I’ve had the same pair of snowshoes since I was 16. I’m now 34. My wooden framed Huron style snowshoes have traversed many a trail over the years. Eighteen years is a long time for anything to last, especially in a day and age of disposable and dispensable items, but with some common sense and care mixed in with a little annual maintenance, traditional snowshoes constructed of wood and rawhide will last a lifetime.
Once snowshoeing season is over, there are a couple of basic maintenance tasks that will ensure that your snowshoes will have a long and productive life.
A yearly coat of clear varnish will help to ensure that the wooden frames and rawhide webbing of your snowshoes are preserved. If the varnish is worn off the rawhide, the webbing can become loose causing you to lose floatation, or deteriorate to the point that it will need replacing. Exposed wood will absorb moisture and weaken the frame, thus reducing the snowshoes’ lifespan. If your snowshoes have neoprene lacing, it is still necessary to varnish the wooden frame.
Before applying a coat of varnish, take a piece of medium grit sandpaper and remove loose bits of old varnish that have peeled or flaked away from the frame leaving the wood or webbing beneath exposed. Take care not to sand excessively, you’re only trying to remove loose flakes of old varnish, not weaken the frame or rawhide by sanding off the wood or webbing. When applying a coat of varnish, don’t be afraid to be generous, especially on the rawhide at the heel and along the mastercord (located near the center of the shoe beneath where you attach the bindings), as these are the areas that suffer the most wear. If time permits, let the freshly varnished snowshoes dry for 48 hours and apply a second coat.
The varnish of choice is marine spar varnish, a combination of tung oil, phenolic resin and UV inhibitors. Marine spar varnish provides a high gloss finish that flexes with the wood to help prevent cracking and is readily available at most hardware stores as either a liquid or a spray. As the name implies, marine spar varnish is used on boats to protect the wood from water and salt – ideal for snowshoes. It also contains UV inhibitors to help protect against damage from the sun. Alternately, you can use a varathane finish; just make sure that it has UV inhibitors when choosing a finish.
Storing your snowshoes probably isn’t that high on the list of concerns for caring for your snowshoes, especially if you’ve got new “maintenance free” shoes, but if you’ve got wooden shoes with rawhide or babiche lacing (if you’re lucky enough to have a hand crafted pair of traditional snowshoes), it should be right near the top of your list of things to do once the season is over. It is imperative that you store your snowshoes in a cool dry location, with adequate ventilation.
Heat and dampness are not the best combination for preserving the wooden frame or the rawhide webbing, so tossing your shoes into a corner in your dank musty basement or garage is not necessarily the ideal storage solution. Heat and dampness can cause mildew and mold to grow on the webbing, or even worse, the wooden frames can warp. And make sure that your snowshoes are stored off the ground, preferably in a location that is difficult for rodents to reach. Believe me, even a single mouse can wreak havoc on rawhide webbing. To mice and other rodents, much like your pal Rover, rawhide is a tasty treat. Personally, I’ve found that hanging my snowshoes using a couple of coat pegs in the back closet works well.
This may sound totally contradictory to everything that has been said about wooden snowshoes and moisture, but at the end of the season, it isn’t a bad idea to give your snows a gentle wash, especially if they’ve been used in a region near salt water. Salt will cause the rawhide to deteriorate. After washing, let your snowshoes air dry in an area that isn’t too hot – room temperature, 17 degrees to 20 degrees Celsius (62 degrees to 68 degrees Fahrenheit) as extreme heat can cause the frames to warp.
There are also a number of common sense tasks that you should perform during snowshoe season to ensure that your snowshoes remain in good shape. The first is to check your shoes for damage after each time you use them. Look for abrasions and cracks in the varnish and frames. Just like at the end of the season, if the varnish has been scraped or peeled of the rawhide webbing, they will require varnishing. Before applying a coat of varnish drying out your snowshoes is essential. Again, take care not to expose your snowshoes to high temperatures when drying.
If time permits, it would be a good idea to apply a second coat over the damaged area. If the frames have suffered a minor crack, the frame can be reinforced by wrapping the damaged area with cloth tape, or if necessary splinted with a thin strip of aluminum and then wrapped with cloth tape. For heavily damaged snowshoes it is best to contact the snowshoes’ manufacturer.
Following these basic maintenance and storage techniques will not guarantee that your snowshoes will outlive you to be passed on to a new generation of snowshoe enthusiasts, but it will certainly aid your snowshoes in achieving a long and useful career out on the trail.
Captions for Traditional Snowshoe Care and Maintenance
Photo No. 1: The rawhide decking has deteriorated and snapped, and the varnish has worn away leaving the frame exposed due to a lack of care.
Photo No. 2: The snowshoe on the left has received a regular coat of varnish and proper storage (notice the bright color of the frames and intact decking), the one on the left however, has not, causing the rawhide to snap and the frame to warp.