshoes.  This innovation was made available to the retailers in 1997-98.

For the 2002-03 consumer, TSL will have an integrated boot and binding with Lowa.  Lowa, working with Vibram (of Italy), collaborated to design this snap-in feature in their AT boot line.   The uppers are a combination of leather and W.L. Gore’s winter Gore Tex, with Thinsulite underfoot and a PU midsole.  The outsole has a bar the passes under the ball of the foot from one side to the other, like an axle.  The ends of the bar snap into place on the pre-mounted snowshoe binding.  The step-ins will be available on the TSL’s 205 and 217 models, both priced under $200.  TSL is well-known in Europe for its aluminum-frame and one-piece injection-molded snowshoes, and Lowa began importing the TSLs this season.  (Outdoor Retailer, Jan. ’02)

Sizes:  Most aluminum snowshoes are either 8” X 25” or 9 X 30,” while several other sizes are also available.  Consistent users have found that these sizes, although typically smaller than traditionally thought necessary, will best meet the floatation needs under most conditions.  It is possible that in the dry powder conditions found along Lake Superior in Minnesota, the Northern Rockies, the Wasatch Range of Utah, the Northern Cascades, as well as the Sierras along the California/Nevada border may require larger snowshoes than the conditions usually found in the east.  Each region has its own distinct snow density and moisture content, which both play an important role in floatation.

Women’s Market:  Unlike much of the Outdoor specialty market that is dominated by men, the snowshoe sales have indicated that 50% are being purchased by and for women.  Tubbs’ research indicates that half of all snowshoers are women, up from 40% in the late 1990’s.  Tubbs, which currently has six models for women, has seen sales quadruple in three short years.  (Outdoor Retailer, Jan. ’02)

Additional Equipment:  Telescopic poles, although certainly not necessary, will aid the user while ascending hills, walking the flats and while pulling gear in a mountaineering sled.  Telescopic poles enable the user to adjust the poles’ height to snow depth and the terrain.  Additionally, the poles can easily be adhered to the backpack when not in use. 

Safety Concerns

Heat Loss:  There are five ways in which the human body can lose heat in the winter. (1) Radiation is the movement of heat from a warm environment (the body) to a colder one (the air); (2) Convection is the loss of heat to air moving across our surface (wind); (3) Conduction is the loss of  heat to a colder object in contact with us (sitting in the snow);  (4)  Respiration cools us, as we are breathing out warm air and inhaling cold air with every breath; and (5)  Evaporation burns energy (calories) and heat by converting moisture on our skin to gas or water vapor.

The primary heat loss concerns for most snowshoers should be protection from the wind (convection), and evaporative heat loss.  Snowshoers by the aerobic nature of the activity are generating enough heat so that usually radiation is not a major concern.  It is a concern while getting the snowshoes on, as the body’s caloric expenditure is still quite low.  Snowshoers must be aware of the potential risks of conductive heat loss at times such as when putting on the snowshoes.  Touching the cold aluminum frames with bare fingers can be a rude experience.  It is best to have a thin layer of gloves on to protect your fingers from conductive heat loss that occurs quickly when touching frigid metal objects.    

Clothing:  Snowshoe footwear begins with a thin synthetic sock and then a synthetic and wool blend sock.  A racer or endurance athlete will wear a lightweight synthetic sock and standard training shoes for snowshoeing.  Some boot manufacturers have begun to market specialty snowshoe footwear.  These are not necessary, and are probably a fine example of America’s marketing excellence. 

For most weather conditions, snowshoers will be most comfortable with fewer clothes than most observers would expect.  A layer of synthetic polypropylene or bi-polar underwear (tops & bottoms) will protect the snowshoer from evaporative heat loss, while a wind barrier layer will protect from convective heat loss (wind).  Both layers will be all that is required for most half day (up to six hour) snowshoe outings.  An additional insulative layer such as fleece should be stored in your backpack for the stops along the trail.  Otherwise, the caloric expenditure of snowshoeing is usually more than sufficient to maintain body temperature. 

Hydration:  It is important to constantly be aware of the need to stay hydrated, especially during the dry winter months.   Even indoors, the consistent dry air will steal moisture from areas of high moisture content, including the human body, your pet, and your wooden furniture.  You can see this in wobbly chairs, interior doors that open and close readily, your dog’s water bowl that constantly needs filling, and in the touch of your own skin.  Native people recognized this, and developed skin moisturizers from indigenous animal and plant sources to maintain moist skin during the dry winter months.   We need to do the same, and also drink plenty of water throughout the day.  It is easy to see some of your moisture escaping you during exhalation, as a cloud forms with each breath.   This looks impressive near bovines and other quadrupeds, but they too need to constantly re-hydrate as well.  The need to stay hydrated cannot be over-stressed during the winter months. 

Many of us do not drink enough water year around, but we have silly reasons for being dehydrated during the winter.  We do not want to stop and pee in the cold conditions of the outdoors, a situation that is likely to come about anyhow, as our urinary bladder constricts due to the colder outside temperatures.  Some of us feel that the cold temperatures of many beverages will (and unfortunately they do) reduce your body temperature.  You should then drink warm beverages if this could potentially become a problem resulting in hypothermia.

Where to Go:  The beauty of snowshoeing is that you do not need a trail or pay a user fee to enjoy an hour or a day.   Any area with public access that is covered with snow is a viable snowshoe adventure.  Snowshoers are able to traverse areas that would be all but impossible to traverse during other seasons, as the snow depth and frozen water provide the floatation necessary for the snowshoes. 

The development of snowshoe trails has been a recent phenomenon, as Nordic ski centers and nature centers have been taking advantage of snowshoeing’s dramatic growth while Nordic skiing has been in a steady decline over the past five years.  It is certainly easier to snowshoe on packed trails, but users should spend some time off trail to truly take advantage of the floatation and maneuverability of the snowshoes.

Stationary and moving water should be avoided until the ice depth is at least 4” deep.  Sudden immersion into ice cold water should be avoided.

Impact on the Environment:  The depth of the snow will protect the vegetation from damage and impact from the snowshoes.  Once above treeline, it is still of utmost importance to stay on the designated trail, as the fragile alpine vegetation is even more vulnerable to damage caused by human impact.  The traction devices can mare exposed rock above treeline, in the same way as crampons.

Snowshoeing actually provides a welcome relief to non-hibernating animals, as the snowshoe trails will harden up overnight, making it easier for animals to traverse a region the following day.  The slow speed of snowshoers does not seem to startle wildlife in the same way as cross country skiing and snowmobiling.

Solo Travel:  Wonderful solo snowshoeing adventures can be a great way to spend an hour or two in the midst of, or at the end of a stressful day.  While getting used to winter travel and using snowshoes on solo adventures, head out for about 30 to 45 minutes, take a five minute break, and then turn around and follow your own trail back to your starting point.  This a great way to explore the woods, fields, and nearby surroundings and enjoy the peace and solitude of the outdoors that cannot be matched when traveling in groups.

 Group Travel:  In brief, it is important to have a travel plan, emergency plans and procedures, and a designated leader(s).   A group larger than six becomes somewhat unwieldy, and takes away from the wilderness experience for the members of the group as well as other groups.  The group must stay together, as minor trouble in winter travel can quickly develop into a hazardous situation.  To make the trek easier for everyone, and to vary the outdoor experience, switch off positions as you snowshoe through the day.  The lead position is often more challenging, as this requires breaking trail.