Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate

Skis vs. Snowshoes: East vs. West

Skis and snowshoes have both been around for thousands of years. Ancient cave paintings of hunters on skis and archaeological sites containing wooden ski fragments indicate that skis were being made and used in Central Asia and Fennoscandia (the peninsula containing present day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and northwestern Russia) at least 5,000-8,000 years ago (Finstad et al., 2016; Burov, 1989). The oldest known snowshoe, found by hikers in the Tyrolean Alps in 2016, dates to approximately 6,000 years ago (Squires, 2016). Ancient Chinese, Greek, and Roman literature includes references to snowshoe- and ski-like objects used by exotic Northern peoples (including on their horses’ feet!) in or beyond the far reaches of their respective empires (Huntford, 2009).

Despite what seems to have been widespread use of both skis and snowshoes throughout Eurasia, there is no evidence that skis were present in North America until European contact, and skiing did not become popular as a recreational activity in the U.S. until Norwegian immigrants introduced and promoted it around the turn of the 20th century (Huntford, 2009). Why is it that among the indigenous peoples of North America, whose most recent ancestors came from Siberia, snowshoes have been widely used for generations, while skis have not?

Scholars and skiers alike have pondered this question, and one idea that tends to come up is that the snow and terrain conditions in Eurasia are (and were) better suited to skiing, and the snow and terrain conditions in North America are (and were) better suited to snowshoeing. This argument is based on the following facts:

● Somewhat wetter snow is generally better for skiing because it allows skis to slide more easily than they do on drier snow. On the other hand, snowshoes typically have a larger surface area than skis, providing better float in deep, fluffy snow. That said, a 1,000 year old ski 18 inches wide and nearly 10 feet long was found in Europe (Huntford, 2009), and long, stiff skis are still used in the Altay region of Central Asia (Masia, 2018). Such a long, wide design would provide considerably more float than the shorter, narrower shape typically associated with skis.

● Skis are usually faster, especially in hilly terrain, where they can zip down hills and, when strips of animal fur are attached to their undersides to prevent backwards sliding, climb up hills quite easily. Snowshoes, on the other hand, don’t have the advantage of sliding effortlessly down hills, and they can be awkward going uphill (especially the long snowshoes traditionally used in areas with deep, fluffy snow).

● In dense forests such as spruce taiga characterized by small, closely spaced trees, snowshoes are able to navigate better than skis, which get caught by both standing and downed trees in tight spaces.

So, is it the case that Eurasia (or at least northern Europe) has wetter snow, hillier terrain, and less dense forest vegetation than Alaska and other snowy, norther areas of North America? Not necessarily. Using Norway and Alaska as examples, both areas contain varied environments, including dense forests with deep, powdery snow; hilly and flat terrain; more open, windblown landscapes that often develop hard wind-slab snow surfaces; and areas where snow tends to be wet and heavy, varying from shallow to deep. Furthermore, Europeans who settled in northeastern North America in the 1600s-1800s, including French Voyageurs, readily adopted the snowshoe used by the region’s indigenous peoples (GV Snowshoes, 2020) rather than importing skis, which they likely knew about, regardless of the fact that the local snow conditions in present-day Québec are generally wetter and icier than those in Alaska and northwestern Canada.

Could it be that the natural materials available in Eurasia were better suited to making skis than those available in northern North America? Again considering northern Norway and Alaska, both areas are characterized by tundra and boreal forest vegetation, with similar tree species (e.g. species of birch, aspen, and spruce) occurring in East and West. Northern Eurasia’s forests include the Scots Pine, which tends to be a larger tree containing natural chemical preservatives (Kuuluvainen et al., 2017) and having durable wood that is used in milling planks in Sweden (Nordic Timber Council, 2012). Size, durability, and decay resistance could make for a good material for making skis. Alaska’s interior and northern forests don’t have an equivalent tree species. Most of the skis and ski fragments that have been unearthed by archaeologists are made of softwoods such as pine, but that doesn’t mean that such wood was used preferentially for ski manufacture (Huntford, 2009); the tannins and resins present in pines and other conifers protect  them from decomposition, which would naturally result in their lasting longer than skis made of woods lacking such anti-decay properties.

In North America, indigenous peoples refined and perfected the webbed snowshoe, which evolved from the simple wood planks or pieces of animal hide that served as early snowshoes. Traditionally, webbed snowshoe frames have been made out of paper birch in interior Alaska. Similar birch species occur throughout northern areas of Eurasia. In other areas of North America where snowshoes were historically just as prevalent as in Alaska, however, other tree species were used. White ash is frequently cited as a good material for making snowshoe frames and was used to make traditional snowshoes. As far as snowshoe webbing, it is usually made from animal hide or sinew. In Alaska and northern Canada, hide and sinew are often taken from caribou, which are also prevalent in northern Eurasia, where the English term for them is “reindeer.”

One would think that the prevalence of skis and snowshoes in different parts of the world, both between and within continents, must have something to do with migration patterns of ancient humans, who throughout history have introduced new tools and technologies to the people they encounter when moving through or settling in new areas. Perhaps the reason that skis are so closely associated with some cultures today is that they were introduced to those areas earlier than snowshoes were (if snowshoes reached that area at all), and vice versa for cultures among which snowshoes are more common. In such a scenario, perhaps the direct ancestors of Alaska’s indigenous peoples never came into contact with skis, or maybe they just preferred snowshoes for any number of reasons, potentially including any of those already mentioned here.

Interestingly, the oldest known snowshoe is from the Tyrolean Alps of present-day Austria and Italy (Squires, 2016), which is nearer to Scandinavia, where skis are king, than to Siberia, home to the people from whom North America’s indigenous peoples descended. The fact that this is the oldest snowshoe that we know of does not mean that it is the oldest that exists or that snowshoes originated in this area, however. Further complicating the story, archaeological evidence and early written records of snow travel technologies describe what have been called “shoe-skis” due to their resembling a hybrid of skis and snowshoes, and early versions of snowshoes included simple wooden slabs or blocks and pieces of leather attached to the feet (“Snowshoe,” 2020). It seems likely that snowshoes and skis share a common ancestor that evolved into specialized forms in different areas over thousands of years.

Or maybe…some people just liked skiing better than snowshoeing, and vice versa! Certainly, distinctive cultures (or subcultures) encompassing lifestyle, vocabulary, knowledge, skills, and values have evolved among participants in different outdoor activities, perhaps downhill skiing most notable of all.

Clearly, there is no simple answer to the question of why skis never made it to North America until recently, despite the fact that both skis and snowshoes seem to have been widely known and used throughout Eurasia for millennia. Although we can’t say anything definitively on the matter, it is likely that the East-West divide resulted from a combination of many different factors: Environmental conditions and limitations, available natural resources, human migration and spread of technologies, and personal and societal preference and tradition. The nice thing about questions to which we don’t know the answer is that they are fun to think about.