Central Ohio, where I grew up, traditionally received a good amount of snow each year. The area did not garner as much as zones on the Great Lakes or farther north, but it snowed much more than locations just a few hours south. In Cincinnati, an inch of snow might shut down the city for the day.
My childhood memories are filled with many feet of fluffy white glory. The depths we experienced, however, would probably elicit a nice guffaw from someone in Buffalo, Toronto, or Fairbanks. The realities of everyday life in the middle of Ohio gave a taste of serious snow but stopped far short of requiring tools to get around, such as snowshoes.
Given that preamble, I held a rather naive viewpoint of snowshoes. To be blunt, I believed snowshoes to be bogus. Whenever I saw them used in a film or a cartoon, I figured they were fictions used to advance a story, like when characters are clobbered in the head but manage to keep fighting instead of losing consciousness or when someone falls many stories from a building but continues to chase baddies.
How could some rickety pieces of wood keep more than 200 pounds of hunter or dog musher from sinking in the snow? Had to be fake.
As many of you probably know, snowshoes are far from fraud!
The low-tech tech functions on the simple principle of pressure. Force divided by area equals pressure. We experience this physical law all the time. I’ll have difficulty if I try to slice an apple with my hand. Use a knife, focus the force on a tiny area, and the apple will halve easily. The inverse also holds. Increase the area, apply the same force, and the pressure will drop. Snowshoes take a person’s mass and spread the force applied by gravity across a greater area.
In my mind, this increased area did not seem to be enough to buoy body weight, but I had misjudged the formula’s real-world manifestation. If, like me, you doubt the magic of snowshoes, check out these videos. In the first one, a person demonstrates two traditional styles of snowshoes, before trudging through deep powder with no aid. During the first display, I thought my previous notion might be correct, as the shoes sink quite a bit in the snow. However, when utilizing just boots, the effect becomes rather stark.
Watching them in action, I realized why my mind could not grasp snowshoes. I assumed the foot-boats allowed people to stay on the top of a snow plane. It was either sink or float and floating just didn’t seem feasible. In a way, I was correct. The shoes do not keep a human above the snow. Instead, they keep one from sinking to the ground. Though not walking on frozen water, staying above much of the powder is an incredible efficiency boost.
Another variable that affects the results of snowshoes is the type of snow. Modern snowshoes are much smaller than traditional versions and made of metal or plastic. These shoes dominate today’s recreation landscape. Even so, when watching videos of someone walking in modern shoes, I figured the practical effects had to be overblown. No way these small, plastic boots could keep a human afloat in thick banks. Once again, I was half right. Modern shoes are useless in deep powder. Instead, they excel on packed trails or rocky areas. In stout piles, only traditional designs will do.
For thousands of years, humans have utilized this technology, proving the depths of my ignorance. Evidence of Eurasians using proto-snowshoes exists from between 3,800 and 3,700 BCE. To some observers, these early tools resemble skis more than something we might identify as snowshoes. Some historians hypothesize that snowshoes developed between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago in Central Asia, perhaps even being utilized to cross the landbridge between modern Russia and Alaska. No matter how they arose in North America, it was the Indigenous peoples of this continent that first developed the webbed snowshoes we recognize today. Champlain encountered the Huron and Algonquin wearing snowshoes in the 1600s, but they had been using them for much longer.
Sometimes we think of ancient Native Americans as a monolithic block, but their divisions displayed a large array of cultural and practical differences. One universal, however, seemed to be snowshoes. Every nation that lived in a region that received snow developed a type of snowshoe. As we learned earlier, depending on the typical conditions, different designs emerged among the nations. Short, long, narrow, wide, round, and rectangular, the structures changed with geography.
Many modern humans have little to no need for snowshoes, which helps lead some of us to grossly underestimate them. Other than the hardened individuals who still inhabit the gnarly areas of the planet, most people who use snowshoes today use ones that look like this:
The interplay between force, area, and pressure is not limited to snow. Enterprising individuals realized that snowshoes might be just as useful as mudshoes!
This footwear is an example of technology that hasn’t changed much over the millennia. We’ve updated materials and honed designs, but the basic premise remains the same.
And, though we might not need this technology much in our everyday lives, if nuclear winter ever arrives and ushers in perpetual winter, we might do well to recall the wisdom of our ancestors. Spread out the weight and you can walk on water!
Further Reading and Exploration
History of Snowshoes – GV Snowshoes
Snowshoes: A Gift From Gluskabe – University of Maine
Snowshoes and the Canadian First Nations – Snowshoe Magazine
World’s oldest snowshoe found on a glacier in Italy’s Dolomites – The Telegraph
The Science of Snowshoes: How They Help Distribute Weight on Snow – Northern Lites