By Elon Jessup
Walking on Webbed Feet:
Learning How to Use Snow Shoes
It takes some extra big feet to hold you up when the snow is knee-deep. Human feet are not built for deep snow
navigation, they are
just too small and dainty!
Snowshoes are just extra-big feet. They are almost a part of your flesh and
bones. Learning how to walk on snowshoes is simply the process of becoming
accustomed to the vagaries of a new pair of feet. This shouldn't take long,
since you already know how to walk!
Proper selection in buying a pair of snowshoes is very important.
Unless you get a pair which are of the best quality obtainable and of size and
model best adapted to your own weight and particular use, you may have a
laborious, perhaps agonizing winter tramp. Fragile, poorly made snowshoes
are subject to distressing ailments: the frame often breaks and the webbing
sags. When you walk with either of these handicaps, each step is like
lifting a ton. After a while, the tendons of your legs give out and there
you suffer an agony of piercing needles.
The best made snowshoe breaks at times but as a rule it can be easily
mended. When a poorly made snowshoe goes back on you, however, the whole
structure goes. When this happens you are in a serious fix.
Only after you have walked on snowshoes will you realize the numerous severe
strains that these webbed feet go through. In addition to the constant
weight of your body, there are many wrenches from half-buried stumps, submerged
brush and fallen trees. The wood from which the framework is fashioned
must be of a variety that will stand these wrenches. It must be fairly
light and flexible yet at the same time tough and capable of holding its
shape. White ash is generally conceded to be the best wood for the
purpose. The wood should be straight grained throughout. Any
suggestion of cross-grain is to be avoided.
The parallel wood cross bars, one in front of the toes and the other behind
the heel of the boot should be carefully mortised into the frame. A sloppy
job of mortising means that these bars will work loose under strain. At
the point of contact where the two long ends of the frame meet to form the tall,
these should be riveted together and held with copper burrs. Sometimes
screws are liable to break.
The stringing, more generally known as the "filling," must be of a
sort that will neither sag nor stretch. In the average well-made snowshoe,
the filling at the extreme front and rear consists of fairly light- weight
strands of lamb's hide. The filling in the center of the snowshoe upon
which the foot rests must be of very much heavier material. At one time,
caribou hide was used extensively for this purpose but in practically all
traditional snowshoes made today the material is cowhide.
Properly treated cowhide is just as good. Some manufacturers have two
grades of filling but it is always wise to get the best.
The lighter filling, in front of the toe and behind the heel, passes through
small holes bored in the frame much after the manner of a tennis racket
stringing. But the strands of the heavier filling in the center should
loop completely around the outer sides of the frame.
Traditional snowshoes may be divided into two general types. The most
commonly used of these is the ordinary tailed shoe with which everyone is
familiar. There are numerous variations of this type. In Alaska,
there is a snowshoe of this sort used which is eleven feet long. On the
mainland of the United States you never find a shoe which is more than live feet
long and a very few of these.
A five-foot snowshoe is fine for speed or racing over long, open stretches of
dry snow such as are found in the prairie country of the Northwest. It is
in no way suitable for the mountains of the West or the mountains and rolling
country of the East. It is designed for straight ahead work in a level,
open country. For general all-around use, a snow-shoe which is wider and
at least a foot shorter is far better. There are various patterns of these
shorter snowshoes of the tailed type, the favorite in the East being one known
as the Algonquin. This is made in various sizes ranging up to fifty inches
in length and from twelve to fourteen inches in width. Other good patterns
have much the same general lines as the Algonquin.
The right size snowshoe depends largely upon your weight. An especially
big man needs an extra large and strong pair of snowshoes while a lighter person
can get along better on a smaller pair. There are no standard sizes in
snowshoes as there are in ordinary shoes. Each manufacturer has his own
sizes and these, as a rule, differ from the others. For this reason any
figures I give in this connection must be accepted only in a relative sense and
are not to be taken as accurate for all snowshoes.
The boy's size snowshoe, as a rule, averages thirty-five inches long and
eleven inches wide. This is suitable for persons weighing up to one
hundred twenty-five pounds. Smaller children can wear this size but
smaller ones are better. A person weighing between one hundred twenty-five
and one hundred seventy pounds requires a pair at least forty-two inches long
and at least twelve inches wide. For persons between one hundred eighty
and two hundred and twenty pounds, a shoe forty-eight inches long and fourteen
inches wide is needed.
The right sort of tailed snowshoe is unevenly balanced. Keep this in
mind when you buy a pair. The greater part of the weight should be toward the
rear so that while walking the tail drags behind. A common way of testing
for unevenness of balance is that of laying a snow-shoe on the floor and placing
your fingers under the forward part of the central, heavy filling. The
forward part of the shoe will be slightly lifted but the tail should remain flat
on the floor. If the tail comes upward it means that the shoe is too
evenly balanced for your purpose.
Some snowshoes are as flat on the bottom, but as a rule there is an upward
curl at the front end. This curl tends to easier walking In the long,
narrow racing type of snowshoes the toe of the shoe is sometimes turned up as
much as four inches. But in the all around, shorter shoe, the curl should
be no more than two inches high and preferably less.
The special domain of the tailed type which I have just described is either a
flat country or a pleasantly rolling country not too thickly timbered. The
tailed snowshoe under such conditions is the only suitable type. But when
you get into tangles of thick, heavy underbrush or begin to climb the steep
slopes of mountains, you find the shortcomings of the tailed snowshoe. In
the brush, the long tail catches and throws you. While climbing a steep
grade the tail, because of its weight, droops down hill and this makes it
difficult to dig one's toes into the side of the mountain for a firm purchase.
There is a constant tendency to slip backward. When descending the
mountain, the reverse is true, although the tails are just as much in the
way. In this case, the presence of the tail seriously interferes with your
ability to dig your heels in to prevent too great speed.
The tail, which is such a great help while snow shoeing in the lowlands,
becomes a nuisance on the heights. So, by the simple expedient of doing
without tails we have webbed feet which are far better suited for these
particular conditions. This is the other general type of snow shoes
commonly known as the "bear
The bear paw is an evenly balanced shoe and for this reason it is as much out
of place in the open lowlands as the unevenly balanced, tailed shoe is on the
heights. But it is the only thoroughly satisfactory shoe for the
mountains. The construction of the stringing of the bear paw is similar to
that of the tailed shoe, except that in some instances the front and rear light
weight strands are eliminated entirely. The shape of the frame, as a rule,
is like that of a slightly elongated letter "O", although this also is
open to slight variations.
The test for unevenness of balance which I have mentioned in connection with
the tailed shoe does not apply to the bear paw, for in this case you want even
balance. Likewise, the bend at the front should be very slight, not more
than three-quarters of an inch high. A greater curl at the front is a
serious drawback when digging one's toes into the side of a steep slope.
For persons weighing up to one hundred and seventy pounds, a bear paw
twenty-seven inches long and thirteen inches wide, or say, twenty-four inches
long and fifteen inches wide, will do. A heavier man needs a shoe that is
thirty inches long and fourteen or fifteen inches wide.
The respective spheres of usefulness for the tailed snow-shoe and the
tailless bear paw are so wide apart that it is wise to plan to own a pair of
each of these types of webbed feet.
A good foot binding is an important adjunct to the snowshoe. The most simple
harness is a length of wide, flat webbing looped over the toe. The two
ends run through the stringing on either side, then passed diagonally across the
toe and fastened above tie heel. But unless you have the knack for tying
and adjusting a home made harness of this kind, it is likely to give you
trouble. The average snow-shoe user will find the manufactured harness more
In selecting a harness, get one that can easily be gotten out of in a hurry
after a tumble and that is flexible enough not to wrench your foot. Make
sure that it will neither chafe the feet nor allow the toes to work forward and
come into contact with the forward crossbar while going downhill. A strap
that is too tight across the tops of the toes will wear them to raw meat and if
your toes come constantly in contact with the crossbar you will suffer another
kind of agony. My poor toes almost ache at the very thought of an
agonizing mountain trip I once took wearing a harness having these
The most satisfactory type of harness I have found is a simple leather pocket
or toe cap, open at both ends and lashed to the stringing of the shoe. The
toes fit into this and the straps from, either side run back around the
ankle. Fairly high, soft-soled moccasins, large enough to accommodate three pairs of wool sock without binding the feet in any way represent my
favorite type of snow shoe foot-gear. There is no better boot for this
purpose, in my opinion, although there are those who prefer flat soled rubber
Whatever the boot you use, it must be devoid of a heel. The grinding of
a heel completely ruins the snowshoe stringing in no time. A useful
temporary expedience when there are no heel-less boots around is to lay a square
block of sole leather over the stringing on the spot where the heel will descend
and fastening this with thongs of the stringing.
Snow shoeing looks easy and it is. A beginner finds his snow legs
immediately. As a rough estimate, I would say that within an hour after a person
puts on snowshoes for the first time he is reasonably at home on
them. There are few sports that can be learned so quickly. The
reason for this is that ordinary walking and snowshoe walking are fundamentally
the same. At the same time there are noteworthy minor differences.
When walking on a city pavement, the heel is only slightly raised, but in the
snowshoe stride the heel is raised very much higher. Indeed, at the moment
when the rear snowshoe is about to be brought forward, the bottom of your rear
foot is practically vertical. During the greater part of the forward
stride the heel is above the stringing and even when the snowshoe is planted
forward and the heel sinks down upon the stringing, too much weight must not be
placed upon the heel or the tail of the shoe will sink deep into the snow.
In bringing the rear foot forward, there are two tendencies to be on guard
against. One is to keep the feet far apart and the other is walking with
the feet too close together. In the first case, you will use up a lot of
energy and in the other, bark your shins. Somewhere between these two
extremes is correct. The rear shoe should come up with a forward and
outward movement, just enough to clear the other ankle. When both
snowshoes are on the snow, the rear narrow part of the forward shoe and the wide
front part of the rear shoe should fit close to each other, but not quite
touch. The correct snow shoe stride gives this result.
To the beginner, snow shoeing is likely to prove tiring work. Thigh and
calf muscles which have not been exercised for a long time come into play and it
is wise to take things in a leisurely fashion at first. Instead of tying
the muscles into hard knots, allow these to relax. Let the hip action be
loose and easy, and slightly bend the knees.
Tumbles will come, one of the first when the beginner tries to make his first
turn. Unless I am greatly mistaken, he will allow the tail of one shoe to
swing over upon that of the other, and then try to lift the under shoe.
It's often tried but it can't be done. A tumble comes in natural
sequence. Likewise, when he tries to step backward.
When you travel any distance on snow shoes, be prepared for any break in the
stringing, harness or frame. Take along a supply of rawhide and several
buckskin thongs. Even though the frame snaps, you can splice this with a
piece of wood and rawhide. A Boy Scout knife serves as an excellent
pocket tool kit to use in conjunction with these. Any break should be
fixed immediately or else it will get worse, and more serious, your legs will
give out as the result of walking on disabled snow shoes.
The life of a snowshoe is largely dependent on the sort of care which it
receives. It can be ruined in one season or it can be made to last
several. A snow shoe receives enough unavoidable wrenches and slams without
adding to these when it is unnecessary. To stand with your snow shoes
suspended between two rocks or fallen trees is an avoidable strain.
Jumping, although undeniably good fun does not add to the life of the snowshoe,
for you may land on a buried rock or stump that will bring ruin to the
stringing. Sliding down hill on snowshoes is another sport that is wearing
upon the stringing.