Snowshoeing: Try an ancient tradition this winter

Photo by Justine Brown
Photo by Justine Anderson

Now that Central Minnesota has had its first snowfall of the season, many of us may be thinking of ways to avoid the cold and snow at all costs, scurrying between heated shelters at walking speeds reserved for colder months, and opting to eat that last can of tuna for dinner rather than dare venture outside to buy groceries.

Rather than spurning the outdoors for the next six months, why not embrace it? Staying active and being out in nature can help alleviate winter boredom and blues. One low cost activity that anyone can do is snowshoeing. In addition to being beginner-friendly and easily accessible, snowshoeing has played a surprisingly important role in history, its effects seen throughout our society today.

A little history

According to “Snowshoeing” by Gene Prater, snowshoeing is thought to have originated about 6,000 years ago in Eurasia, making it one of the oldest known inventions by humans.

“Without the snowshoe/ski, aboriginal peoples would not have been able to expand over, and occupy, the northern hemisphere,” Prater writes in his book.

Traditionally, snowshoe frames were made out of wood and bindings were made from animal hides, but earliest models were far more rudimentary, being no more than a slab of wood and a single binding.

Ironically, Inuit nations utilized snowshoes far less than American Indians living farther south. Because they mainly traversed over ice and hard-packed snow, they had little need for them compared to those living in more temperate climes, where moving around in winter meant traversing deep and loosely packed snow, Prater explains in his book.

Prater also explains in his book that the first white people to master the snowshoe were French fur traders. During the French and Indian War, the French, along with their American Indian allies nearly beat the English in the fight for dominion over North America. One of the reasons they came so close to success is thought to be their mastery of snowshoeing, which enabled them to move more quickly in winter than the English.

He also explains that the westward expansion of the colonies was largely made possible by the snowshoe, as explorers and early settlers utilized them heavily in navigating the new and unpredictable territories in winter.

“During the great westward expansion period, snowshoes were equally as important as the ax and flintlock rifle in the zones where snow lay deep throughout the winter season,” Prater writes. “Trappers, hunters, explorers and surveyors in these areas found snowshoes to be indispensible.”

The snowshoe was the predominant way to get around on foot in the winter for hundreds of years until skis, brought to North America by Scandinavian immigrants, began to overshadow snowshoes as the primary method of transportation and recreation in the twentieth century.

Start snowshoeing

This ancient activity is a great winter recreation option for modern-day Minnesotans because there is an abundance of both trails and places to rent snowshoes from.

You can rent snowshoes at St. Cloud State from the Outdoor Endeavors Rental Resource Center, as well as from dozens of different Minnesota state parks. There are also a number of snowshoe-themed events at state parks across Minnesota, including geocaching, candlelit snowshoes, and animal tracking.

Whether you snowshoe, ski, sled, snowboard or build an igloo, do as Henry David Thoreau says: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”


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