There is something nostalgic, romantic about the image of a hunter, trapper or explorer, wrapped in a heavy coat and mittens, hiking through the woods on a pair of snowshoes.

It’s a uniquely North American vision, and based on the many models of snowshoes available on the market today, is one that still holds strong in our collective imagination.

Traditional snowshoes were made of bent wood with rawhide lacings. This pair was mat by Northland Snowshoes in St. Paul about 1940. Photo courtesy of the Goodhue County Historical Society.
Traditional snowshoes were made of bent wood with rawhide lacings. This pair was mat by Northland Snowshoes in St. Paul about 1940. Photo courtesy of the Goodhue County Historical Society.

Traditionally, snowshoes helped users to move efficiently across snow to hunt and travel. More recently, they provide recreation and competition.

Using snowshoes helps a walker stay closer to the top of the snow, avoiding ankle-twisting, knee-burning, energy-sapping postholing into the snow.

Snowshoes reduce how far a walker sinks into the snow, a feature known as flotation. The sink might be a little or a lot depending on the size of the snowshoe, the weight of the walker and any load being carried, and the texture of the snow. Snowshoes spread that weight out over a larger area, reducing the sink.

Various versions of the history of snowshoes and skis have them coming into existence from 4,000 to 6,000 years ago in central Asia. The earliest versions were crude blocks of wood or leather, but the evolution of snowshoes went through many stages.

As people migrated north in Asia, they took versions of snowshoes and skis with them. When these travelers moved as far north as was reasonable, they began moving east and west. The people who moved west across northern Asia and into northern Europe, tended to prefer the devices that were longer, eventually developing into skis and fostering the Nordic ski culture of Scandinavia.

Sherpa Snowshoes started making snowshoes with aluminum frames and neoprene decking like this pair from 1981. They added the metal grip under the ball of the foot for better traction. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Sherpa Snowshoes started making snowshoes with aluminum frames and neoprene decking like this pair from 1981. They added the metal grip under the ball of the foot for better traction. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Those moving toward the east, preferred the version more like what we call a snowshoe today. Those shoes eventually moved across the Bering Strait into North American where the Native Americans took the idea and perfected it. Many tribes developed their own versions based on the type of terrain and snow they lived with. Different shapes and sizes reflected the unique needs of each location.

Mountain Safety Research from Seattle built these snowshoes in 1996. They added additional cleats as well as metal strips along the sides for more stability. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Mountain Safety Research from Seattle built these snowshoes in 1996. They added additional cleats as well as metal strips along the sides for more stability. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Some snowshoes were round, oval, or triangular. Some groups preferred snowshoes with both ends pointed. Others preferred a rounded tip and a pointed tail. Eventually, the shoes became longer and narrower, and were most often made of bent wood with rawhide lacing stretched over the frame.

Wood and rawhide remained the materials of choice until the 1970s when companies such as Sherpa introduced aluminum frames with nylon and neoprene decking, as well as metal cleats underneath to increase traction. Those materials were lighter, more durable, and changed the future of snowshoes.

Atlas, Tubbs, and Redfeather experimented with countless shapes, as well as a variety of bindings to make attaching boots to snowshoes easier and more secure.

Speciality models of snowshoes also evolved. Mountaineering versions added claws underneath that looked almost like climbing crampons. They installed a metal lift under the heel that could be raised on steep terrain to reduce stress on the user’s calves and ankles.

By 2018, MSR had decreased the size of their snowshoes and increased the number of traction bars on the bottom. With each generation, the bindings have become easier to use and more comfortable to wear. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
By 2018, MSR had decreased the size of their snowshoes and increased the number of traction bars on the bottom. With each generation, the bindings have become easier to use and more comfortable to wear. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Another speciality model developed to meet the increased interest in snowshoe racing. Smaller, lighter versions allowed users to continue their summer running programs into the winter on snow, especially on groomed trails, and a host of races are sponsored each year by the United States Snowshoe Association and other organizations.

Today, snowshoes are popular with walkers of all ages throughout the snowy regions. They allow people to walk on or off trail, opening up a world of cold weather exercise and enjoyment.