Saturday, December 14, 2013

Snowshoes

I spend a lot of time wearing snowshoes and have become something of a snob I suppose, when it comes to bindings and construction. I have used some very poor snowshoes in my time and am a bit opinionated about them.
I'm not a purist as far as material goes. The traditional wooden shoes with rawhide webbing are classic, but honestly I prefer newer materials if at all possible. I currently have 5 sets of snowshoes. Everything from the very traditional, to modern aluminum.
I'll go through these and compare them a bit, so you can make the best choice for you. If you plan on homesteading in a northern climate snowshoes will become an indispensable part of your life. Gone will be paved driveways and cement walkways. Trying to get around without a good pair of shoes will result in complete frustration.
Let me recount a true event that happened several years ago. My snowmobile was broken down, and a friend offered to bring up a load of winter supplies. He borrowed a machine and a small freight sled and drove through very poor snow conditions to my landing on the river. However the snow conditions were so bad, that we were unable to get the snowmobile up the embankment without the fright sled, let alone with it. Working until well after dark, we finally admitted defeat. Packing what we could we began the long trek back to my cabin. The snow was deep and there was very little traffic on my trail other than what I had made with my snowshoes. The packing down I had given it on the way to the river was insufficient to hold the weight of a person wearing just boots. And that was all my friend had. He not only did not own any snowshoes of his own, which I find almost unbelievable, he had not even thought to borrow any.
Understand, that if you are in a rural setting and your machine breaks down. You won't be going far without snowshoes. Even back tracking on your trail, (the best method, of getting out of your situation), you probably will be breaking through every other step.
My friends experience in walking up to my cabin was no doubt a learning one. I had to stop every 40 steps (yes I counted), and let him rest. The snow was a good three feet deep in mid December and he was sinking through to near ground. Eventually he even ditched his day pack, which held food and water. He did this without my knowledge of course.
It took us approximately six hours to walk the distance to my homestead, that I can normally walk in less than half that. He was exhausted and soaked in sweat. I built a fire and fed him and he went to sleep. Within a few hours my snowshoes were back on my feet and I was heading back down to the river retrieve more supplies. I ended up carrying nearly a hundred pounds of meat and goods, including the day pack he had discarded. By the time I got home it was 4pm, and he was just waking up.....
The purpose of that story is to illustrate, that my friend had an extremely difficult time, when it should just have been a walk.
As I mentioned I have five pair of snowshoes, and wear them nearly every day in winter.
In the picture below I show my traditional wooden shoes with rawhide webbing, along side a pair of wooden frame shoes with modern skirting material and steel cable in place of rawhide.
The traditional shoes on the left are fairly maintenance heavy. Under daily use in moderate temperatures the rawhide will get wet. Once it does the rawhide will loosen and unravel as you walk. You will be spending some time relacing and securing the bindings. By hanging them high in the cabin the warm air will dry and retighten the webbing. In order to minimize this you will need to put a good coat of varnish on your shoes as it wears.
Note the unique rubber bindings on these shoes. They are inexpensive and utter and complete JUNK... True, they are very easy to get into howver they do not secure your boot in aliognment with the shoe. Something that is quite essential for manuvering. You will find yourself literally able to step off of your shoe while trying to turn. While I have used these binding a lot, and have cut many trees down wearing them, I feel they are very hazardous, and I only use them as backup. Another detractor is that there are no cleats or grippers on the bottom of the shoes, making going up slopes without ski poles difficult.
The hybrid shoes on the right are very good shoes for level country work. The flexible material that replaces the conventional webbing (refered to as decking) is tough and stays supple even in very cold temps (Note: not all of them do). These shoes do have simple pegs on their bottom, but they are still insufficient for travel uphill, and ski poles are recommended. The binding are not the best however. the laces tend to ice up and are not easy to snug up though the holes. I will try different materials in the future, such as para cord, to see if they can be improved upon. The heel strap also tends to fall off the back of your boot if not pulled very tight. I plan on adding an additional strap that will go around the instep.
I find bindings to be the bulk of most of my snowshoe complaints and there are reasons for that I will go into later. Overall the hybrid shoes are excellent for breaking trail. The overall length of 44 inches gives them very good floatation as well.


The shoes above constitute my favorite shoes. The pair in the left are my Sherpa's. Totally modern material they are extremely lightweight and have great floatation. Grippers un the bottom make going uphill much easier and any sliding is kept to a minimum. The bindings are similar to the hybrid shoes above, however the flat lacing and the metal buckle are much easier to adjust and are much more secure. I highly highly recommend Sherpa snowshoes. Nuff said.
The pair on the right are also excellent shoes. Made of all modern material they are the cross country equals to my Sherpa's. The bindings are so far the best I have used on an intermediate priced shoe (under $100) They lock your foot in securely and are very fast to put on and remove. They secure with a rubber bunji type arrangement, that after a bit of familiarization are quite handy. My only reservation is that the rubber may get brittle in cold weather and break while stretching. This has not been an issue so far however. The aggressive grippers on the bottom of the shoe make it very versatile in hilly country.

These are obviously not the only shoes available, however let me touch on a few things. Choosing the right show for your lifestyle is important. The small, bear paw type shoes are easy to use, and not cumbersome, however, unless you are on a pre broken trail they offer almost no floatation, regardless of how cool they are. The only thing worse than trying to walk through hip deep snow, without snowshoes, is walking through hip deep snow with snowshoes that don't hold you up. Choose a shoe that is designed for your weight, and the type of snowshoeing you do.
I buy most my shoes at garage sales and estate sales. You can find really good bargains on outdoor gear by cruising the summer sales. Many folks buy snowshoes, cross country ski's and other outdoor gear, then never really get around to using them. Much like an exercise bike or a treadmill.
The only real issue I have with the intermediate priced shoes is that the bindings are not as sophisticated. The cost needs to be cut someplace, and it is usually in the bindings. I have had few structural issues with mid priced shoes. Likewise with shoes in the $200 plus mark the bindings will be much better.
I have had issues with the synthetic decking on some modern shoes. In colder temps (single digits to below zero), the decking can become brittle and break if it comes into contact with broken branches, etc.
I also tend to shy away from those plastic snap type buckles that are so popular on most of the new high tech stuff. They ice up right away and are almost impossible to manipulate once they get wet. They also don't hold very well. I much prefer the good old metal buckle.
There isn't much to snow shoeing. Remember to lift your knees a bit higher when breaking trail. Make sure you can see the front of the shoe before trying to step forward! Accept the fact that branches and such will poke through the decking and webbing causing you to lurch forward or send you sprawling on your face from time to time.
Ski poles are great and I recommend them. There are times whn they do get in the way, but if I'm traveling in uneven terrain I like to have them along.
Snow shoeing is great exercise, and a fun way to travel. In mid winter when the snow is good you can really cover some ground...
I encorage everybody to give it a try, even if you aren't a homesteader!