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Snowshoeing & Kick Sledding
Revised November 14, 2011

Unit Goals

The snowshoe is considered one of humankind's earliest inventions. Its use in snow travel extends back roughly 6,000 years. As an invention, it once ranked with the wheel. Today other modes of transportation have greatly reduced its use. Even so, it is unlikely the snowshoe will ever be completely replaced. In this unit, students learn about the environmental consideration related to travel on snow for both humans and wildilfe, and hopefully discover that snowshoeing can be an enjoyable mode of snow travel.


Before your visit, please review with your students:

  • History of snowshoeing
  • Past role of snowshoeing in culture
  • Parts of a snowshoe
  • Types of wooden snowshoes
  • Modern snowshoes
  • How to dress for snowshoeing

At River Bend we will:

  • Review the above material
  • Discuss the history and types of snowshoes
  • Demonstrate how to put on River Bend's tradional snowshoes
  • Use techniques of snowshoeing while exploring different habitats

In closing we will:

  • inquire about students' reaction to snowshoeing
  • explain further opportunities to snowshoe
  • remind the students of their next visit
  • talk of upcoming events at River Bend
  • invite the students to return on their own with family and friends

Back in the classroom:

  • Explore how wintery conditions presented unique challenges to early peoples
  • Research other types of snowshoes (or forms of snow travel).


Kick Sleds


The Rise of the Snowshoe

Snowshoes and skis are both thought to trace their origin to a common ancestor called "shoeski". Invented in 4000 B.C. in Central Asia, it was a solid piece of wood with a crude binding. The "shoeski" made it possible for people to migrate into farther reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

Those that migrated to northern Europe and Asia eventually developed the ski, and those that crossed the Bering (Aleutian) Land Bridge into North American eventually developed the snowshoe. The snowshoe, having gone through many changes, was finally brought to perfection by the Athaspascan Indians of the north-west coast and the Algonquin Indians of the St. Lawrence River Valley. Though many styles now exist, all follow the same laced-frame form developed by the above Indian tribes.

Snowski  Snowshoe
The Snowshoe's Historical Role

Snowshoeing was once the mode of snow travel used in North America. Hunters, trappers, farmers, timber cruisers, surveyors, prospectors, explorers, soldiers, etc used snowshoes. Anybody needing to travel in snow country owned them and most made their own until about one hundred years ago. They were as important to taming the West as were the axe and flint-lock rifle.

Other modes of winter snow travel did not enter America until Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns began to immigrate in the early 1800s. They introduced the now popular ski, which did not overtake the snowshoe in overall use until the 1960s. Of course the snowmobile is now also in common use as a mode of snow travel, not to mention automobiles and trucks.

Social Functions and Recreation

Common in Quebec in the 1800s and again growing in popularity, snowshoe clubs have their roots in the military. In the 1700s military units would form snowshoeing teams to foster military preparedness. These teams would adorn themselves with colorful uniforms and compete against other teams in a variety of activities. In time these other teams evolved into elite, civilian social clubs. Many kept much of the pageantry and competition alive. In 1907 several clubs sent delegates to form the Canadian Snowshoer's Union and in time an American equivalent was formed as well. Several clubs still exist, especially in Quebec. Other states and provinces are now adding new clubs, including Minnesota, to bolster their representation.

Community Snowshoe Hikes

Common until the late 1920s or so, community snowshoe hikes were once an integral part of New England culture. Small committees would plan these hikes and then advertise them in the local paper. Snowshoers would meet at the town square on the scheduled evening. Often up to a hundred people would take part, young and old alike. The leader would begin by trekking the group single file to an unannounced destination. This was usually a rural farmhouse where goodies awaited. Once the leader arrived, it was tradition to begin singing until the two "whippers-in" finished - approximately 30-40 more minutes later. The "whippers-in" were positioned to bring up the rear and equipped to assist anybody needing help. When all arrived, the singing ended and eating began.

After a time of fellowship and rest, each participant would give the host 10 to 25 cents for their hospitality. On the way back the atmosphere was more carefree, frequent rests were taken so the old folks could catch their breath and the young folks could mingle. Just before arriving in town it was necessary to find one steep hill for all to slide or stumble down. Soon after good-byes were made and new volunteers would agree to plan the next event.

Family Breakfast Hikes

Breakfast hikes, another New England tradition, started out with a moonlight hike to a quiet pine forest. There the family would build a fire and begin cooking a big pot of oatmeal. Meanwhile, they would prepare a fireless stove where the oatmeal would finish cooking overnight. A fireless stove is a big box insulated with sawdust. Once it was set inside the fireless stove, the partially cooked oatmeal would slowly finish cooking overnight.

After preparing embers for the next morning's fire, the family would return home for sleep. Early in the morning they would load a big toboggan with bacon, sausage, eggs, and cookware and trek back into the forest. The whole family would help pull the toboggan, especially up hills. Upon arriving they would prepare the rest of the food and feast on the still steaming oatmeal dressed up with honey and thick cream to provide the finishing touches. After breakfast they would work to prepare the area for their next outing and then snowshoe home.

Parts of a Snowshoe

There are many different types of snowshoes, but they all have the same parts!

Snowshoe Parts

Types of Traditional Snowshoes

Bear Paw

  • Oval in shape, lacking tail - for use in thick woods and hilly areas
  • Advantages: maneuverability
  • Disadvantages: slower than other styles and not good for deep snow
Bear Paw

Michigan (Maine or Beaver-tail)

  • Tear-drop shape, upturned toe, and a narrow tail
  • For use on trails or open woods
  • Advantages: versatility, will work fairly well in most situations
  • Disadvantages: clumsy in thick woods
    or in very deep, powdery snow
  • By far the most popular design

Alaskan (Trail, Yukon)

  • Extremely long and narrow, greatly upturned toe, and narrow tail.
  • For use in open areas and deep snow
  • Best for most racing
  • Advantages: handles deep snow, very fast, and tracts well over long distances
  • Disadvantages: poor maneuverability

Modern snowshoes

While many people who showshoe prefer traditional wooden snowshoes, such as those shown above, snowshoers are increasingly changing over to newer, more modern designs made of a range of plastic and metals. They tend to be smaller in size and have solid decking rather than the open webbing of wooden snowshoes. Visit these pages for information on a few of these snowshoes:

Tubbs snowshoes

Snowshoes online

Appropriate Winter Dress

It is important to dress right for showshoeing! Boots must be worn to ensure warmth and a proper fit in the snowshoes. Also gloves or mittens, and a warm jacket need to be worn. Snowpants, long underwear and a scarf are also highly recommended. If you are not appropriately dressed the day of the field trip, you might be left at school!

A rule of thumb: Dress for snowshoeing the same way you would if you were going out to play in the snow on a cold winter day.


Kick Sledding

Click to see a movie of students using kick sleds

Kick sleds are new to River Bend, and for that matter this country! River Bend is proud to be one of the very few outdoor centers in the U.S. to have them. The ones we use were imported from Finland and first tested in programs during the winter of 2003-2004. A kick sled looks similar to a dog sled, but one which you kick along to slide on the snow. They don't handle deep snow well, but are great on our frozen ponds and good for trails and areas with at least a little snow or ice. They offer a great activity on their own, or as a backup if we don't have enough snow for snowshoeing.

Whether or not kick sleds will be available for your program will likely be determined on that day unless a prior arrangement is made.

For more information on the sleds, visit this site: ESLA

Our newest, largest kick sled is from Mountain Boy Sledworks.

Questions? Please email us for more information.

Kick Sled
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