How to Make Snowshoes in the Forest: Emergency Primitive Snowshoes

Imagine that you find yourself stranded in the woods in the middle of winter. A recent storm has brought fresh piles of snow. After taking care of immediate needs of food, water, shelter, and warmth, what are the next steps to take?

Enter snowshoes. An emergency pair of snowshoes made in the forest could save your life and allow you to traverse over winter terrain, from gathering supplies to transporting yourself to safety.

Hopefully you never face this situation, but for those interested in primitive technology, it can be a fun exercise knowing how to make snowshoes with limited supplies. Snowshoes provide an efficient means of transportation over snow and ice.

For this article, we interviewed Brian Theriault, an expert craftsman who has spent decades perfecting his craft and learning the history of snowshoe-making. To learn more, Brian and his company Theriault Snowshoes are included as featured in our article “Traditional Wooden Snowshoes Made in Maine”.

Steps for making primitive snowshoes of emergency snowshoes in the forest

According to Brian, the general steps for making a primitive style of snowshoes include the following steps:

  1. First, understand the general process for how traditional snowshoes are made.
  2. Then, start by locating a source of wood for the frames.
  3. Next, bend the frame – ideally by using steam from a fire.
  4. Use a tree as a standing mold
  5. Find any animal skin, remove hair and flesh from the hide, and cut 1” strips of rawhide for the lacing.
  6. If an animal hide cannot be sourced, then create the lacing out of cattails, bark, or small tree roots for weaving

How feasible is it to make snowshoes in the forest?

It would certainly be a challenge to build snowshoes with limited resources and other survival needs to prioritize. However, it would certainly be possible, especially if you had prior experience building snowshoes.

Brian envisions these steps to make an Ojibwa-style snowshoe which consists of two pieces of wood which are secured together at the top and bottom. 

It would be helpful to start with a basic understanding of the process for how snowshoes are constructed beforehand. There are many great books on the topic of how to make traditional snowshoes (Brian has written different books on the topic).

What would be used for materials to make snowshoes in the forest?

The key materials to gather would be wood for the frame and either animal skin or some other type of natural material for the webbing/lacing.

For the frame, gather two young hardwood tree saplings such as ash trees that are about 1″ in diameter. Then strip off all the bark and any branches.

Next, apply pressure to the center of the wood until the front ends begin to bend into curves. Using steam from an open fire would help during this step. Then pick a standing tree and use that as a fast mold to provide the final shape for the frame.

For the webbing/lacing which is used to secure the frame together and provides a strap to secure your feet, an ideal material is any big animal skin. This would likely be found by searching for a deceased animal, and scraping off the hair and the flesh. 

To complete the snowshoes, make a cutting spot and cut 1″ wide rawhide strips. Then, weave these strips around the centers and ends of the frame. If an animal skin cannot be found, then weaving together cattails, bark, or small tree roots could be used as an alternative.

How long would it take to build this style of snowshoe?

Brian estimates that it would take about one week for a single person to complete this process, including gathering all materials. These snowshoes would then last for the entire winter.

This process could be improved by using primitive tools or rocks  that could also be fashioned in the forest. Making these simple tools might delay the process slightly, but make it easier to complete.

Conclusion

In North America, the process for making snowshoes was originally learned from several Native American tribes who created elaborately crafted snowshoes to aid their lifestyles in winter. 

Drawing upon these methods while simplifying a few steps could produce an emergency transportation method of snowshoes.

Another style of primitive snowshoe would be the Roycroft-style snowshoe, which is just a few horizontal pieces of wood secured to small tree branches that lie vertically. Instead of making a webbing or lacing, these makeshift style snowshoes could be made faster but would not be as durable.
To learn more about the process of making traditional snowshoes, visit the Theriault Snowshoes website.