From our sister site, snowshoes.com
From Europe to North America to Asia, people began using snowshoes over 4,000 years ago out of a basic need to explore new territories and to find food in the winter. With vast regions of the world snowbound for much of the year, hunters looked to emulate successful winter travelers like the snowshoe hare, whose oversized feet enabled them to move quickly over deep snow. In areas like central Europe, historians have discovered snowshoe-like tools, with the use of large leather flats and round wooden blocks, but the traditional webbed snowshoe design was developed and thrived with Native Americans.
The great success of snowshoes for winter travel was first observed by European explorers with Northeastern tribes such as the Huron and Algonquin, which led subsequent trappers, hunters, and surveyors to adopt snowshoes as their own. Some of the earliest snowshoes were over 7 feet long which, though unwieldy, were helpful in navigating through very deep, powdery snow. Snowshoers looked to the naturally efficient design of animal paws and began modeling their snowshoes after animal prints they found in nature. The popular “beavertail” style had a round nose with the ends coming together in a long tail. The “bearpaw” was short and wide with a round tail, as its name implies. Both styles have had enormous influence on modern snowshoe design.
While the length and width of snowshoes varied over the years, they were typically large, made with ash timber frames and untanned cowhide webbing. The cultural landscape shifted dramatically approaching the early 1900s, as cities grew and society shifted from farming to industrial culture. People who no longer had to trap or hunt for food began to take to the woods for pure enjoyment and exercise, and the recreational sport of snowshoeing was born. In places like Quebec, recreational clubs held races and hosted hikes for recreational snowshoers, and new designs helped expand the market. Snowshoes became more than simply utilitarian, and with recreational use they became appreciated as aesthetic objects and pinnacles of craft.
Manufacturers like Tubbs Snowshoes, established in 1906, seized on the shift to recreational winter sports, building skis and snowshoe designs. Later on, as they developed smaller snowshoes using traditional constructions like the revolutionary 1950s Green Mountain Bearpaw, they made winter walking easier for the growing population. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that snowshoe design would radically change again. With the burgeoning back to nature movement, backcountry explorers looked to snowshoes to travel deeper into the mountains. These new designs featured new materials like aluminum frames and nylon decks, with smaller sizes and cleats underfoot for use in mountaineering and more rugged terrain. The eventual products, led by companies like Sherpa Snowshoes, introduced the world to the “Western” style snowshoe.
Eventually the Western style snowshoe construction became the norm, replacing traditional wood and rawhide constructions with smaller designs that offered equal flotation and better traction through solid decks and aluminum cleats. Those designs would be further refined in decades to come with introductions like Atlas Snow-Shoe Company’s revolutionary binding suspension system and dual toe and heel traction in 1990. With great advances in lighter, durable materials and more compact, athletic shapes, snowshoes spurred a renewed interest the sport, expanding it to new markets with backpackers, hikers, runners, families and more.
Today, snowshoeing has never been more popular, with roughly 5.5 million participants in the United States alone. Easy, accessible snowshoes have opened up a whole new world of winter, from snowshoe trail centers at ski areas and local parks to quiet hiking trails and distant snow-capped peaks with incredible vistas. Snowshoeing has come a long way from its early designs and uses, but there’s never been a better time to explore winter.
Interested in the history of Atlas specifically? Read this post from earlier this year!