Traditional Snowshoe Care and Maintenance

I’ve had the same pair of snowshoes since I was 16, and I’m now 34. Over those years, 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. However, with some common sense and care, mixed in with a little annual maintenance, traditional snowshoes constructed of wood and rawhide will last a lifetime.

traditional snowshoes standing up in deep snow

By taking care of your wooden snowshoes, you can ensure they last for years to come. Photo: Shutterstock / Aaron J Hill

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End of Season Traditional Snowshoe Maintenance

Once the 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.

Varnish

At the end of the season, a yearly coat of clear varnish to both the wooden frame and rawhide webbing will help preserve your traditional snowshoes.

Without varnish, the webbing can become loose, which causes you to lose floatation in deep snow. Or, unvarnished webbing can deteriorate to the point that it will need replacing. Furthermore, exposed and unvarnished wood will absorb moisture and weaken the snowshoe frame, thus reducing the lifespan of your snowshoes.

Keep in mind that even if your snowshoes have neoprene lacing, it is still necessary to varnish the wooden frame.

Read More: Traditional Snowshoe Bindings 101

Recommended Materials

In addition to medium-grit sandpaper, you’ll also need to choose a varnish. My 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. Thus, it’s ideal for snowshoes. It also contains UV inhibitors to help protect against damage from the sun.

Alternatively, you can use a varathane finish. Just make sure that the finish has UV inhibitors when choosing one for your snowshoes.

Steps To Apply Varnish

  1. Before applying a coat of varnish, take a piece of medium-grit sandpaper.
  2. Use the sandpaper to 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.
  3. Then, apply the varnish to the frame and webbing. When applying a coat of varnish, don’t be afraid to be generous. Be exceptionally generous on the rawhide at the heel and along the mastercord, located near the center beneath where you attach the bindings. These areas tend to suffer the most wear.
  4. Ideally, if time permits, let the freshly varnished snowshoes dry for 48 hours.
  5. Finally, apply a second coat, repeating steps 3 and 4.

Read More: How To Care For Wood-Frame Snowshoes

traditional snowshoe with snapped rawhide

The rawhide decking has deteriorated and snapped. Plus, the varnish has worn away, leaving the frame exposed due to a lack of care. Photo: Craig Gillespie

Traditional Snowshoe Storage

Storing your snowshoes probably isn’t that high on the list of concerns related to caring for your snowshoes. However, if you’re lucky enough to have a handcrafted pair of traditional snowshoes, such as wooden snowshoes with rawhide or babiche lacing, storage is critical. It should be near the top of your list of traditional snowshoe care once the season is over.

Where To Store Your Snowshoes

You must store your snowshoes in a cool, dry location with adequate ventilation.

Heat and damp areas are not the best combinations for preserving the wooden frame or the rawhide webbing of your traditional snowshoes. So, tossing your shoes into a corner in your dank, musty basement, or garage is not necessarily the ideal storage solution.

Moreover, heat and dampness can cause mildew and mold to grow on the webbing. Or even worse than that, the wooden frames can warp.

How To Store Your Snowshoes

Wherever you store your traditional snowshoes, make sure that they are stored off the ground, preferably in a location that is difficult for rodents to reach. To mice and other rodents, much like your pal Rover, rawhide is a tasty treat.

But, believe me, even a single mouse can wreak havoc on rawhide webbing. I’ve found that hanging my snowshoes using a couple of coat pegs in the back closet works well.

Prep Before Storing

This step may sound contradictory to everything that has been said about wooden snowshoes and moisture. However, at the end of the season and before varnishing, it isn’t a bad idea to give your traditional snowshoes a gentle wash, primarily if you’ve used them in a region near saltwater.

Salt will cause the rawhide to deteriorate. After washing, let your snowshoes air dry in an area that isn’t too hot. Typically, room temperatures of 17 to 20 degrees C (62 to 68 degrees F) works well, as extreme heat can cause the frames to warp.

traditional snowshoe care: comparison of two snowshoes, one with proper care and one without

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. In contrast, the snowshoe on the right, however, has not. Improper care caused the rawhide to snap and the frame to warp. Photo: Craig Gillespie

In-Season Traditional Snowshoe Care

There are also several practical tasks that you should perform during snowshoe season to ensure that your snowshoes remain in good shape.

Regularly Check For Damage

The first task is to check your traditional snowshoes for damage after each time you use them. Look for abrasions and cracks in the varnish and frames.

Varnish During The Season (If Needed)

If the varnish has been scraped or peeled off the rawhide webbing, your snowshoes will require varnishing. However, before applying a coat of varnish, it’s essential first to dry out your snowshoes. Just like when storing, take care not to expose your snowshoes to high temperatures when drying.

When varnishing in season, it would be a good idea to apply a second coat over the damaged area, if time permits.

Reinforce Any Cracks

If the frames have suffered a minor crack, you can reinforce the frame by wrapping the damaged area with some cloth tape.  Or, if necessary, the break can be splinted with a thin strip of aluminum and then covered with some cloth tape.

For heavily damaged snowshoes, it is best to contact the snowshoes’ manufacturer.

snowshoer wearing traditional snowshoes walking away and leaving snowshoe tracks

After each snowshoe outing, it’s essential to check your wooden snowshoes for damage to the frame and webbing. Photo: Shutterstock / angelshot

Take Care of Your Traditional Snowshoes

Following these basic maintenance and storage techniques will undoubtedly aid your snowshoes in achieving a long and useful career out on the trail.

How do you take care of your wooden snowshoes? Do you have any other recommendations? Let us know in the comments below!

Read Next:
Making Your Own Snowshoes From Scratch
Maine Guide Snowshoes: The Real Deal of Traditional Snowshoes
Snowshoes & The Canadian First Nations

Article updated April 2020, format changes and photo/ link additions

About the author

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Craig Gillespie

Craig Gillespie is a freelance writer, residing in Winnipeg, Canada (Winterpeg to some), in a 100-year old home with his wife, three children, and the mice that seem to magically appear, like clockwork, each Fall. He has a passion for long run-on sentences, and all thing outdoors.