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Harness the Power of Snowshoes This Winter

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

The best winter days are the ones right after a good snowstorm, when the white, powdery snow is stacked high on the frozen ground and everything seems so quiet. It’s an even better day if your school declares it a snow day! Don’t waste the day staying inside; take advantage of the new adventures there are to be had outside.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

One drawback to a good snowfall is trying to walk in it. When you sink in up to your shins or your knees, it can take a lot of effort and strength to get anywhere fast. But have no fear! We have a tool for that. Check out the science of the snowshoes!


Snowshoes are not a new invention. It is believed humans started to use snowshoes more than 6,000 years ago in Central Asia. It wasn’t just for recreation; they were used for survival. They were a must for gathering food or hunting in snow. They also helped tribes migrate across countries and continents, including the Bering land bridge, to make it all the way to North America.

Snowshoe styles include, from left, the bear paw, Alaskan and Ojibwe. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

If you think of all the different habitats and environments that cover North America, there are a lot of different elements to consider. Some areas are wide open, while others are dense forests. Due to the challenges of traveling through different habitats, snowshoes were created in unique styles.

One limiting factor was what materials were available to craft snowshoes. Wood from trees made the frame. White ash trees where prized because their wood had the best strength yet was still flexible enough to shape the shoe. Caribou, moose or deer hide strips were used for lacing.

There are four main styles of snowshoes: bear paw, catfish, Alaskan and Ojibwe. Bear paws are small, rounded snowshoes with no tails that are excellent for walking in thick brush and woods. Catfish snowshoes have long tails with an upturned front. The tail acts like a rudder and counterweight. Alaskans look similar to the catfish style, but they are the most sturdy because they have the largest surface area. Ojibwe snowshoes are pointed at both ends and are best suited for the plains and cutting through the snow.

The science of snowshoes

Now wait a minute. There are animals out there in the snow, and they don’t sink in like we do. Picture snow leopards, polar bears and Arctic hares. They can run across the snowy arctic with little to no problem, and they aren’t wearing any fancy shoes. The reason is all thanks to their big feet! They already have enough surface area on their feet to keep them supported on the snow.

The science of snowshoes works the same. The idea is to increase the surface area of a person’s foot so they can walk on top of the snow rather than sink into it. The amount the snow is holding a person up is increased when the surface area of their foot is increased. This weight distribution is measured in pounds per square inch, or PSI. When the surface area of a foot is increased from regular shoes to snowshoes, a person’s weight is spread over a greater area, which decreases their PSI.

Get outside

Now it is up to you to put this science to the test. First you will need to wait for a good snowstorm so there is enough snow on the ground to test this theory. Then set up your challenge. Pick spots for a starting point and an ending point. Get out a cellphone to start a timer. See how long it takes your family to get from start to finish in regular shoes or boots. Next strap on your snowshoes. Do the race again to see if you were faster now that your feet had more surface area to work with. After getting used to your new feet, take the race up a level. Add in obstacles to circle around, jump over or walk backward.

Don’t have snowshoes? No problem! Plum Creek Nature Center rents snowshoes, and there are sizes for the whole family! These are modern snowshoes built from lightweight metal and plastic. They also have teeth on the bottom to help with icier days. The nature center staff will help you rent the right size and show you how to put them on. Pro tip: Now that your feet are bigger, you will need to walk wider and lift your feet up a little higher.

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