A company famous for producing top-quality racing snowshoes started more than 20 years ago, when necessity truly was the mother of invention. Redfeather snowshoes, owned by ORC Industries of LaCrosse, Wis., started in the highest city in the United States, with a triathlete’s hunger to train during the winter of 1988.
Redfeather’s signature design – the V-tail – began when a runner wanted to move faster than just getting from point A to point B in the winter, at 10,000 feet in elevation. According to the story, “he was snowbound and wanted to get out and run, so he grabbed a pair of snowshoes and bent them up and invented the Redfeather V-tail and started running around town,” said Thomas Schmitt, the company’s marketing coordinator. This began Redfeather’s reputation for excellence in technical running snowshoes. Today, the company makes snowshoes for racers and every other kind of snowshoer possible.
Redfeather still keeps up with the race by sponsoring actual snowshoe racers – including Kevin Tarras, who competes with Redfeather Vapors. Sponsoring Tarras not only helps to advertise snowshoes, it also helps Redfeather improve on the design of a high-tech snowshoe (which was voted best snowshoe by Backpacker Magazine in 2011). Engineers can examine how the shoes set up, how they function on turns and get professional feedback on performance. “We typically talk with Kevin on a weekly basis during the winter season and find out how it’s going with him, what he’s noticing, how the shoes are working for him. He’s a great resource for us,” said Schmitt. “It’s what he loves to do and he does a ton of it. He’s been great at helping us re-engineer and tweak and perfect what he’s wearing.”
But racing isn’t the only niche Redfeather occupies in the snowshoe world. Hunters can try out the Ambush snowshoe, in the Stealth series, designed for quiet movement through snow. On the other hand, the Guide is designed for really hard-core snowshoers, who break trail in deep powder for miles. “These are the snowshoes that those nice men and women wear when they come to save your butt in an avalanche,” said Schmitt.
The all-new Alpine series Ghost is an outdoorsman’s dream camouflage snowshoe, with serious crampons and white decking. “You look down and your feet are gone. You wonder where your snowshoes went,” said Schmitt. Redfeather recently introduced some new gear for kids, including Snowpaws, which leave pawprints in the snow when children tromp around, and they can pretend that a Yeti got into the backyard.
“We’ve come out with more shoes that address specific parts of the snowshoeing kingdom,” said Schmitt. One example is the Hike snowshoe for women, a western roundtail design which is a little thinner to accommodate a woman’s narrower stride, and prevents that undesirable clicking when the frames overlap. Redfeather also designed the Pace for women – as a V-tail fitness running snowshoe.
Redfeather is in the process of updating the look of many of its snowshoes, with many new, schnazzy styles coming out in retail stores this season. The company is taking a cue from the snowboard industry and they’re adding attitude to their snowshoes for their 2012-2013 lineup of gear.
But these snowshoes aren’t just about performance and style. Snowshoe enthusiasts who purchase Redfeather snowshoes can also enjoy the fact that their dollars spent help support an American-made product built by a nonprofit company with a special mission: To employ disabled workers.
“About 75 percent of our workforce is people with disabilities,” said Schmitt. “We provide people with the opportunity to experience some financial independence and on-the-job training.”
One of the reasons ORC Industries purchased Redfeather in 2003 was to provide more employment for their workforce. The company previously relied on government contracts and orders from the U.S. Department of Defense to keep workers employed, making many other handmade products, including the “Dixie-cup” hats for the U.S. Navy. Snowshoes are very labor-intensive to produce, and “these things cannot be built by machine,” Schmitt said. In addition to providing job opportunities to disabled workers, ORC Industries also offers work counseling, life-skills training and wellness education to its employees.
Despite making some serious snowshoes, the folks at Redfeather have a sense of humor and it shines through in their invitation for you to join its Winter People Society. The society’s pledge: As a winter person I do hereby happily pledge to uphold the standards of the Society. To pray for snow, no matter what my religious beliefs. To smile in the face of sub-zero windchills. To hone my skills at hot chocolate production.
Take the pledge, and you’re admitted to the Redfeather Winter People Society. “We send them an honest-to-God certificate,” Schmitt said. “These are not easy things to do. I mean, try making the perfect cup of hot chocolate. Good luck to you.”
For more information about Redfeather, visit http://www.redfeather.com.