Snowshoes

Tanana boy wearing snowshoes standing on a snow-covered path in the forest
Traditional style wooden snowshoes like these worn by a Tanana Athabascan boy in 1920 remain important tools for winter travel in Alaska today. Photograph from University of Washington Special Collections #6676 on www.wikimedia.org. (Public Domain)

Snowshoes prevent the wearer from sinking too deeply in the snow. By spreading out a person’s body weight over an area that is much larger than the bottom of a boot, snowshoes help one “float” on top of the snowpack. Different types of snowshoes work best in different types of snow conditions, as described below in the examples of traditional snowshoes used in Alaska.

Select the images or credit lines in the examples below to link to a detailed museum record for each item, including discussion by Alaska Native Elders for some of them.

Alaskan-style snowshoes

Although several styles of snowshoes have been made and used in Alaska, the long, narrow style is so common throughout much of Alaska that it has become known as the “Alaskan” style of snowshoe. This style of snowshoes is characteristic of those made and worn by peoples of interior Alaska and certain areas of western and northern Alaska where snow is soft and deep.

The long length and large surface area of the following snowshoes provide a lot of “float,” which is especially helpful for breaking trail in deep snow, as when hunting. The narrow design is helpful for moving around in heavily treed areas such as the boreal forests typical of interior Alaska. The long length is ideal for travel in flat areas but makes walking on a slope more difficult than when wearing smaller, more rounded snowshoes.

Traditional snowshoes, especially the Alaskan style, continue to be worn by many Alaska Native and non-Native people today.

Pair of long snowshoes made of birch and animal sinew, painted red

These long, narrow snowshoes were made by Dena’ina Athabascan Wassillie Trefon in 1957. Making traditional snowshoes is a craft that has been passed down through the generations. There are relatively few traditional snowshoe-makers in Alaska today.

NPS Photo, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

snowshoes, 132 cm. with upturned toes and tightly woven webbing

Ush (“snowshoes”) – These Dena’ina Athabascan snowshoes from the Lake Iliamna region of Alaska are 132 cm./52 in. long. Made of birch and caribou, they date to before 1879.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E28874

Long snowshoes with upturned toe and slightly tapered tail

aih (“snowshoes”) – In addition to their length (138 cm./54 in.) these pre-1905 Gwich’in snowshoes from the Upper Yukon river region of Alaska feature finely-woven webbing, which helps to add float, and upturned tips, which help to prevent the wearer from falling forward when walking in deep snow.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E234029

snowshoes

tangluk (“pair of snowshoes”) – These long (128 cm./50 in.) Yup’ik snowshoes share features of the Dene (Athabascan examples), including tightly woven webbing and an upturned tip. making them effective for walking in soft, deep snow. They were used in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska prior to 1917.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian 071136.000

Other traditional snowshoe styles used in Alaska

Eskimo hunter on snowshoes dragging seal circa 1908-1915
Shorter snowshoes work well on harder snow typical of the Arctic. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections PH-328.238 (Public Domain)

The long, Alaskan-style snowshoes aren’t ideal for use in all conditions and in all places. Some dry areas of Alaska, such as the northern coast, are dry deserts that receive little snow, although the snow that does fall stays on the ground for a long time. On the coast and in some other areas of Alaska, strong winds deposit blowing snow in dense, hard “wind-slabs.” Under conditions like these, snowshoes typically aren’t needed at all. Snowshoes might be used to help with grip and stability in icy conditions or on uneven terrain, but the best style for these conditions is quite different from the Alaskan style. Even in areas of Alaska where deep, soft snow is the norm, different styles of snowshoes are better than the Alaskan style for traveling on hard-packed trails.

Wooden snowshoes with fine webbing, pointed at both ends

łinitsyaatł’įį aih – (“make-shift trail snowshoes”) – At 115 cm./45 in., these pre-1936 Gwich’in snowshoes are nearly a foot shorter than the “Alaskan” style models depicted above. Their smaller surface area means they are less effective an keeping the wearer on top of soft, deep snow, but they work well for traveling established trails where snow is packed down.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian 193336.0000

Wooden snowshoes, 54 cm. long, squared toe, wood with simple lashings

“Crow’s Feet” – These 54 cm./21 in. long snowshoes from the late 1800s are from Cape Waukarem in eastern Siberia, and they are well under half the length of the other examples shown on this page. Snow conditions in their place of origin are similar to those in northern coastal areas of Alaska. This type of snowshoe could help the wearer with stability and grip on uneven terrain or icy surfaces. Made from driftwood and seal skin, they are strong and durable, able to withstand use on hard snow and ice.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E63603

Device made of bone or ivory with sharp points on the underside and lashing to attach to a shoe

Precursors to contemporary metal crampons, Kisak (“Ice creepers”) made of bone or walrus ivory attach to the bottom of a boot and provide grip on slippery, icy surfaces. National Museum of Natural History E280385

Snowshoe-making

Like many traditional skills, snowshoe-making has become a rare art. In the videos below, two Alaska Native craftsmen demonstrate the traditional way of making snowshoes.

Meet George Albert, master traditional snowshoe maker from Ruby, Alaska. (2 minutes)

George Carlson Yaska Sr. from Huslia, Alaska demonstrates how to make and weave snowshoe webbing from start to finish. (21 minutes)

Learn more about snowshoes and their history here.