Snowshoeing, a brief history
It is generally thought that the first snowshoes were developed some 6000 years ago in Central Asia. These early snowshoes were nothing more than a solid piece of wood attached to the bottom of the foot. It was this simple invention that opened up the world to our early ancestors as a means to hunt and explore the unknown northern regions of the continent. As migration continued to move northward into Siberia, Scandinavia and across the Bering Strait land mass, it is almost certain that snowshoes were a key factor in this movement. Over the years, native Eskimos and North American Indians modified the design of the solid shoe and began crafting snowshoes with wooden frames and animal hide webbing.
As designs evolved and changed over time, it was nature itself that provided much of the blueprint. Animals with feet adapted to snow travel became the models for different snowshoe styles. Beavertail snowshoes were shaped like the hind feet of the snowshoe rabbit while the Bearpaw design was short and round much like the tracks of bobcat and lynx.
Early European explorers to North America found the Native American people using snowshoes as an efficient way to hunt, trap and navigate the winter landscape. It didn't take long for the European settlers to adopt the snowshoe and begin using them to aid in their exploration of the New World.
Snowshoe design didn't see significant change until the 1950's and the early development of the "Western" snowshoe. This style was generally smaller than the traditional wooden frames with a shorter tail section and greater upward angle in the toe area. Modified again in the 1970's with the availability of new materials, the "Western" style has become the snowshoe style of choice among modern day snowshoers. The use of lightweight aluminum frames and solid synthetic decking material has replaced the wooden frame and rawhide lacing of the past.
Components of a snowshoe
Frame - It provides the strength and overall shape of the snowshoe. Most "Western" Style frames are made of high strength aluminum or other composite materials, both of which are lighter, stronger and require no on-going maintenance, like their traditional wooden counterparts. A one-piece welded frame offers the greatest overall strength and rigidity.
Decking - The decking is the material that covers the frame and creates the surface area of the snowshoe. Today's snowshoes feature solid sheets of lightweight materials like Hypalon® (a coated nylon) and PVC (a coated vinyl). Both materials are extremely abrasion resistant, quiet and resilient in extreme temperatures.
Bindings - The binding is one of the most important parts of a snowshoe. It is the attachment point between your boot and the snowshoe itself. They should be easy to get on and off, fasten securely to your foot and feel comfortable while walking. Be aware that some plastic bindings can become hard and stiff in cold temperatures preventing flexibility and creating discomfort.
Traction Cleats / Crampons - Cleats are typically positioned under the ball of your foot and in the rear of the shoe under your heel. As you take a step forward the toe of your boot will pivot down into the snow allowing the front cleat to grab the terrain and provide traction as you walk or climb. When you are descending or traversing hills the rear / heel cleats will engage as the weight of your boot comes down. This helps to slow your forward progress and prevent lateral slippage from occurring.
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Snowshoeing is probably the easiest snow sport to learn, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. Participants can take a leisurely walk through the park, explore some remote backcountry or pick up the pace and jog for a great winter workout. Because the snow acts like a cushion, snowshoeing provides an excellent low impact workout. Casual walking in snowshoes burns approximately 500 calories per hour while jogging can expend nearly 1000.
Snowshoes are designed to provide flotation, traction and stability in the snow. Flotation is the result of an increased surface area underneath your boot and the distribution of your body weight across the snow's surface. Factors that affect the amount of flotation include snowshoe (surface area) size, total body weight and snow conditions. A larger snowshoe size will provide greater flotation, but the tradeoff is less maneuverability and greater weight. Snow density also determines the amount of flotation a snowshoer will experience. Heavy, wet or packed snow will provide much more support than a fresh dry powder. Although snowshoes give you increased flotation, they will sink down into the snow a few inches or more depending on the above mentioned conditions.
The key to an enjoyable snowshoe outing is being comfortable and warm while in the outdoor environment. Layering your clothing provides for easy adjustment during varying conditions and activity levels. The first layer should be lightweight and breathable, the ability to pull moisture away from the skin. The second layer provides the insulation, which can be matched to the outside temperature. The final or outer layer protects from the wind and wet snow. The same principles apply to your feet. A thin lightweight liner sock should be worn first with a heavier wool or hiking sock over the top. Waterproof boots or shoes are recommended to keep your feet warm and dry.
Lacing up the snowshoe is the first step to a fun and safe winter hike. One of the keys to a proper fit is to have the toe and heel straps adequately tightened to avoid unwanted foot movement during walking. If the snowshoe style is symmetrical or there is no discernable way to tell the left from the right, place the shoes on your feet with the buckles or tightening straps to the outside. Position your foot in the binding with the ball of your foot placed far enough forward so that it is centered over the pivot strap / toe cord. Tighten the toe strap to a firm and snug fit being careful not to tighten so much that circulation is hampered. Next place the heel of your boot in the center of the snowshoe deck and pull the heel strap tight against your foot. Finally tighten the ankle or remaining foot straps and tuck any loose strap ends under the ankle or heel strap and you are ready to begin your winter adventure.
First time snowshoers will want to familiarize themselves with the feel and stride of snowshoeing by starting out on a flat horizontal surface. Packed trails provide an excellent first run on snowshoes until you feel comfortable and stable with the feel and gait of the snowshoe stride. Upon quickly mastering horizontal terrain you are ready to access the beauty of nature and tackle all that the sport has to offer. Not only will you be having fun, but you will also be improving your health and fitness level while losing weight and gaining strength.
Snowshoeing is basically walking on the snow; you just strap a pair of snowshoes on your feet and begin to walk. Three things to remember when first starting out:
Avoid crossing the tails of the shoes - If you happen to step on the rear of your stationary shoe with the forward moving one, you may find yourself face down in the snow.
Backing up is hard to do - Snowshoes don't reverse well. If you step backward with the snowshoe, the tail tends to drive down into the snow and may cause you to lose your balance and fall. A better technique is to take small forward steps and make a U-turn.
Steep traverses are difficult - While snowshoes provide some amount of lateral stability, they aren't designed to provide maximum traction with their sides. If possible, avoid moving laterally on steep inclines, which require the edges of the shoe to support your weight rather than the larger surface of the main decking.
In deeper snow a walking technique called "stamping" or "packing" can prevent you from sinking deeper than necessary. You first step down lightly into the snow about 4-6 inches, pause, and then place the remainder of your weight down on the shoe. As the snow is initially compressed it will provide a greater weight bearing structure and tends to support more weight as you finish your stride. If you are traveling in a group, the lead should be changed often, as the person in front breaking the trail will exert almost 50% more energy.
To ascend up a steep slope, a technique called "kick stepping" can be used. As you begin to climb up the hill, kick the front of your snowshoe into the snow and press down to compact it. Keep each new step sufficiently above the previous one to avoid them from collapsing into one another.
When descending make sure to keep your knees slightly bent and your body weight slightly back. This will keep your weight on the rear cleats for maximum control and balance. Be careful not to lean too far back as your feet can slide out from under you.
If you find that you need to traverse the side of a slope, "stamp" the side of the snowshoe into the hill engaging the cleats. Then swing your trailing foot uphill towards the slope, "stamp" down to secure your footing and repeat the process.
Snowshoe poles can be a big help in areas of deep snow and during climbing and descending slopes. They also help to stabilize your upper body and provide balance on difficult terrain. Your cardiovascular workout is also improved by including your upper-body movement.
The sport of snowshoeing itself is not prone to injury however; the winter environment can be dangerous in some situations. There are two main factors to enjoying a safe and injury-free hike. The first is to spend some time stretching and warming-up before you hit the snow in full stride. The most common cause of sports injuries are due to participants not adequately stretching and warming-up prior to physical activity. The second aspect to a safe outing is being aware of your environment and surroundings. Hiking around avalanche areas, over thin ice or not recognizing the effects of frostbite can be extremely dangerous.
When planning a trek into the backcountry, always tell someone where you are headed and when you will return. You should also carry a pack that contains a few survival essentials: compass, trail map, first aid kit, some food and plenty of fresh water. To maximize your wilderness enjoyment be smart, keep warm and know your own personal limits.
Run The Planet thanks the Glacier Snowshoe Company (www.glaciersnowshoe.com) for the permission to reprint the article "Snowshoeing Tips". Text copyright © by Glacier Snowshoe Company. Illustration copyright © 2002 by Run The Planet.