Traditional Snowshoe Designs

Sometimes, the Ancients design the perfect piece of gear that cannot be improved upon.    Traditional snowshoes are an exquisite functional thing of beauty, and they are NOT old fashioned.  They are still by far the best choice for many snow conditions and trekking styles.   They are light, provide excellent floatation, pack a “float” trail for a sled, and shed snow on the up-step.  But there is such a wide variety of designs, shapes and sizes, that it can be a bewildering choice.

All of our traditional snowshoes designs come from the local or regional tradition of the People, where over the centuries their designs evolved to function optimally in the particular conditions they lived in, using the materials at hand.  The slush season of the lakes and rivers, the consistency of the snow, steepness of terrain, the hunting, fishing, trapping, and sled travel they did, all influenced the art and science of the design.  Every culture and language has their own name for each design, and so it is important to know that there are many, many true names.   The commercialized mass production market has landed on a few generalized colloquial names, although every manufacturer or catalogue uses artistic license to name them.   We will describe the common design groups on the market today using the most commonly chosen names.  There are some manufacturers who will make custom designs on request, and still up north there are local snowshoe makers keeping the original designs alive, and they retain the true names of their designs.

Traditional snowshoes are made of a wooden frame, typically white ash, although throughout much of the north they would have originally used white birch.   The lacing is made from rawhide, colloquially known as “babiche”.   The toe opening was traditionally quite small and sized for leather moccasins, but today’s designs usually incorporate a generously sized toe opening for rubber bottom pac boots.  The good quality full grain babiche is amazingly strong, and its advantage over synthetic materials is that when its being made its laced wet and raw, and it shrinks as it dries becoming very tight.

Babiche must be kept dry, otherwise it will absorb water and stretch and possibly tear.  To waterproof it, you apply many coats of spar varnish.  Spar varnish dries flexible, which is essential.   Snowshoes come from the factory with one or two coats which is not enough.  You should apply a fresh coat every year and maybe two if they receive heavy use.   You almost cannot have too many coats of spar varnish on your snowshoes.

There are 5 basic design groups in traditional snowshoes which we will describe, but be aware that manufacturers and custom makers modify designs.
The teardrop shaped snowshoe, often colloquially called “Algonquin” design, with rounded toe and long tapering tail is perhaps the most versatile of all the designs for the widest range of snow conditions.   The big rounded and slightly upturned toe floats the snowshoe high in the soft snow of the bush and unpacked lakes, and the tail acts as a counter balance, bringing the toe up when striding.  The tail greatly improves the functionality for long distance treks and trail breaking.   The disadvantage of the tail is maneuvering in tight spots in the bush.  The long tail can get tangled up in debris.  With experience, you develop a kick step turn technique to spin around with long tail snowshoes, and it’s not as hard as it first appears.   The wide middle is essential for floatation, and it makes a yin-yang type of overlap packed trail which provides an excellent float for a toboggan.    Despite the wide middle, you don’t have to walk funny with legs swinging out.  Just walk normal and the snowshoes nest beside each other with their beautiful curved shape.  It’s OK to rest one side on top of the other.  It’s not a faux pas.  You will quickly learn which foot to lift first without doing the faceplant – it’s a totally natural stride.

The second design group is a shorter rounder snowshoe without a tail,  commonly called the “bearpaw”.   The great advantage of bearpaws is for working in the bush.   If camping in the thick bush of the Boreal forest for example, bearpaws are superb for getting around, spinning, and crawling over  messes of blowdown.   In dense bush the long tail of a trekking snowshoe can be a problem, getting caught when backing up, and risking a snapped shoe if bridging between debris.   Bearpaws solve this problem.  The disadvantage of most bearpaw designs is that the front section is smaller, and when trekking in the open the toe can dive, sink and catch, leading perhaps to the occasional faceplant.  The long tail of Algonquin designs provide a surprisingly effective floatation like a mini ski, which the bearpaws don’t have.   However there are techniques to fasten a removable tail to bearpaws to make them an extremely versatile snowshoe.  Bearpaws also have the graceful wider middle like the Algonquin’s, so they too have the yin-yang overlap making walking easy and they pack a good sled float.

The third design group is the modified bearpaw, which is stretched to be longer and narrower.  They also have the bush work advantage like the bearpaw with no long tail, but have a bigger toe area for more floatation, and a longer back to act as the counterbalance to bring the toe up when striding.   They are not as good for long distance trekking as the long-tailed snowshoes, but are a good compromise.   However being narrow, they have over-all less floatation than the wider snowshoes.   One of their big disadvantages is that they don’t have the yin-yang overlap packed trail, and leave a snow ridge behind.  In certain snow conditions your toboggan can ride up on the ridge and tilt, leading to tip overs, or worse, the edge of the toboggan can cut through the float down into slush, flash freeze into clumps, and you are stuck going nowhere.

The fourth major design group has the outer frame made from two pieces, fastened into an upturned point at the front and long tail at the back.   These are commonly referred to colloquially as “Ojibway” design.   These are the North’s great trail breaker cruising snowshoes, made for covering long distances.   Sometimes very long, maybe 5-6 feet, with a large, long, upturned front for moving fast almost like a ski.   Although narrower that Algonquin design they still retain the wider middle for packing a float for sleds.   The pointed joined front is also better for cutting through a crust than a blunter rounded front.   It’s made for open country and is generally too long for working in the bush.  However there are hybrid designs that are shorter and wider for working in the bush.

The fifth major design group is the beautiful “Montaignais” or Innu snowshoes.  These are very wide, round and large with a short tail, sometimes pointed and sometimes rounded.    This extraordinary design comes from the Innu of northern Quebec and Labrador, and were made for very deep snow, slushy lakes, and for maneuvering in the bush, perhaps close to a one design does all.  I have never used these beautiful snowshoes, so can’t comment on how well they handle everything, but one day I need to try them out.   Since they are so wide, these snowshoes do require an adjusted gait.  They would pack a very large float for wide sleds, and if the tail was long enough, they would be good trailbreakers.    We look forward to hearing from folks who use this northeastern snowshoe design.

SIZE:  What size is right?   There is no correct answer, other than generally, bigger is far better.   The weight charts that the manufacturers provide are problematic.   Snow is quite variable in is structural characteristics, and in the softer snow, and especially on lakes where slush may be present, you need large floatation snowshoes.    I am only 5’4” (162.6 cm) tall (short), and 150 pounds (68 kilos), and yet I need the largest standard Algonquins (teardrops) and bearpaws on the market, 16×48 inches, and 16×30 respectively, which are rated far heavier than my body weight.  But every bit of floatation is needed in deep snow and on top of lake slush, so I highly recommend getting the largest size if you are at least my weight or heavier.   I use Faber traditionals. , but I don’t go by the weight ratings for the range of conditions I encounter.      Smaller sizes may be good enough when snow conditions become denser and crusted, or in camp, which I will discuss in the “Snowshoeing Style” section.

Bindings for traditionals:   Traditionally wide leather straps were used in a variety of hitches.    Later when lampwick became available (cotton webbing), they often used lampwick and modified and designed new hitches.   For a description of lampwick hitches and other snowshoeing wisdom, see Craig MacDonald’s self published document:  “Instructions for Lampwick Snowshoe Bindings”.  There are also many other resources for lampwick bindings that you can search out on the web and in books.

Most manufacturers make bindings for their traditional snowshoes.   The model I have used for years with excellent performance is Faber’s “Work Harness” binding.   This model is very strong, and has the great advantage of being infinitely adjustable to handle today’s bigger pac boots with the double insole.  I have double insole Sorels which are big.  If your boots are really big, the harness lacing cord it comes with may be too small, but it’s easily replaced with a longer cord.  I knot the adjusting cord in the Work Harness, rather than using the plastic cinch lock that come with this binding.

All bindings can slip off the back of your heel.   Some boots come with a ridged tab or knob at the heel that helps keep the heel strap on, but many don’t, including mine.  You can glue a piece of rubber or foam at the back of your boot to keep the heel strap on, which is what I do, or you can add a long cord to the back heel strap and tie it around your ankle to keep it on.   Note however that if you tie on the strap with a cord, you may not be able to extricate yourself from the snowshoes should you fall through the ice.