Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate


Ancient snowshoe made of branch bent into a circle with cross-piece
The oldest known snowshoe was found high in the Italian Alps. Radiocarbon dating indicates that it is from 3,700-3,800 years BCE. Photo copyright: Archaeological Heritage Office, Bolzano, Italy

Have you ever tried walking in deep snow? If so, you know what it is like to sink in up to your knees or even your waist. Imagine if you had to walk for miles like that! You would use up a lot of energy and you wouldn’t get very far. Thousands of years ago, people who lived in snowy places solved this problem by inventing snowshoes.

A snowshoe is much larger than a person’s foot, so the wearer’s body weight is spread out over a larger area. As a result, a person wearing snowshoes sinks much less in the snow than he or she would without them. Snowshoes have been made and used by indigenous people in Europe, Asia, and North America. Snowshoes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each suited to the place where they originated.

Diagram showing five styles of traditional wooden snowshoes
Sizes and shapes of traditional snowshoes reflect the different types of snow characteristic of the areas in which they originated. Image courtesy of GV Snowshoes (Available for public use)
assortment of modern snowshoes made from commercial materials
Modern snowshoes are made of aluminum and synthetic materials. Image courtesy of GV Snowshoes (Available for public use)

Factors influencing snowshoe design include the type of snow typical of the place where they originated, the natural materials available in those places, and landscape features such as whether the area was forested or open, flat or hilly. Large snowshoes – often equal in length to a person’s height – with upturned tips are ideal for walking in fluffy, soft snow because they provide the most “float.” In places where snow tends to be more compacted from wind or where it is denser, smaller snowshoes are more commonly found.

Person walking in snowy landscape on snowshoes
A park ranger travels on snowshoes in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska. NPS Photo / Laurie Smith (Public Domain)

In the past, snowshoes were an essential tool for carrying out day to day activities. Today, some people – such as park rangers, trappers, and even scientists – still use snowshoes for work, but for most people, snowshoeing is a recreational activity. Some people still wear the traditional wooden snowshoes, but most people prefer the modern style of snowshoes, which are made of aluminum or plastic and have a metal “claw” under the toe that allows for traction on hard, icy, and uphill surfaces.