519 East Sheridan Street, PO Box 609 • Eagle River, Wisconsin 54521 • (715) 479-6456 

Trees For Tomorrow LogoTrees For Tomorrow Logo
Donate Now ButtonDonate Now Button

A (b)log of Natural Resources Info

Tracing Trails Through Time: Unveiling the History of Snowshoes

Once winter hits and snow falls, Trees for Tomorrow breaks out the cross-country skis and snowshoes to pass out to our visiting students. The skis are used solely for the Anvil trails, giving visitors a chance to ski in to feed the chickadees, but the snowshoes are used extremely often for the outdoor portions of our winter classes. It’s no question as to why—the structure of a snowshoe helps distribute weight over a larger surface area, helping students keep from sinking into the snow. Honestly, you can’t fully appreciate the usefulness of snowshoes until you’ve forgotten them on a hike and have spent approximately thirty minutes wading through snow as deep as your thighs, trailing behind the rest of your group like a sad puppy. Am I speaking from personal experience? Definitely not. But I can speak with some semblance of authority on the history of these nifty inventions.

Trees For Tomorrow student snowshoeing to feed chickadees

The exact origin of snowshoes--particularly what culture invented it first—is uncertain, though it’s clear they’ve been around for thousands of years. One hypothesis is that the snowshoe was first invented in Central Asia, and as populations dispersed, the design of the snowshoe was modified to fit their environment. Many cultures utilized laced-up, wooden frames to facilitate travel through snow. However, although there’s that consistency among all early snowshoes, there’s enough variation amongst their iterations to classify them separately. Let’s go over a few!

Trees For Tomorrow has a variety of traditional and modern "shoes" for students to try out.

Alaska/Yukon snowshoes (pictured here – those snowshoes on the top with the tails) are long with a turned-up toe. This design type was used by the Alaskan Athabascans, and is particularly suited for navigating over open, powdery snow. The bear paw, on the other hand (pictured on the right of the top row) with its rounded frame, was more suited for closed, forested areas and originated from the Indigenous people of eastern Canada. Very round, short snowshoes—such as the ones used by the Montagnais—would be especially suited for ascending or descending slopes.

Around 1950, snowshoes spiked in popularity as a tool for winter recreation, and modern innovations were applied to these traditional designs. Molded tubes or cast polymers replaced wooden frames. Cleats and new binding options offered additional support. As years passed, the design was tweaked more and more by certain companies (aluminum frames, crampons, and the like)--leading to iterations regarded as the “modern” snowshoe. Ultimately, what type of snowshoe you end up using will depend on what terrain you’re traveling on, how quiet you want to be, and what’s most comfortable. Whatever option you land on, enjoy these snowy hikes before it melts away (presumably, realistically, in late April).




Author Jane Feely, Trees For Tomorrow Environmental Educator and KinderWild Camp program coordinator.