Winter 2023 Conservationist

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.

It’s important to note, though, that traditional snowshoe designs are still in use today. Canadian First Nations and Indigenous Peoples continue to make them by hand as an art form and as a skill passed between generations. Over the centuries people developed variations based on regional resources and needs, and in many areas snowshoes remain essential for winter life.

In DuPage, if you find yourself ready to give snowshoeing a try, start with one of the Forest Preserve District’s established trails. You can find maps on individual forest preserve pages. Pick a shorter route first, though, so you can get used to your gear and your fitness level. If you venture off trail, watch for hazards such as snow-covered ponds or creeks. And because snowy trails are popular with cross-country skiers, look for set ski tracks along the edges and walk only in the center of the trail. As with all winter activities, wear warm layers, stay hydrated, and protect your skin from sun and wind.

Interested in hitting the trails but not quite sure if you’re ready to invest in a pair of snowshoes? The Forest Preserve District can help! When there’s plenty of snow on the trails, you can rent from the Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center Monday through Saturday and at the Blackwell snow tubing hill, when open. Hours, fees, and other details are on our Winter in the Preserves page.

So bundle up, grab a pair of snowshoes, and experience a fun (and historic) way to enjoy DuPage forest preserves in winter!