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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 paw."

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 satisfactory.

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 shortcomings. 

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 hunting-boots.  

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.  

See Also:

How to Make Snowshoes

Dan Beard's "Snowshoes"






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.