How to Make Snowshoes: New England Native American Styles

Learn how to make your own traditional-style snowshoes with these diagrams and instructions for constructing and lacing the frames.

| November/December 1990

High-tech, mass-produced snowshoes are available from just about any outdoor sporting-good retailer these days, but the handmade snowshoe is one piece of ancient technology that is still just as effective today as it was when it was first invented. With these diagrams and instructions, based on examples from the Museum of Natural History in New York City, you can teach yourself how to make snowshoes in traditional New England Native American styles, using only simple materials.

It's possible—just possible—that the Paleo-Indians wore snowshoes to invade the American continent. After all, they were in use in Asia before America was peopled. Once over the iced-in Bering Strait and into Alaska, the snowshoe would have permitted hunting on the receding glaciers. Floundering mastodons, mammoths, musk-ox, beaver, elk and deer could be tracked, surrounded and dispatched.

These ancient snow feet gradually became known eastward. Probably of solid wood, they generally had a toe hole, crossbars to reinforce the underside, and side frames. Each tribe adapted the wooden plank to its own liking, resulting in a variety of sizes and shapes. Although this slow and awkward winterwear may still be found, the bear paw snowshoe that followed was far and away the better answer to the drifting snows of New England.

Two main types of shoe developed: the short, tailless bear paw (best for rough, wooded terrain) and a longer, narrow bear paw with a tail. The latter type is most appropriate for open country and racing.

Early on, the bear paw was simply a round or oval frame that was bent from a branch with the ends lashed together. The filling was of rawhide strips—sometimes strips of bark or pieces of vine—woven in an unsystematic way and attached to the frame by wrapping. The earliest bear paw had no toe hole (that was a later development) and was lashed firmly to the foot. Worn as big, flat shoes, each had to be lifted and lowered as occurs with ordinary walking.

The invention of the toe hole allowed the snowshoe to be dragged instead of the exhausting raising of each shoe. Thongs were secured to the ball of the foot, to the toe hole, then brought behind the heel. In this way the heel could be raised while the toes were lowered while walking.

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