I was at a friend’s cottage a few weeks ago. I had the run of the place, alone for a couple of days of “R and R.” I had brought my snowshoes along, hoping to head out and take advantage of the scenery and hopefully take some wildlife photos – there were rumors of a lynx prowling about the area.
I dressed, gathered my things and was all set to go when what could have been tragedy struck – the binding on one of my traditional style snowshoes snapped. I’d been using the same bindings (leather strap and buckle “A”-style bindings) on this particular pair of snowshoes (a huge pair of Huron style shoes) for as long as I can remember without incident.
Looking back, the scene was actually quite humorous – as I pulled to tighten the leather binding, the leather strap gave way and I tumbled backwards into the snow, one shoe on, one shoe off, leather strap in hand, and wound up in three feet of snow with my feet in the air. Fortunately I had more than one pair of snowshoes with me and was able to change the bindings and after dusting myself off was still able to head out into the snow (I didn’t get any Lynx shots, just tracks, but it was still a great outing), but for many this would have been the end of the road until they could get themselves new bindings.
Even though I’ve got four different styles of bindings to go with the four pairs of traditional snowshoes that I own, I never really paid much attention to them. As long as they kept the snowshoes on my feet, all was well. I never considered functionality, or gave them much more than the basic maintenance that the different styles required. But having a binding snap got me thinking about bindings in a whole new light – without bindings snowshoes are nothing more than funny shaped tennis racquets with a big hole in the middle and about as useful in the snow, as speech therapy is to a mime.
There are as many different binding styles out there for traditional snowshoes as there are snowshoes themselves (probably more), but I’m going to concentrate on the four (three really, as two are modified versions of the same type) that I’ve had first hand experience using over the years.
My introduction to snowshoes came as a teenager in the mid-80s. I was instantly hooked and asked for a pair of my own for Christmas. I still have that first pair, a gorgeous pair of Hurons (and until recently the bindings as well). The “A”-style bindings consisted of a thick leather toe piece that was buckled over both sides of the boot onto the snowshoes, and a strap that wound around the back of the foot (the offending piece that snapped) and buckled in place.
The drawback that I’ve found with using a leather strap with buckles is that when wet, the leather tends to stretch, allowing the wearer’s foot to come loose from the snowshoe. It can be such a pain to have to stop every 15 minutes to retighten the strap. I also have an “A” style binding that uses a nylon strap with a plastic clip and drawstring lace to tighten the leather toe piece. I’ve had these bindings for a couple of years now and my only complaint is that the plastic clip that tightens the toe piece has come off on occasion when I’m loosening it to remove my snowshoes, but this is simply me not paying close enough attention to what I’m doing. Of the two, my personal preference lies with the leather/nylon combination. Doing up the buckles on the leather pair in –30 degrees Celsius is never a treat; the plastic clip on the newer version is simpler and quicker to do up. The nylon strap is also an improvement, as it doesn’t stretch and come loose.
The traditional Native binding was simply a softened piece of leather that was wound around in a sort of figure eight to secure the wearer’s moccasins to his/her snowshoes. Eventually lamp wick was used in this manner. I’ve got an old pair of Huron style snowshoes that came with lamp wick for bindings. It took a while to master the technique of tying them, but once I got the hang of it, they worked out quite well. Once tied, you can simply slip your foot in and out – which is a huge plus if you should happen to lose your balance in deep snow (no buckles or straps to fiddle with).
Explaining how they are tied just isn’t the same as seeing it. Garrett and Alexandra Conover’s The Winter Wilderness Companion does an excellent job illustrating how this is done. As I mentioned in a previous article, I highly recommend picking up a copy. This style of binding tends to work best with a moccasin or high boot. With a low-cut boot it can slip up over the boot if not tied perfectly, causing your snowshoe to come loose. For traditionalists this is the way to go. It is also rather inexpensive.
The final style of binding that I’m going to cover is the “H”-style binding. The “H”-style binding that I’ve got the most experience with consists of a leather toe strap and a strap that wraps around the boot. Of the four bindings that I’ve used, this is the one that has generally given me the most grief – the leather heel strap frequently comes loose in warmer weather. On the plus side, it tends to work well with any style of boot. In general it has performed adequately, but when I compare it to the other three, it is the most troublesome.
Just a quick word on binding maintenance – if your bindings are leather, they will require treating them with a water repellant leather preservative. It’s also a good idea to keep any metal buckles lubricated – I like a silicon-based lubricant for this.
As with snowshoes, bindings are a personal preference. For me, a modified “A”-style binding works well. But the best advice that I can give you is to try out a number of styles and see what works.