In his book Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master, author Gene Prater claimed that the invention and development of snowshoes were as important to humankind as the invention of the wheel. The 6,000-year history of snowshoes places their origination in central Asia, probably as crude slabs of wood. One theory is that both snowshoes and skis developed from this technology. As it spread to the west, the wooden slabs became skis in what are now European countries. To the east, the slabs were taken across the Aleutian land bridge from Asia to North America and became snowshoes.
– Phillip Gary Smith
North America's Native American tribes further modified snowshoes to the point of their being crucial for survival. They were used extensively from the northwest across the plains to the northeast.
Usually, snowshoes were made with wood frames that had leather cords crisscrossed from side to side. Footwear was bound to the leather webbing and/or frame.
Snowshoes played important roles not only in daily life, but also figured prominently in war, enabling troop mobility in winter months that was far superior to that of non-snowshoed enemies. European settlers adopted Native American snowshoe technology, finding it just as necessary for transportation as the natives did.
Designs reflected application – that is, form followed function. Long snowshoes with emphatically turned-up toes were developed for use in powder snow in open country. Snowshoes that were narrow in front were for pushing through brush as well as for reducing the amount of snow that accumulates on the tips. Shoes intended for climbing had wider, flatter fronts.
Native American snowshoe designs have carried into the 21st century, and basic traditional snowshoe shapes used for walking through different environments often carry the names of tribes. For example, among the basic snowshoe shapes are Huron, Yukon, Ojibwa, and Cree.
Snowshoes became a part of winter tradition, and what have become social clubs in Canada and in the United States have maintained their use – some for more than 200 years. Snowshoeing clubs have been important to the formation of snowshoe competitive and recreational events.
In the early 1900s, communities in New England organized snowshoe hikes as part of their winter recreation. These community hikes would take participants out of town to nearby farms, where they would stop for rest and refreshments, then back to town again.