Little to no snow in April is indeed an April fool’s joke to me since there is no more snowshoeing. In Wisconsin, we do get the occasional end of season snow storm. But it melts in a couple days as warm fronts move in, and there is never enough snow to warrant putting on my snowshoes.
So, I always see April as the end of winter and time to hang up my snowshoes for the season. Although aluminum frame and plastic snowshoes do not need much maintenance or attention, traditional wood-framed snowshoes do need tender loving care.
My 18 year-old aluminum-frame Tubbs Recreational snowshoes are quite beat up from snowshoeing over and around boulders on rocky terrain in one of our Wisconsin state parks near where I live. But they are still in okay shape because I take good care of them. And my 5 year-old Northern Lites Backcountry aluminum-frame shoes are in magnificent shape because of simple maintenance practices.
My traditional snowshoes however, do need to be treated occasionally in order to keep them preserved. Most quality snowshoes should last a long time if cared for properly. So, I have some tips to help preserve your snowshoes no matter what style you use.
Prior to putting my snowshoes up for the season, I clean them. In addition to my Tubbs and Northern Lites, I use plastic MSR Denali shoes in my snowshoeing classes. To clean both styles of shoes, I put some mild dish soap in water, and with a rung-out slightly soapy dishcloth, I wipe off the deck, frame, bindings and cleats. I then wipe them down with a damp cloth and dry them with a clean dry rag. It is important to get dirt and grime off the snowshoes, but more important to get off any salt, grease or chemical residues that could damage the plastic or aluminum.
With my traditional snowshoes, I clean them as I do my other snowshoes. My Country Ways Ojibwa snowshoes have a wood frame and neoprene webbed decking. My Green Mountain modified bearpaws have a rawhide decking. At the end of each season, the decking is often dirty and I have found some signs of corrosion beginning in spots on the leather. I clean both pair with the washcloth, wipe them down and then let them air dry.
When it comes to preserving snowshoes, there is usually nothing that needs to be done to the plastic or aluminum-frame shoes. With the wood-frame snowshoes, they need preservation, especially snowshoes with leather webbing, since leather can easily dry out, rot and crack. The best advice I can give for preserving your wood-frame snowshoes, is consult the manufacturer. They will give specific advice relative to their product.
However, here is how I treat my traditional snowshoes. At the end of each season after cleaning, I will dampen a dry cloth with Formby’s Lemon Oil treatment. This ointment is primarily used for furniture, but the container states, “use regularly on all wood surfaces to help protect wood from drying and cracking.” So, I treat just the wood frame and crossbars with the solution. This application provides luster to the wood and seems to help maintain its strength. I try to keep the oil on the wood and off the leather or neoprene lacing.
To treat the rawhide webbing I use a leather waterproofing product, the same treatment I use on my leather hiking boots. And I apply it with a rag. I do not coat neoprene or other synthetic webbing however, since it would not be good for the fabric. The ends of the synthetic webbing may become frayed. A solution to preserving the neoprene-type ends is to run a match flame or lighter past it, just long enough for it to crust over…such as you would do to the end of freshly cut rope.
The above treatment of wood, leather, and synthetic webbing is my own approach and not one I found in the snowshoeing literature. So far (knock-on-wood) it has proven to be beneficial to both the frame and decking on my traditional snowshoes.
If your bindings are the “A” or “H” type made of leather, you should consider treating the bindings with leather preservatives too. I replaced the leather bindings on both pairs of my traditional snowshoes with a neoprene binding. So far, I have had no maintenance problems with them, other than some loose strings coming off now and then. I trim those with a scissors as needed.
My son-in-law inherited from his grandfather a pair of old Snowcraft bearpaw snowshoes, a product that was bought out by Maine’s Garland Manufacturing in 1950. His snowshoes are most likely over 50 years old…quite a bit older than my son-in-law; not quite as old as me however. He uses them for hiking and hunting. Outside of a broken binding strap in need of repair, the wood frame and leather have held up well over all those years. The reason is that my son-in-law takes good care of his shoes by treating both the wood and rawhide regularly.
The finish on a wood snowshoe frame can sometimes begin to wear off or peel. In this case, you may want to refinish your snowshoes. A treatment to consider using is a quality oil-based exterior varnish or a marine varnish, since they are good protectors from moisture. Polyurethane or shellac coatings are also agents to consider. And Tung oil can be an option as well. Be sure to use products that have UV inhibitors in them to guard from sunlight.
Do a little sanding on the peeled segments of the wood first. Be sure to remove the bindings before taking on this monumental task of refinishing. Coat the wood frame and rawhide webbing completely with a paintbrush or cloth. But be sure not to coat neoprene webbing. Sometimes, two or three coats may be better than one, giving ample drying time between coats.
When applying any oil base treatment, always wear rubber gloves that are chemical resistant. And when refinishing, do it in a well ventilated area with temperatures somewhere between 65 and 85. In late April, temperatures in my garage and on the back deck often fall in the lower end of that range.
Another option for refinishing your traditional snowshoes is to send them to the manufacturer and pay to have them do a professional renovation. If the company no longer exists, try contacting any company that makes traditional snowshoes and ask them what it would cost to refinish your existing shoes. Another option is to have a local furniture refinisher take on the task of refinishing your snowshoes. Either way, it may be a little pricey but well worth it in order to keep a quality pair of traditional snowshoes for many years to come.
So far I have not made major repairs to my snowshoes. I attribute this to owning good quality snowshoes and taking care of them. I did have to repair a short strip of leather on one of my modified bearpaws due to not treating the shoes for the first five years that I owned them. I was unaware of proper snowshoe care techniques at that time. They are now nearly 20 years old and doing just fine.
Repairs that you may encounter would depend on the type of snowshoe you own. If you have an aluminum frame snowshoe, you may have problems with the rivets that attach the decking to the frame. Use wire to reattach the missing links. Or consider contacting the manufacturer and ask what repairs they would do and at what cost. If you have a warranty on the shoes, take advantage of having it repaired under warranty.
Other repair problems with modern snowshoes may involve the bindings or the pivot system (the device that allows the binding to swivel on the snowshoe). These repairs may be difficult to undertake, considering the advances of modern technology applied to contemporary bindings and pivots. If you are mechanically inclined and creative, you may be able to solve the repair problem. And again, you could consider checking with the manufacturer about your repair needs as I would do, since I am not mechanically inclined.
Repairing traditional snowshoes can be a challenge. But it is more practical than repairing the aluminum snowshoes, in that you use woodworking or weaving skills rather than mechanical engineering skills. Leather can be attached and re-laced, as can nylon or neoprene ends be retied.
Once wood frames or wooden crossbars are broke, it is difficult to repair them and maintain the same strength as before. Broken wood frames can be repaired in the field with two splints and nylon cord, cloth tape or Red Green’s “handyman’s secret weapon” – duct tape. Back in the shop, you would need to repair the damage with glue and sunken bolts. Or again, send them to the manufacturer for repair. One other solution for broken wood frame snowshoes would be to mend the wood with glue only and permanently hang them over the fireplace to add ambiance to your family room.
I store my snowshoes in my basement where it is dry and relatively cool during the off seasons. I hang them from wooden beams where I can visually see them during the summer….to remind me that not too far off I will be taking them down again to go snowshoeing.
The aluminum and plastic snowshoes would be safe in most places as long as they are not exposed to moisture. The metal parts like cleats, hinges in pivots, and rivets attaching decking to the frame can rust if stored in damp or wet condition. Len McDougall, author of “The Snowshoe Handbook” writes that he puts a coat of cooking oil over the metal parts, as the oil will produce a gummy waterproof skin that protects against corrosion and can be left on through to the next season’s use.
The primary key for protecting traditional snowshoes is to also keep them dry when not in use. The wood frame shoes need to be in a place where they are moisture free to prevent mold and mildew from developing. And traditional shoes also need to be rodent-free. Mice would love to eat the leather on my modified bearpaws, and raccoons would love to chew the wood on them as well as on my Ojibwa snowshoes. If left in the garage, mice would most certainly make my shoes a meal. Raccoons have not gotten in my garage to date however.
And finally, keep snowshoes out of direct sunlight. The decking of many aluminum-frame shoes is made of neoprene or the commonly used Hypalon material which can eventually be damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Over time, it can result in cracking. Keep traditional snowshoes out of direct sunlight as well since the rays can fade and dry out wood resulting in cracking and warping, as well as bleach out leather.
Hang up shoes, but not feet
April may be the month to hang up your snowshoes for the season. But it is not a time to hang up your feet. Just as the snowshoe racing athlete cross-trains in the summer by jogging and trail running, so should the snowshoe hiking enthusiast remain active by hiking, backpacking, paddling, biking…or participating in other outdoor sports.
It is important for snowshoers to keep in shape during the non-snow seasons. A healthy policy when hanging up your snowshoes for this season is to dig out from storage your warm-weather outdoor adventure gear. Putting that gear to use will help prepare you for future snowshoeing challenges. So, when you are ready for snowshoeing next winter, you will then put on well preserved snowshoes and take to the trails with a well preserved body.