Snowshoes were probably the forerunner of the ski, but both are believed to have been developed between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Historians believe snowshoes were invented in Central Asia. The inhabitants of the Caucasus attached flat surfaces of leather under their feet and also used round wooden surfaces to travel more easily on snow.
Two directions for snowshoe development diverged early on. One group abandoned the snowshoe as it migrated north to what is now Scandinavia, eventually turning the design into the forerunner of skis. The other went northeast, crossing the Bering Strait into North America. The “traditional” webbed snowshoe we know today originated with the North American Indians. Snowshoes were adopted early on by Europeans in what became Canada and the United States.
Traditional snowshoes are made of a single strip of hardwood, usually white ash, curved round and fastened together at the ends and supported in the middle by a light cross-bar. The space within the frame is filled with webbing of waterproofed rawhide strips, leaving a small opening for the toe of the foot. The foot is held in place by leather thongs or leather straps with buckles.
In the 1950s, the Vermont-based Tubbs Company created the Green Mountain Bearpaw, which combined the shortness of that style with an even narrower width than had previously been the norm. “Tubbs” rapidly became one of the most popular snowshoes of its day. We have a pair of “Tubbs” on display over the fireplace in The Ski Renter.
In 1972, experimenting with new designs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, Gene and Bill Prater created the snowshoe most commonly used today. They used aluminum tubing and replaced the lace with neoprene and nylon decking. To make them easier to use in mountaineering, the Praters developed a hinged binding and added cleats to hold better on icy slopes. The Sherpa Snowshoe company became the first manufacturer of these “Western” shoes.