A well-chosen birch tree is tougher than all commercial woods
sawn from a tree.
Not every birch tree is adequate. Oldtimers spent days and months
looking for the right tree with the proper grain that was flexible,
durable and with no knots.
Once they found the tree they were looking for, they split the
snowshoe frame from the tree. This left the strength of the natural
grain intact. Sometimes hot water or steam were used to bend the
frame. Great care was used to avoid overheating. Heating and steaming
weaken the wood.
Commercial snowshoe frames are made from hickory or ash. The wood
is sawn from planks rather than split, so the grain of the frames
are greatly weakened. All first growth ash and hickory are gone
from the United States as well as most of the second growth. The
hickory and ash harvested now are from small, third-growth trees.
Manufacturers have experimented with aluminum alloys. They are
very light and strong. It doesnt take much imagination to
know what happens in overflow.
For webbing, oldtimers used the skin from the belly of a spring
moose. This is the strongest and toughest skin available. Caribou
is a close second.
There is a real art to making the rawhide as it takes two people
working well together
a true test of a marriage or friendship!
We used to skin moose very carefully. Nowadays, it is hard to
find a good skin to work on.
Untreated rawhide stretches when it is wet. Unfortunately, dogs
like to eat rawhide and more than a few travelers have cursed their
dogs for eating their snowshoes.
Weaving the webbing to snowshoes in a way that is appropriate
for local snow conditions is an art.
Commercial bindings available today are functional, but the bindings
on the old time snowshoes were light and could be put on or removed
in seconds without using hands. Manila rope treated with linseed
or vegetable oil works best for Native-style bindings because it
is quiet and doesnt stretch like synthetics. Rawhide stretches
too much when wet.
Few things are more miserable than snowshoe bindings that dont
There are some good quality modern bindings, but they are very
expensive. Complex buckles and straps make travel on thin ice very
dangerous. Traditional Native bindings come off with a twist of
Oiling snowshoes reduces noise when hunting. The friction of wood
to wood, or rawhide to wood produces enough noise to alert animals,
particularly in very cold weather. The sound of snow being compressed
is loud enough in cold weather. Creaking snowshoes make matters
Linseed oil discourages animals from eating the snowshoe webbing.
Snowshoes are usually kept outside in a cool dry place, above the
reach of animals. While birch has great strength, it tends to rot
easily, and oil helps prevent this. As the best snowshoes are very
light, the traveler must walk carefully to avoid breaking the frames.