Village Science



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Surface area

Snowshoes have been a part of the traditional culture in interior Alaska for more years than we can trace.

The design of snowshoes has varied from location to location, controlled mostly by the needs, conditions, and materials at hand.

SnowshoesBasic Idea

The idea behind snowshoes is fairly simple: Increase the surface area of a person’s foot so they can walk on top of the snow rather than penetrating to the bottom. The number of snowflakes holding up the person is increased when the surface area is increased. Without snowshoes, the number of snowflakes is rather small. With snowshoes, the number of snowflakes is greatly increased.

This sounds easy, but designing a shoe that:

  • is light and strong,
  • will be comfortable to use in deep or packed snow,
  • is easy to put on and take off,
  • will keep the traveler on top of the snow, but
  • won’t accumulate snow on its surface.

All of these amount to an engineering feat.

Size and Shape

How big should snowshoes be? If they are too wide, the person will walk bowlegged. If they are too narrow, they won’t have enough surface area to support the traveler.

If they are too short, they will not have enough surface area to support the person. Traveling in soft snow will be very difficult. If they are too long, they will be too heavy, and difficult to use in the brush.

If they don’t have enough turn-up in the front, they dive into the snow, and cause the traveler to constantly fall. If they have too much turn up, they won’t provide enough area on a harder surface to support the traveler.

SnowshoesTwo Types

There are basically two types of snowshoes, trail and bearpaw. Trail snowshoes are usually ten inches wide and fifty-six inches long including the tail. Bearpaws are shorter and rounded on both ends.

The front of trail snowshoes are upturned for deep powder snow. The rounded shape of the bearpaws give a little bounce to the traveler’s step on hard packed snow, acting like a mini-trampoline.



The pressure that snowshoes exert on the snow can be described in pounds per square inch (psi). A heavier person will sink deeper on the same pair of snowshoes than a lighter person because the pounds per square inch of snowshoe surface is greater.

Both a lighter and a heavier person sink deeper in powder snow because the strength of the snow is less than the strength of packed snow.

The optimum size of snowshoes depends on the traveler, snow conditions, and use. If the traveler is fairly light or usually travels on hard-packed or drifted snow, small shoes will be enough.

Once the traveler sinks deeper than his knees, traveling becomes very difficult. In powder snow, I have never found a pair of snowshoes that I thought were too big except in a few experiences fighting through brush.

Oldtimers purposely used smaller snowshoes to break trail a good trail for dogs or other people following behind.

When they ran down a moose, they often used very large snowshoes (six feet) to stay on top of the snow and conserve their energy.


The front of some snowshoes dive into the snow, tripping the traveler. To prevent this:

  • The front of the snowshoe has more surface area than the rear.
  • The front of the snowshoe is turned up.
  • The rear has more weight.

These three features work together to keep the front of the snowshoes from diving.

The Tail

Some trail model snowshoes have a long tail. It serves an important purpose. The tail keeps the snowshoe pointing forward, like the keel on a canoe or tail on a kite. Without the tail, the snowshoe would swing from side to side, particularly in the brush, getting hung up, slowing and frustrating the traveler.


The mesh underfoot obviously needs to be bigger and stronger than that in the front and back.

Powder snow demands mesh in the front and back that is smaller and more tightly woven to provide adequate surface area. Wetter or coarser snow demands mesh that is thicker and more durable against abrasion.
















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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t stretch like synthetics. Rawhide stretches too much when wet.

Few things are more miserable than snowshoe bindings that don’t work properly.

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 the foot.


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 much worse.


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.





A simple steamer


  1. Time someone walking a given distance in deep snow without snowshoes. Then time the same person with snowshoes.
  2. Try different kinds of available snowshoes (trail, bear paw) on different snow conditions. Which is easier and why? Which is easier in the brush? On a snowmachine trail? On windswept snow? In powder?
  3. Try different kinds of bindings. Which seem better to you? This test is invalid unless you walk under many different conditions: packed trail, in the brush, up hills, in deep powder, etc. Which bindings and snowshoes are the quietest?
  4. Compute the psi of individuals wearing winter boots and again with a pair of snowshoes (their weight divided by the area of the boots or snowshoes).
  5. Ask some of the oldtimers in your village what kinds of snowshoes they used and why. What did they do to the rawhide (oil, varnish, etc.) to make it waterproof?
  6. Ask an oldtimer how to pick a good birch tree for snowshoes. How could they tell the grain of the wood and the toughness of the fiber?
  7. Take two pieces of birch from the same tree. They should be carved about the same size, similar to the frame of a snowshoe. Cut them two to three feet long for this test. Steam one. Bend them both. Which bends easier? Which breaks first? (An easy steamer is made from a coffee can with two inches of water in the bottom with stovepipes extending to the desired length.)
  8. How did they make rawhide in your village? How was the skin cleaned and how was it split into thin strips? Does anyone still know how to do this? Try to learn if there is a skin available.
  9. If a pair of homemade snowshoes is available, try to discover the pattern followed to lash the webbing. What did oldtimers do to protect it from wearing?
  10. Study the different kinds of snowshoes described in catalogs and resource materials. What kinds of traditional snowshoes were used in other regions of the North? Can you guess their winter weather by the design? Look at the following picture. What kind of snow conditions do you think this snowshoe was designed for?


  1. What kind of snowshoes do you think are best for walking home on a snowmachine trail? Time someone walking with these snowshoes for a mile. Time someone without snowshoes. Who walks faster?
  2. Some oldtimers knew how to make emergency snowshoes. Ask the old people in your village if they ever used that kind.
Student Response

Student Response

  1. What is the idea behind snowshoes? Use the term “psi”.
  2. With the same snowshoes, who will sink more deeply into the snow: a person eighty pounds or someone one hundred and ten pounds?
  3. Which is better for hard packed snow: bear paw or trail snowshoes?
  4. Which is better for powder snow: bear paw or trail snowshoes?
  5. Why would someone want smaller snowshoes even if the snow is soft, deep powder?
  6. What purpose does the tail of the snowshoe have?
  7. Why aren’t commercially-made snowshoe frames strong?
  8. What kind of skin was the toughest to use for traditional lashing? What is the disadvantage of this kind of lashing?
  9. Why did oldtimers oil their snowshoes?


  1. What is the psi of a person weighing 175 lbs on snowshoes that have 400 square inches.
  2. What is the psi of the same person wearing boots with 48 square inches? Snowshoes increase the surface area the person is exerting force upon by how many times?
  3. On a trail snowshoe, measure the surface area in front of the individual’s toe. Measure the surface area behind the individual’s heel. Which is greater?
  4. Compute the psi of the smallest person in the class if they have a standard pair of 10” x 56” snowshoes. How big would the snowshoes have to be for the largest person in the class to have the same psi therefore sinking the same distance into the snow? You will have to figure the area of the snowshoes out in several different parts, circles, squares and triangles.
  5. A homemade snowshoe weighs 2.2 lbs. Another one made by the Army is 3.0 lbs. If someone’s step is 2’ and there are 5,280 feet in a mile, how many extra pounds are lifted in a mile? How many extra pounds are lifted on a hunting trip where the person walks 7.4 miles?

Questions or comments?
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