My husband and I utilize both snowshoes and ice cleats. When strapping either on to do chores, I thank our ancestors. Many people go snowshoeing for fun and exercise. Other people—such as hunters and trappers—consider them a tool. We see them as a bit of both.
Depending on weather conditions (and your energy level), snowshoeing can feel just like floating on snow (if you can pick up a good pace). If you are wearing a lightweight design, a wide-open field can be easy to cross. However, it is unlikely that the first people to snowshoe used the word “easy” in regard to wearing or using them.
Over 6,000 years ago, our ancestors from Asia strapped slabs of wood on their feet, in order to hunt and move over deep snow. Modifications to the original crude design happened over time, as the human race migrated to other continents. Snowshoes evolved from three main patterns (bear paw, beavertail, and long Yukon style) into the current man-made-material and lighter, ash-wood models.
Snowshoes were quite heavy up until the mid-1900s. There was no floating. Just keeping a person from sinking way down into the snow was considered a success. Earlier designs also came with traction issues on inclines and simply keeping them on one’s feet was a challenge due to binding issues. Humans continue to upgrade and modify snowshoes in an attempt to eliminate any and all barriers to walking on snow-covered terrain.
Ice cleats appear to have a longer history. Findings go as far back as the Viking Era (800 AD-1100 AD). The oldest cleats can be viewed at a museum in Sweden. Over time ice cleats have been modified and used by myriad people including the military, hunters, and your average person. They are a means to stay upright on icy surfaces. They are not crampons, which are worn by ice climbers, and are much more aggressive in design and performance.
Although I grew up in New England, winter became my enemy when I fell twice in one season. I broke my right wrist and right ulna. Had surgery. Wore a titanium external fixture for months (basically a metal cage screwed into my arm) and had months and months of post-op physical therapy. Despite all of that, my wrist never healed properly. I vowed to never fall on the ice again… if I could help it.
Since then, a fear of falling made me less adventurous during winter. Until we created our small farm; then, I was forced to go outside regardless of the weather. Getting to and from house to barn or house to coops—lugging warm water and feed—was necessary. I had near misses… lots of heart-thumping slips. My guy took more falls than I cared to witness. We had to find a way to do our chores and not end up in the hospital.
Four winters ago, my guy bought me snowshoes for Christmas. They were not huge wooden boats like I imagined; they were small and lightweight. Pretty, too. I wasn’t convinced they would work, but I allowed him to strap them out my feet and tug me across our property.
After a lap around our entire property—me flailing a bit at first—I was hooked.
As for cleats/ spikes, I was also introduced to them four years ago. Again, thanks to my guy. I loved them immediately! There was no learning curve. I had to try a couple of different pairs of boots before finding a pair that they fit best on, but other than that, they were amazing from day one.
With both devices, an entirely new world opened up to me. Winter was no longer my enemy.
Now, when the first arctic temperatures are in the forecast, our snowshoes and spikes are hung right by the woodstove. We both have two pairs of each. We are ready.
Types of Snowshoes: Wooden, Composite, Aluminum
Snowshoe Parts: Learn what each part is and what it does. There are toe and heel crampons underneath for traction, side rails for stability. Bindings keep them on your feet. Read and learn as much as possible about the straps and bindings so you can attach and adjust them easily. Some snowshoes have lifts and breaking bars.
Fit: Snowshoe specs are important. Read them. If you get a pair without them, research them or contact the manufacturer. Your weight is crucial to determining what size you need. Try to weigh the coat, snow pants, and other gear you normally wear-along with any backpacks you might wear.
What type of terrain will you normally be traveling over? Will it be deep powder or hard-packed and icy? Larger snowshoes are best for deep snow, while smaller snowshoes are needed for hard-packed/icy terrain
We usually don larger snowshoes right after a snowstorm when it is deep and fluffy, but, within days, we switch to smaller snowshoes as dogs, cows, goats, tractors, 4-wheelers, and foot traffic pack down the snow.
Extras: If we are breaking trail in deep snow with larger snowshoes, we use hiking poles to keep our balance. Once we have a trail and switch to smaller snowshoes, hiking poles are less necessary. Also, at that point, we are usually carrying buckets or animal supplies and need hands for that.
Types of Ice Traction Devices: They are called many things: ice cleats, grips, spikes, traction aids, ice and snow grips…but they are basically all the same thing- a device to help one walk on snow and/or ice.
Cost: $8- $80 (On average under $25)
Ice Traction Parts: They are basically metal chains and spikes, or plastic/manmade material nubs attached to stretchy straps or ratchet buckles that fit onto boots/shoes.
Fit: Buy according to the size of the shoe or boot you will be normally attaching them to. Decide what type of terrain you will be traveling on: sidewalks/ city environment, country environment /dirt paths, etc.
Read specs on what terrain, what temperature, what shoe size each ice traction device is intended.
Someone walking on city streets with a lot of foot traffic will have different needs than someone walking on hard-packed ice with little foot traffic. One person may need a less intense pair to slip over sneakers, while another person may need a more aggressive pair to attach to boots.
I have two pairs, one with short spikes, one with longer. I choose what pair to wear depending on the conditions outside.
I’m still not a huge fan of winter, but I am now at least smarter when it comes to caring for our critters in winter. I no longer hate winter in general. I have made friends with this important season. Despite that accomplishment, I doubt ice will truly ever be my best friend. I am aware of what one fall can do to a body. I still vow to never fall again if I can help it.
Top-rated Ice Cleats
Best High-end: Yaktrax Summit Heavy Duty Traction Cleats
Best Mid-grade: Due North All Purpose Traction Aid
Best Inexpensive: Due North Everyday G3 Ice and Snow Traction Aid