Snowshoeing is mostly recreational these days, but it once had a more practical application. Snowshoes are designed for walking on top of deep snow by distributing the weight over a greater area. Traditionally, snowshoes were made of a hardwood frame, shaped much like tennis rackets with rawhide lacings.
Modern snowshoes generally have a lightweight metal frame, but hardwood versions are still available. They attach to the feet with bindings, and are typically raised at the toe to increase mobility. If you prefer the classic design, they continue to be produced in Native American communities, and are often the best quality you can find.
Snowshoes were essential to hunters and trappers, who needed to get around on foot in deep snow, and they still serve as tools for anyone who must get where vehicles cannot reach. If you like to hike, you can easily continue your hobby in winter. In fact some hiking trails are specifically restricted to snowshoe use during the cold season. Some folks use poles similar to ski poles in order to help with balance (it’s a little different from simply walking), but it is possible to snowshoe without poles.
Nobody knows for sure when the first snowshoes were created, but tools for navigating snow on foot are several millennia old, first appearing in central Asia. It’s believed that migrating Asians brought snowshoe technology with them to North America via the Bering Strait land bridge. At the time, snowshoes were simple slabs of wood. Without them, humans surely couldn’t have made the migration to places like Siberia or Scandinavia.
The basic design of today’s snowshoe can be traced to the Indigenous people of North America. Shapes and sizes varied by location, including innovations for forested temperate climates. Eskimos, in the polar regions of what is now Canada and Alaska, would not have had as much need for snowshoes, since they traveled on sea ice and wind-packed snow. Before horses arrived in the Americas, Plains Indians relied on snowshoes to hunt buffalo.
French voyageurs adopted snowshoes, becoming some of the first European colonists to do so. During the French-Indian War, the French nearly tipped the balance in their favor by utilizing their knowledge of snowshoes against the English. With the help of Native allies, they could make quick raids on English settlements.
In the 18th century, the colonies made snowshoes part of their basic military equipment, including the 1758 Battle on Snowshoes in the Adirondacks.
In the 1970s, snowshoes began resembling the modern version. In addition to lightweight metal, hinges near the toes and cleats along the bottom were introduced. The hinges allow for a more natural gait, but extra care should be taken when putting down your front foot.
It is also not advised to use snowshoes on particularly steep or icy surfaces. They work best in relatively level areas with at least eight inches of snow.
If you are new to the sport (or starting a new season), you might have to utilize a few leg muscles not normally called upon so much, so a little soreness may result at first. Humans are in essence a tropical species, not well adapted to cold weather, so prepare for the elements when you go out. Snowshoeing is an aerobic activity, so it’s quite possible to find yourself getting rather warm.
Putting snowshoes on can be tricky with gloves or mittens, but you may not want to do it barehanded in cold conditions. If you’re going for an hours long adventure with a backpack, be sure to include an extra layer.
Ski resorts often include snowshoeing as part of their winter recreation, and you can often rent them for day use. This also extends to some state parks with trails intended only for snowshoeing, all but disappearing from view from spring through autumn. Some trails are multi-use, allowing cross country skiing and hiking or snowmobiling in addition to snowshoeing. When using facilities, be sure to know which trails allow snowshoes and which do not.
It might be a little tricky to get your snowshoeing off to a start in 2018. January looks to be quite balmy (by January standards), with a bit less snow than normal. The middle to late parts of the month are when you should look for any snowfall, otherwise a lot of sunny days.