Technology is a wonderful thing, but the ornery Luddite market is not the only reason maps and compasses continue to be manufactured. (Just ask any thru-hiker.) So too with snowshoes.
The ruggedness and low maintenance of metal frame and injection molded snowshoes cannot be disputed, and for icy mountain trails they are the go-tos. But horses are for courses, and if your course regularly involves lake slush that sticks to cold metal like glue, or the pursuit of spooky deer that hear Hypalon decking squeak a mile away, you may have wondered if traditional raquettes might be worth your while.
Fear not! While some would have you believe that keeping wood frame snowshoes in working order is something akin to coaxing an orchid into bloom, with a little preventative maintenance an owner of a pair of traditionals can reliably expect years of their special function and aesthetics.
Weather Treatment: Spar Varnish and TLC
After acquiring a pair of traditional snowshoes—be they a brand new pair from a manufacturer or retailer, or a used set purchased at auction or an antique shop—it is important to weather treat them prior to use and subsequently between seasons.
This treatment consists of light sanding and lacquering with spar varnish and helps limit entry of moisture to the frames and webbing, both to avoid added weight during use by soaking the wood and babiche, and to prevent long-term damage caused by repeated swelling and drying. The treatment process requires a well-ventilated work area and the following items:
- 150 grit sandpaper
- Tack cloth
- Latex or nitrile gloves
- A flat-head screwdriver
- A paint stirrer
- Spar/marine varnish
- Foam brushes
- A drop cloth
- Two saw horses or their equivalent
A day with low relative humidity is an ideal one to begin the process as it will allow the varnish to set more quickly. Begin by giving your snowshoes a close look with the sandpaper in hand. If you spot any splinters on the frame or rough patches in the existing varnish, give them a light rub without being overly aggressive. The goal is to create a smoother surface for the application of the varnish, not to remove every single blemish and imperfection.
When you are satisfied that your sanding is done, use the tack cloth to remove the dust before moving on to the application of the spar varnish. Arrange the sawhorses atop the drop cloth at a distance from one another that will support both ends of your snowshoes, and don a pair of gloves before opening the spar varnish with the screwdriver. Give the varnish a gentle stir with the paint stirrer but avoid the creation of bubbles. Lay the snowshoes flat atop the saw horses and begin to apply the varnish. The goal is to apply a thin and uniform layer of varnish. Avoid overloading the brush with varnish and work steadily enough to insure full coverage. Be especially attentive to the toe and heel bars (the two wooden slats running between the frame) and the toe cord (the thick portion of webbing below the toe bar) as they receive more wear and tear in the course of use.
Also be sure to lacquer between and underneath the webbing on the inside of the frame. You may choose to either apply lacquer to a single side of your snowshoes and allow them to dry atop the sawhorses before flipping them over and repeating the process, or you may lacquer both sides of your snowshoes on the same day and then hang them to dry.
Given low relative humidity and moderate temperatures the lacquer should be set within three days, but in humid and/or cool conditions more time should be allowed.
Check on your snowshoes during the first day of drying to ensure that no large bubbles have formed anywhere. If they have, give them a gentle rub with a small piece of sandpaper. Otherwise, the varnish inside the bubble will be very slow in drying, creating the potential for a bare spot in the varnish at a later date.
After the first coat of varnish has set give, repeat the process, including gentle sanding as needed. A third coat of varnish would not be overkill, and is in fact recommended for newly acquired snowshoes. After the third coat is set, your racquettes should be good to go for the upcoming season! Do, however, seal up any leftover varnish well and keep your materials tucked away in an accessible place should you need to touch up any dings during the winter.
Day-to-Day Use In Season
The weather treating of wood framed snowshoes is the only time-intensive preventative maintenance required of their owners. It is nonetheless important to keep some things in mind over the course of the day-to-day use of wood framed snowshoes in season.
For one, wood frames are able to bear far less weight than do aluminum frames. Bridging boulders and deadfall may have become second nature for long time users of aluminum frame snowshoes. Users of wood frame snowshoes should be much more conservative when doing the same.
Proper storage between uses in season is also important for the long-term health of wood frame snowshoes. Do not leave your racquettes in your car or truck or strapped to your snowmobile between uses. Ideally they should be stowed in a relatively warm and airy area after removing any slush, grime, and salt with a damp cloth. This limits corrosion and allows for the evaporation rather than freezing of moisture, both of which contribute to cracks in the frame and degradation of the webbing.
Between Season Storage
Proper storage of traditional snowshoes between season consists of three steps. First, give them a proper wet cleaning beyond the between use rubdowns with a damp cloth and allow them a few days to thoroughly dry.Next, locate an airy storage space that experiences a minimum of temperature variation and never becomes truly hot. Finally, since many a critter has been known to chew through wood frames and consider babiche to be a tasty treat, make your racquettes as inaccessible as possible to them. Two ways of doing so are by suspending them, or by wrapping them, with canvas as one option for the covering. Bailey illustrates a third below. When autumn rolls around with a nice low humidity day bring them back out into the light and begin the annual round anew!