Walking on Snow

Traveling by snowshoe is an ancient practice made easier by modern technology. Putting something on your feet to spread out your weight over snow is a fairly simple idea, and today’s snowshoes descend from technology used for thousands of years. Snowshoes make it easier to experience the crisp winter environment, to be surrounded by the sight of bright white snow on dark trees and rocks, to see the sun shine on evergreens garnished in fluffy white.


People have been using primitive skis to hunt in snow for at least 8,000 years, but historical accounts suggest that snowshoes are not quite so old. Histories of snowshoeing available online seem to take their ancient history from The Snowshoe Book, a 1971 work by William Osgood and Leslie Hurley. Osgood and Hurley cite a number of sources in their book including images from the Public Archives of Canada.

According to The Snowshoe Book, snowshoes have probably been around for about 6,000 years. Skis were historically favored in Asia and Europe, but when people began to traverse deep powdery snow in North America they began to build snowshoes more.

Aboriginal people across North America built snowshoes in a variety of patterns. Snowshoe shapes were influenced by conditions prevalent in the local environment – broader snowshoes for open areas with deep snow, smaller snowshoes for thick forests. They were extensively used for hunting in winter.

Primitive snowshoes were made with branches and bark, but as the craft evolved, better techniques were used. Snowshoes would be made with a wooden frame, often with crossbars for support. Rawhide webbing woven across the frame created decking to give the shoe more surface area. A gap in the decking for the front of the foot to bend through made walking easier.


Seventeenth century French explorers and trappers were among the first Europeans to closely examine the Native snowshoe and adopt it for their own use.


The effective use of snowshoes to make winter raids during the French and Indian War led to widespread adoption of snowshoes by white people in the regions of North America where deep snow was common. Captain Robert Rogers led English colonists in using snowshoes for military purposes. The 1758 Battle on Snowshoes near Lake George convinced military leaders of their importance. Militia in the northern colonies would be outfitted with snowshoes.

As more Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns settled in North America in the nineteenth century, the ski began to gain popularity across the continent. But the snowshoe was never fully displaced for cross country travel. Community snowshoe outings were common in New England and recreational snowshoe clubs blossomed in Canada. In 1907, 22 Canadian snowshoe clubs formed the Canadian Snowshoer’s Union.


Snowshoes continued to be widely used in the twentieth century. The British government ordered thousands of snowshoes for their troops during the First World War. In 1928, an American Antarctic expedition led by aviator and explorer Richard Byrd brought 75 pairs of snowshoes along.


The second half of the twentieth century saw numerous innovations in snowshoe construction. Within a matter of decades, the ancient snowshoe of wood and rawhide would be overtaken by shoes made of light metals, plastics, and synthetic materials. In the 1960s the use of rawhide began to decline in favor of neoprene decking, which was more durable and less attractive to nibbling animals. In the early 1970s the aluminum framed snowshoe was developed. In the 1980s new synthetic materials used in decking made snowshoes even lighter.

Recreational snowshoeing grew in popularity during the 1990s. A resurgence in snowshoe racing in Colorado helped bring attention to snowshoes. Soon, major snowshoe manufacturers would add an additional set of traction spikes directly on the decking of the snowshoe near the user’s heel. In the mid 1990s MSR introduced a frameless snowshoe made of rigid plastic, an idea copied by other manufacturers. The company later introduced tail extenders, allowing the user to adjust the surface area of the snowshoe for different loads and conditions. Currently, metal framed snowshoes and all-plastic construction compete for popularity.

Most snowshoes today have slightly upturned front edges. A hinged footpad has metal spikes on the bottom for traction. Many models include a curve and a non-metal surface on the bottom of the footpad that deters (but will not completely prevent) snow from sticking to the bottom and forming a big snowball.


A big snowshoe is not great for picking your way between boulders, and it won’t prevent ice from breaking underneath you.

snowy trail - headfirst

But if you want to head across snow unbroken by human footsteps, it’s a great way to go.

Snow in Harriman

Snowshoes add traction and smooth out terrain. So even with big boards on your feet in snow that isn’t very deep, you may still use less energy than if you post-holed and sloshed your way up the hill. Feet without snowshoes often sink into snow at awkward angles. But the large surface area of snowshoes flatten out your steps and make it less likely that your ankles will turn at awkward angles as they sink into uneven snow.

Ice in Harriman

Snowshoeing is basically hiking with additional equipment. Gaiters that are designed to keep snow out of boots will be helpful. It is generally recommended to wear wool socks, a thermal base layer shirt and pants made of synthetic material or wool, a waterproof jacket, preferably waterproof pants, and hat and gloves. You can add or remove insulation layers depending on how you feel. Waterproof hiking boots are highly recommended, but you may or may not want insulated boots. Note that snow in different regions may be more or less saturated with water, which could change the importance of waterproof clothing. In the old days, furs, wool, and high moccasins served to outfit snowshoers.

Bringing drinking water is a must in the cold and challenging conditions of winter, and even on a short outing some snacks will be nice. Some people like trekking poles too. They can help you balance and push off more easily but to me they are extra equipment that prevent your hands from being free and are not worth the trouble. As always, a map, compass, knife, and emergency kit are recommended.

People have traveled through winter landscapes for thousands of years. Today’s snowshoers are usually outfitted differently than their predecessors, but they can still feel the snow crunch underneath them as their body heats up surrounded by the cold air of winter.

Snowshoeing Harriman - Head First


Head First Adventure Checklist.

First Skiers – A History of Skis. National Geographic.

Layering Basics, REI.

Meany Jr., Joseph F. “Frigid Fury: The Battle on Snowshoes, March 1758.” The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.

Osgood, William and Leslie Hurley. The Snowshoe Book. The Stephen Greene Press, 3rd Ed., 1973.

Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN, (Retired), (1888-1957) Naval History and Heritage Command.

Prater, Gene. Snowshoeing. The Mountaineers Books, 2002.

Tubbs Snowshoes Through the Years.

Tucker, Jim. “History of Snowshoeing.” United States Snowshoe Association.

Historic Images: Library of Congress and US Navy. Click on images for source.