6,000 Years in the Making
by Jennifer Rydzewski, Community Engagement Services
A fresh blanket of powdery snow glistens in the morning sunlight. With these conditions, who can resist the urge to blaze a trail, making the first tracks across the winter wonderland? With some preparation and practice, a pair of snowshoes can help you get outside this time of year, giving you a way to stay active and soak in sunlight and fresh air.
Snowshoeing has gained popularity as a recreational activity over the past few decades. With minimal gear, expenses, or expertise, you can strap snowshoes onto winter boots and start exploring. Snowshoeing is an easy-to-learn, low-impact, strength-building activity suitable for all ages that lets you “float” across deep snow instead of sinking in. Today’s snowshoes are often used for recreation, but early snowshoes were designed exclusively out of necessity for winter survival.
Archaeological evidence and written records are scarce, but the consensus is that snowshoes originated in central Asia at least 6,000 years ago. Perhaps people noticed how animals with large feet such as lynx, snow leopards, and hares expertly navigated through deep snow. By distributing one’s weight across a larger surface area, an animal or human uses less energy to move and doesn’t sink into the snow as much.
The first snowshoes were more like “shoe-skis,” each a large patch of leather with a block of wood attached to the foot. As people migrated from central Asia and adapted to living in other parts of the world these “shoe-skis” adapted, too. In northern Europe, the wooden blocks became longer and longer, developing into today’s cross-country skis.
For people who migrated across the Bering Sea land bridge into North America, “shoe-skis” became wider, eventually evolving into today’s snowshoes.
Most early snowshoes were made of large thin branches — typically ash, spruce, birch, elm, or hickory — and woven animal sinew or the hides of caribou, moose, or deer. (Four early designs are featured in the photos accompanying this article). Between the 1950s and 70s new materials changed the snowshoe, although the goal of flotation remained the same. Modern frames are aluminum, plastic, or foam, making shoes more lightweight and maneuverable, with rubber or plastic straps and bindings, making them easier to tighten with less maintenance than leather and laces. As an added feature, metal cleats improve traction on slippery or hilly surfaces.