snowshoe tracks

© Faubert


Foot coverings that spread a person’s weight over a large area of snow are found in many cultures, but the Native Americans perfected them. Snowshoes of bent wood and rawhide lacing continue to be made, and are appreciated for the same reason early biplanes are. Economy of materials, no obscuring nonfunctional parts and the maker’s hand everywhere evident give them a peculiarly spare beauty. Nonetheless, wood and rawhide snowshoes require maintenance and protection from rawhide-eating rodents. Snowshoes made of materials like neoprene and aluminum require very little care. For this reason, traditional shoes are probably a bad choice for emergency stocks. Snowmobilers who carry snowshoes to give themselves a chance of getting out alive if their machine fails are better off with pack’em-and-forget’em neoprene-laced shoes.

Besides choosing materials, the buyer must choose a pattern and a length. The choice depends mainly on three factors: the wearer’s weight and height, snow conditions, and the activity in which the snowshoes will be used.

legs walking with snowshoes

© Rodrigues.

The Wearer’s Build.  As a general rule, in normal dry snow a snowshoe will support about 1 pound for every 2 square inches of surface. Decking is 20-30% better than lacing, area for area. In calculations, remember the weight supported is not that of a person in his birthday suit on a bathroom scale, but includes heavy winter clothing and perhaps a pack. A taller person needs a wider shoe because of her higher center of gravity.

One shouldn't play it safe by choosing the biggest available shoe. Not only are bigger shoes heavier, they are harder to walk in. When the snowshoe is wider than about a foot–depending somewhat on the pattern–the knee must be lifted higher than it is in ordinary walking.

Snow conditions. New, dry, non-packed snow—powder—is least able to support weight, and will probably require more than 2 square inches of surface per pound. The shoe should have a large diameter. If the shoe is laced, the holes should be relatively small. Decking may work better than lacing.

In wet, melting snow, a snowshoe must be chosen that can easily shed the snow it picks up.

Activity. In open flat terrain a long, narrow form is the easiest shoe to walk in. In the right conditions, of two shoes with equal areas, the longer one will be easier to walk in. The tail in many traditional designs acts as a rudder, making for efficient straight-ahead travel.

pair of bear paw snowshoes

© Steidl

Trappers and hunters in dense woods, a person working in an orchard, or anyone making many turns will find a “bear paw” pattern more satisfactory.

A upward curve to the toe helps to prevent the shoe from digging into the snow. In climbing hills, however, a flat toe helps to anchor the shoe by digging into the snow. This role for flat toes has become less important with the development of metal crampons that attach beneath the binding.

The following is a rough, but fairly conservative, guide to flotation capacity in average, unpacked snow on flat terrain. On packed trails a smaller shoe will do.

Decked Modified Bearpaw
Dimensions Weight-bearing Capacity
7″ × 24″ to 65 lbs
8″ × 25″ to 75 lbs
9″ × 30″ 50 to 100 lbs
10″ × 36″ or 38″ 100 to 150 lbs
11″ × 40″ more than 150 lbs
Decked Bearpaw
Dimensions Weight-bearing Capacity
12″ × 30″ 100 to 150 lbs
14″ × 30″ more than 150 lbs
Laced, with Tail
Dimensions Weight-bearing Capacity
8″ × 40″ 105 lbs (a narrow trail pattern)
9″ × 29″ to 80 pounds
10″ × 46″ 200 pounds
10″ × 56″ more than 200 (a narrow trail pattern)
11″ × 36″ 80 - 100 pounds
12″ × 42″ 100 - 125 pounds
12″ × 48″ 125 - 175 pounds
14″ × 48″ more than 175 pounds
Laced, Ojibway (2-tail)
Dimensions Weight-bearing Capacity
10″ × 48″ 130 lbs
11″ × 54″ 120 to 190 lbs
12″ × 60″ 180 lbs
Laced Bearpaw
Dimensions Weight-bearing Capacity
10″× 36″ 200 lbs
13″ × 33″ more than 200 lbs


Snowpoles are more closely related to a walker’s staff than to a skier’s poles. Often only one is used and it has a very large basket. Lengths of 45″ and 51″ are sold.

For Further Reading

Gene Prater and David Felkey.
Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master. (5th ed.)
Mountaineers Books, 2002.

Steven A. Griffin.
Stackpole Books, 1998.

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