Saturday, October 25, 2008

Getting Ready for Snow!

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about snowshoeing and winter camping. In fact, I'm quite anxious for a good dump of snow. The perfect winter is one that transfers quickly from paddling season to winter with some cold weather to sart (to yield thick ice), then lots of snow and mild temperatures of -10 to -20C. Temperatures of higher than -10C are not good for cycling as the packed snow surface gets soft and turns to a loose but dense mess that is bad for biking through. To get a good base for skiing, a couple of decent snows is required, so the sooner that occurs after the lakes have frozen, the better (from a recreational point of view).

I haven't gone winter camping in quite a few years, but I want to get out there again this year. In the past I have traveled by ski and snowshoe. My experience snowshoeing with a load (sled or backpack) has not gone all that well. The worst experience was on rented shoes of the "modern" style, small but light with crampons underneath. The sales pitch for these snowshoes is that the solid decking gives more surface area to support you on the snow than the open weave webbing "babiche" of a traditional pair of snowshoes. That is a load of hooey. It's not the immediate surface area that counts, it's how far across the snowbank your weight is dispersed. I weigh 200 pounds, a snowshoe that is 8" x 25" is not going to support me on anything softer than a well-traveled skidoo trail. I had gone into Prince Albert National Park in order to travel the "Freight Trail". The snow was about 3 feet deep and covered in a crust. The crust would not support my full weight and I would crash through the crust with each step. I recall the icy crust beating against my shins and thighs. Then, as I stepped forward, I had to pull my foot and the snowshoe back up through that same crust. It made for a frustrating experience. Traveling on a moderately wide ski was a bit better. Then on a later trip, I borrowed a pair of "Sherpa Snow Claw" snowshoes. These were still of a design using a vinyl deck and aluminum frame, but were much larger. I don't recall the exact dimensions, but they were probably 10" x 36" or so. On that trip I headed again to Prince Albert National Park, but into the Fish Lake region. That time, my success with the snowshoes was better, but still not ideal.

Based on these experiences, and other experiences with aluminum-framed snowshoes, I decided I wanted to go to a much larger shoe, probably a traditional wood framed design. I had considered purchasing traditional or "hybrid" snowshoes from a variety of sources (GV, Faber, Country Ways, Snowshoe Sales & Repairs), and had settled on a long and narrow design like the "Ojibwa", "yukon", or "elongated bearpaw" styles (as opposed to the more familiar wide "huron" style). I was also seriously considering building my own snowshoes, a process that involves first building a jig to form the steam-bent wood, then after the frame has been built, lacing the webbing with babiche, nylon cord, or heavy fishing line. I even ordered the highly recommended book by Gil Gilpatrick, Building Snowshoes and Snowshoe Furniture, and while I was at it I got his book Building Outdoor Gear too.

I had been looking for used snowshoes, but did not think I was going to find them in good shape for a good price. Then, this week I came across someone selling 5 pair of snowshoes in the local kijiji advertisements. I called the fellow up and a couple hours later I was the proud owner of not one, but two pair of ash-frame and babiche laced snow shoes! Other than needing a coat of varnish, both pair appear to be in great shape.

The big ones are Ojibwa style which has the frame pointed on each end and quite a long toe. The overall length is just shy of 60", they are 12" wide, and they are marked as being the brand "Kabir Kouba." Of this general style of snowshoe, Dave Hadfield (canoeist, snowshoer, pilot, and brother of Chris Hadfield) says:
If you're hiking all day, going the distance, in unpacked snow, the longest, skinniest ones you can find are the best -- paticularly if you're punching through brush or crusty snow. You want something shaped more like a ski than anything. And a pointed tip helps a lot. I use a set like these for breaking trail.... But for campwork, like when you're setting up the tent in 3 ft of soft snow, or cutting poles, or getting firewood, a set of roundish bearpaws is best because it is so easy to turn around in them.... On a trip where I feel I can afford the weight of 2 sets, or if there are several people in the party and a spare pair is judged a good idea, I take along the first 2 types mentioned above. It's very nice to use the shoe that best does the job.
So here are my new 12" x 60" Ojibwa snowshoes.

The babiche (rawhide) lacing of both pair appears to be in good shape, with a bit of wear evident on the bottoms.

Here are the 10" x 35" elongated bearpaw snowshoes.
Again, they appear to be in decent shape with a bit of wear, but no manufacturer's mark is evident. This pair appears to have been more recently varnished. In the picture below you can see the profile of the snowshoe. It is not simply flat with an upturned toe but has a bit of curvature under the heel.

Both pair have simple leather bindings. From what I have read so far online, the bindings seem to be the main disadvantage of traditional snowshoes in that they don't prevent lateral movement as well as the bindings found on more modern snowshoes (which also often incorporate crampons). I may consider replacing a pair of the bindings. The Faber "Work" binding has been recommended, and my local retailer will have them in stock in November for around $50. However, the GV Snowshoes "3R" binding looks ideal. In the latter case, I'm not sure where to purchase them or how much they would cost (MEC was provided as my local dealer).

These two pair of snowshoes allow both my wife & I to go out at the same time, or for me to pick and choose my shoes based on the conditions. For camping, I could use the big Ojibwa shoes to break trail and haul the sled to camp, and the more maneuverable elongated bearpaws could be used around camp for setting up, collecting firewood, etc. I actually also have a third pair of snowshoes, one given to me by a friend several years ago. That pair is of a traditional racket-shaped Huron style, 12" x 45" including the tail, but they are youth's (teenager?) snowshoes and as such are too small for my overweight bulk. However, in a few more years they'll probably work well for my kids.

Friend and fellow canoeist and canoe builder, Mark Lafontaine started the Saskatoon Snowshoe Club last winter. Now that I officially own three pair of snowshoes, I guess I better join.

As I write, there is a 40% chance of flurries overnight, and a 30% chance for tomorrow. We're getting closer!
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  1. Caheck out for sound information on winter camping. There are articles, advice, trip photos, gear reviews and some humorous items as well.

  2. Thanks for the tip Jim. For others that are interested, there is also the forum at

  3. By the way, I finally got out on my snowshoes last week for about an hour one night. I used the ojibwa shoes while my friend Rob used the elongated bearpaws. We went to a local golf course and wandered from copse of trees to hollow to "water hazard" in an effort to find the deepest snow and the least flat terrain. Both seemed to work really well and I was very happy with the ojibwas. There wasn't really enough snow to test them extensively, but still we were able to get a feel for the bindings, what they were like to walk with, etc. The one issue I had was with the bindings - I'm not sure I have them set up correctly as my foot slid forward so that it would be hitting the cross-piece in front of the toe.

  4. Do you know of any resource for teaching how to deck a snowshoe? I can't figure out exactly how it is supposed to be done. Thanks

  5. Yup. The book by Gil Gilpatrick is the best resource that I know of. I have the book and his writing style is not the easiest to follow at times, but if you follow the pictures step by step it becomes more clear when actually doing it. This is according to two friends that have borrowed the book from me, I haven't used it for myself yet. I've read the book, and his canoe building book, but I haven't made my own snowshoes yet.

    Building Snowshoes and
    Snowshoe Furniture
    by Gil Gilpatrick

    One of the fellows that borrowed the book used it this summer to build his own snowshoes. You can read about Mark's experience here.