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Sink or float

Quick quiz! Test your snowshoe IQ
By Lou Dzierzak
snowshoeing
Photo by www.atlassnowshoe.com
Winter in cabin country means the sun sets early and the fireplace crackles with a blazing fire to warm cold bones. On a day when the wind is howling and the mercury is drooping lazily in the thermometer, it’s the perfect time to sit back to tell tall tales and debunk legends. Like the stories told about your great grandfather’s epic treks wearing the snowshoes that now hang over the fireplace mantle with tails crossed.
   
So, let’s review the truths, half-truths and misconceptions about snowshoes, and set the record straight.

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The Atlas Elektra 8 Series shoes are designed for general trail use. They are lightweight, but stable on moderate to steep terrain.
Photo by (courtesy of) manufacturer
#1. Only mythical mountain men like Grizzly Adams or adventurers in the spirit of Jack London use snowshoes anymore.
    
False.
Time to get your nose out of the books. London’s “Call of the Wild” is a classic, sure. But where have you been? Snowshoeing has gained popularity in the last decade and new models make it easy for anyone – including you – to get out and wander around the woods.
   
Nearly 6 million Americans went snowshoeing in 2003, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Over the last decade, annual sales increases of 20 to 30 percent have been common in the snowshoe market. The sport has grown because snowshoeing is easy to learn, the equipment has improved dramatically over previous generations and manufacturers have invested in demonstration events and education seminars.

#2. You need to know how to walk like a duck to walk in showshoes. I’m not a duck. I can’t walk like a duck.
   
False.
You are a duck.
   
Nah, just kidding. Most people are smarter than most ducks. As upright bipeds, most of us have years of experience walking. Walking with snowshoes is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. There are only a few pointers to keep in mind, and the main one is this: Avoid crossing the tails of the shoes. For more advice, visit the Web sites listed at the end of this story. Snowshoeing takes just a little practice – you’ll get the hang of it faster than when you learned to walk the first time.

#3. Snowshoes allow you to float on the surface of the snow.
   
True – mostly.
The snowshoes’ wide platforms disperse your weight and allow you to stay on top of the snow pack. When the snow is several feet deep you may sink in a few inches to the first crust, but the snowshoes will keep you from sinking farther. If you’ve ever had to walk through 2-foot-deep snow drifts you know how energy-draining that exercise can be.

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The Crescent Moon Gold Series 12 snowshoes are made for running or performance snowshoeing. Running on snowshoes – now there’s a recipe for winter fitness!
Photo by (courtesy of) manufacturer
#4. One size fits all.
   
False.
Big, tall, small. Man, woman and child. There are snowshoes for every size and for both sexes.
   
Since snowshoeing has gotten so popular, competition for your recreation dollar has heated up too. Manufacturers have created snowshoe models specifically designed for every gender, size and intended use. Gender: Women’s snowshoes aren’t just smaller versions of men’s styles but designed to reflect gender-specific biomechanics and body size statistics. Size: A snowshoe with more surface area can support a heavier person. Use: Shoes are tailored for recreation, adventure (hiking/backpacking) and running (yes, running in snowshoes).
   
If you visit the Web sites listed at the end of the article, most of the companies present a similar survey that will help you determine which snowshoe is best for you. It’s like a test (without the number 2 pencil) and it’s less taxing than a Cosmo sex survey – but not as revealing! The surest way to find out which shoes are right for you is to visit a specialty outdoor gear store and pester a salesperson with your questions.

#5. The best use for a pair of snowshoes is to hang them above the fireplace.
    
True and False.
Sorry, trick question. Your great grandfather’s antique snowshoes do look great above the fireplace; the rusticity of white ash wood strips, rawhide lacings, metal buckles and leather bindings fit well into almost any cabin décor motif.
   
But the best place for today’s wooden and aluminum snowshoes is attached to your boots, outdoors, on the snow. Exploring the winter world with snowshoes is a truly amazing experience.

#6. A 2004 Lexus is to the Model T as today’s aluminum-framed snowshoes are to the old woodies.
   
True. Well, not quite; that was a trick question. Today it’s all about technology. Although the basic idea has remained the same for centuries, construction methods, materials and bindings have changed significantly. We’re talking about both aluminum and wooden showshoes.
   
Wooden snowshoes are still available, and have benefited from technology, too. Decking has evolved from shellacked rawhide ropes to high tech plastic materials like Hypolon or TGS. The new decking materials are lighter, tougher and shed snow faster than rawhide lattices. New bindings are easier to use and stay in precise adjustment compared to the leather bindings that stretched when wet. Pivoting crampons help you stay in control in all kinds of snow and ice surfaces.
   
High-tech snowshoes are constructed of lightweight aircraft aluminum frames; bindings inspired by alpine skiing and bicycling; high flotation, abrasion-resistant plastic decking; and advanced crampons for improved traction on ice and crusty snow. Today more than 30 manufacturers offer a wide range of styles and shapes.
   
The biggest difference you will notice is the frames. The new aircraft-grade aluminum frames are welded for strength and durability. Most manufacturers powder-coat the frames in a wide palette of colors, so now you can color coordinate your snowshoes with your favorite winter jacket.

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Photo by (courtesy of) www.snowshoe.com
#7. If wooden snowshoes were good enough for my ancestors, they’re good enough for me.
    
True.
Don’t fret, my friend. If you prefer the traditional look and aesthetics of wood snowshoes, companies like Iverson, Country Ways and Tubbs sell a variety of wood models. Wooden snowshoes will last a long time – longer than their owner’s life-span – with proper care and maintenance such as putting on a fresh coat of polyurethane sealer and using new neoprene lacing. Besides, wooden shoes are quieter in the woods; they won’t scrape and ping on icy snow like aluminum shoes. And they do look great with that favorite black and red checked wool coat that you can’t bear to part with.

#8. You have to be a seasoned, woodsy craftsman to make a pair of good wooden snowshoes.
    
False.
Most of the companies that sell wood snowshoes also offer build-them-yourself kits.
   
Building a pair of snowshoes with your own hands is a wonderful winter project. The job requires just a few simple tools and a few Saturday afternoons. No need to be a master craftsman.
   
After a light sanding of the ash frames, the biggest and most time-consuming job is threading the nylon laces. Keep the college basketball game turned off and pay attention or you will be starting over. Finish the job with three coats of varnish and you will have a beautiful set of snowshoes that you can some day hand down to your grandkids. With a little care, these shoes will last a lifetime.

So strap on a pair of snowshoes – whatever kind you prefer – and get outside. You’re ready for your own Jack London-style adventure around your cabin domain. Snowshoes allow you to hike into areas that may be inaccessible during summer months. That boggy swamp at the end of the lake that sucked off your boat shoes last summer is now open for winter wildlife watching and exploring.

Like a golfer who selects the right club for the shot, Lou Dzierzak chooses from a collection of old and new snowshoes as varied as winter conditions – when he’s not skiing. Lou is the editor of Cross Country Skier magazine.
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