One of the best childhood gifts I can remember was a set of wooden snowshoes. For someone like me, who spent so much time wandering around in the woods building fires and snow caves and following animal tracks, it was the perfect gift. Soon I was off the roads and snowmobile tracks and going anywhere I wanted without slogging up to my waist in snow. I found I could also get to places that were were barely accessible even in the summer. Beaver bogs, swamps, and the far side of the river all were now opened up, and the world became quite a bit bigger.
Snowshoes first appeared in central Asia sometime around 4000 B.C. But in the Old World they remained rudimentary devices of limited function because skis were evolving into the primary means of winter travel. It was the American Indians who were the truly great snowshoe innovators -- Cree, Huron, Algonquin, Iroquois, and others. Each tribe had its own materials and methods, and hundreds of designs and styles developed, adapted to a myriad of conditions. Many were intricate and beautiful and of outstanding craftsmanship. Thus the snowshoe became uniquely identified with North America. And its importance can hardly be overstated, because without snowshoes much of the forested temperate zone would have never been settled by the aboriginal peoples. Later, the early immigrants traded for snowshoes or persuaded the Natives to teach them how to make their own.
Unlike snowboarding or skiing, snowshoeing is hardly technical and can generally be started and even mastered by anyone able to walk. It is affordable and safe, makes nice trails, and moves at a pace manageable for companion dogs. I believe the unique mechanism of snowshoeing in unpacked snow strengthens the tibialis anterior muscle in a way that protects against runners' shinsplints. And when snowshoers use ski poles, they keep their rotator cuff muscles in good condition. It's an exercise of moderate intensity appropriate for a wide age range. And it truly is the best way to get around off the beaten path all winter long.
Most of the snowshoes now sold are made of plastic and lightweight metal. A starter pair costs around $75, and a really nice set about three times as much. But because there's no lift ticket to buy, and very little (if any) to spend on gas, it's an investment many people can afford. With reasonable care, most snowshoes are fairly durable.
Maybe I'm just a stubborn traditionalist, but after trying several types of snowshoes I always come back to my wooden Iversons, made of straight-grained white ash steamed and bent, strung with about 100 feet of rawhide, and secured with supple leather bindings. Because they are long they provide great loft, which is important in powdery dry western snow. They don't squeak or rattle. They are repairable. And I can't help liking the way they look. When I'm about 94 and have taken my last long winter walk, I plan to restring them and pass them along to someone with younger legs, hopefully a great grandson or daughter who is a snowshoe freak like me.