ALBANY, N.Y. - Over the past 30 years, snowshoes have shrunk. Once resembling huge wooden tennis rackets strung with catgut, most models now are about twice the length of your boot and only a few inches wider.
Snowshoers say the design changes have revolutionized the sport, making winter hiking and backpacking more popular while drawing more endurance athletes into long-distance racing over snow.
"The market used to be people that harvested maple syrup... trappers and ice fishermen," said Richard Havlick, whose company began making snowshoes in 1965 in Mayfield, in the Adirondack foothills.
With aluminum frames about 8 inches wide and 25 inches long, most snowshoes now have plastic decking, bindings and sharp metal crampons underneath for gripping ice and hard-packed snow. A pair costs from $100 to more than $200.
Most snowshoes weigh less than two pounds each. Racing models tend to be lighter and smaller, typically worn over running shoes instead of boots. Sanctioned races require a minimum 120-square-inch functional surface, said Mark Elmore, United States Snowshoe Association sports director.
Even for backcountry hiking, they seldom are more than 10 inches wide and 36 inches long. The oval bearpaw design, with wood frames and traditional laced decking, is still preferred by a few traditionalists, especially for deep powder in open areas.
According to Adirondack guide Dennis Aprill, snowshoes were invented 6,000 years ago in Central Asia for hunters and trappers to float over deep snow, and they stayed essentially the same until the 1970s, when Sherpa Inc. introduced aluminum frames. A pivot bar at the opening where boots attach to bindings made it possible to affix crampons or cleats for traction, and the solid neoprene deck could float more weight, permitting a smaller surface.
"No longer did the snowshoer have to walk 'Popeye-like' with wide awkward 13-by-39 inch bear paws. The gait could be more natural," Aprill wrote in "Short Treks in the Adirondacks and Beyond."
Havlick recalled attending a 1977 race at Ticonderoga in the eastern Adirondacks, which commemorated the snowshoeing exploits of Rogers Rangers in the French and Indian War.
"Some teams came down from Canada. Mostly everybody was running on big old wooden snowshoes," Havlick said. "They were running and tripping and falling. It was kind of fun."
Jeff Clark of Saratoga said the racing equipment has evolved even in the past six years.
"When we first started out, everybody wore a type of snowshoe that had long pointed tails, which throw up a lot of snow," he said. "When you started a race, it looked like a snow cloud."
Racing shoes are generally more oval now, Clark said.
"It's important to make sure you have a good harness and a good support," he added. "Without a good harness, you whang the snowshoes against each ankle as you go. It's never good to come home with bruised ankles."