Traditional snowshoe shapes, designs, and names

Snowshoe Morphology and Design Features

morphology. Shape, form, external structure or arrangement, esp. as an object of study or classification.1

Design features

Frame shape. Except for those which are either solid-bodied (such as those made from a single plank of wood or from injection molded plastic) or emergency devices made from bundled boughs, snowshoes include a one or two piece frame within and upon which additional components are attached. The frame shape as seen from above tends to be the most distinctive identifying feature for raquettes. Common shapes include ovular, lenticular (lens-shaped), teardrop, and rectangular. Less commonly, snowshoe frames approach a round shape or are footed (i.e., one of the two is designed to be worn on the left foot and the other to be worn on the right).

Lenticular and ovular frame shapes.

Teardrop frame shape.

The frame as seen from the side may be either flat or upturned at one or more points. The front end/nose is the point at which an upturn is most likely to be seen.

The nose upturn seen here is more than slight, less than extreme.

Another distinctive feature of snowshoes is the shape at their ends (or lack of ends in the case of round snowshoes). The two extremes in front end/nose shape are those of a line bounded by 90° angles and of a cusp. That is, they may take the form of a straight edge or of a point, with a two piece frame design lending itself to the formation of a cusp.

As with the front, the back end of a snowshoe may be rectangular, rounded, or come to a point. A protuberant tail may or may not be present as the rearmost component. If the tail is relatively small in relation to the snowshoe as a whole it is referred to as either a swallowtail (if coming to a point) or a beavertail (if rounded). A relatively long tail in relation to the snowshoe as a whole which comes to a point and which contains no webbing along the majority of its length is sometimes referred to as a ‘trailer.’

Crossbar(s). Most snowshoes making use of a frame include at least one slat running side-to-side between the inner edges of the frame, known as a crossbar. A common configuration includes two crossbars, with one placed near the front end and known as the toe-bar and the other near the back end and known as the heel bar. Configurations including more than two crossbars typically includes a toe bar and a heel bar with the remaining crossbars utilized as spacers. Snowshoes making use of a single crossbar may see it placed 1) as a toe bar or 2) roughly along the minor axis.

The toe bar and heel bar are indicated on this Snocraft elbow snowshoe.

Named snowshoe varieties

Snowshoes come in a variety of conventionally named styles.2

Elbow. An elbow snowshoe, using the strictest sense of the term,3

  1. has an ovular frame,
  2. lacks a tail/trailer,
  3. has a slightly upturned or flat nose, and
  4. incorporates both a toe bar and a heel bar.

Elbow snowshoes are a good choice for those who spend time in dense undergrowth where tailed snowshoes are apt to snag in deadfall and underbrush.

Elbow snowshoes by Snocraft.

Bearpaw. A bearpaw snowshoe, using the strictest sense of the term:

  1. has an ovular frame,
  2. lacks a tail/trailer,
  3. incorporates a toe bar, and
  4. lacks a heel bar.

At some point in the past the scope of the term expanded such that it has come to encompass all tailless wood frame snowshoes. In past times, the majority of snowshoes now marketed as bearpaws would have been referred to as elbows.

Modified bearpaw. The term ‘modified bearpaw’ may refer to one of two types of snowshoes. The first is of the form innovated by Floyd Westover, an ovular snowshoe with both toe and heel bars and with a swallowtail. Not surprisingly, this type of snowshoe is also known as a Westover-style snowshoe.4 The second is the type also known as a Green Mountain-style snowshoe, described immediately below.

Green Mountain. A Green Mountain snowshoe is lenticular and tailless and incorporates both a toe and a heel bar and a moderate upturn at the nose. The name is attributable to the innovation of the form at Vermont-based company Tubbs.5 The Green Mountain form is that taken by most contemporary snowshoe models making use of an aluminum frame. The narrow width decreases flotation but helps accommodate travel on narrow upland paths and is makes for convenient stowing beneath backpack compression straps.

Huron. A Huron snowshoe is teardrop-shaped with a moderately upturned nose and a distinctly long trailer in relation to its overall length and incorporates both a toe and a heel bar. Also sometimes known as the Michigan style snowshoe, this form excels on flat and rolling country covered by deep snowpack. The upturned noses help avoid digging into snowbanks followed by face plants, and the long tails help the snowshoes track straight across rolling terrain and through drifts.

Huron or Michigan snowshoes.

Ojibwe. An Ojibwe snowshoe is distinguished by its cusped and prominently upturned nose as well as its overall length, which may reach five feet. Ojibwe snowshoes incorporate a trailer and often make use of three or more crossbars. While they are not a good choice when climbing is required, Ojibwe snowshoes are excellent for use on flat ground and by large wearers and/or when bearing heavy loads.

Ojibwe snowshoes.

Ojibwe snowshoes.

Alaskan. An Alaskan snowshoe is similar to an Ojibwe snowshoe but with a rounded rather than cusped nose.

Alaskan or pickerel snowshoe.

Montagnais. A Montagnais snowshoe is markedly round with little or no upturn at the nose, approaches round, and incorporates a swallow- or beavertail. The width of this type makes for a less than natural stride, but it also contributes tremendous flotation in deep powder and drifts such as are found in the Subarctic areas where it evolved.

Authorship information

Matthew Timothy Bradley


Most recent revision: 07 December 2014

1. oed.

2. Prater, chart i and Heilman are good summaries of named snowshoe styles.

3. “Mushu Innu Bearpaw Snowshoes,” Hudson Museum.

4. See Heilman as well as Norton.

5. Pospisil.


Burgesse, j.a. “Snow shoes,” The Beaver 271: 24–28. Mar, 1941.

Davidson, Daniel Sutherland. Snowshoes. Vol. 6 in Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, 1937. oclc = 3394641.

Drummond, Thomas. “The Canadian snowshoe,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, section 2. Series 3, vol. 10: 305–20 + pl. 1–6. Dec., 1916.

Heilman, Carl, ii. “If you can walk… you can snowshoe.” 2008.

Hudson Museum, The University of Maine. Snowshoes: a gift from Gluskabe. [Online exhibition.] 2009.

Mason, Otis Tuft. “Primitive travel and transportation,” pp. 237–593 + pl. 1–25 in Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1894. Washington, 1896. (see pp. 381–410 for information on snowshoes)

Norton, Mortimer. “Outdoors,” Schenectady Gazette, February 2, 1963, 17. Available online via Google News at

oed = Oxford English Dictionary Online. “morphology, n.” September 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed November 15 2012).

Osborne, Carolyn M.; Appleby, Kristyn; Kershner, Pat. “A technical analysis of three forms of Sub-Arctic snowshoes,” Arctic Anthropology 14(2): 41–78. 1977.

Pospisil, Allan. “At Vermont Tubbs they still make snowshoes the way they used to,” Sports Illustrated 51(21): 6. November 19 1979. Available online at

Prater, Gene. Snowshoeing: from novice to master. 5th edn., Dave Felkley, ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books. 2002. oclc = 427437682.

Speck, Frank G. “Notes on the material culture of the Huron,” American Anthropologist, n.s., 13(2): 208–28 + pl. viiixi Apr.–Jun., 1911. doi: 10.1525/aa.1911.13.2.02a00020. Traditional snowshoe designs. 2012.








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