Updated: Mar 31
Story and photos by Mike Prout
I have always been inspired by things that can be made with very little or no tools at all. Items that can be crafted out of natural materials that are literally within an arms-reach of where you are. Being an outdoors enthusiast, and someone who has a very close connection with nature, I’m always looking for new ways to connect to the environment in a unique way. Recently, I discovered a gentleman by the name of Mors Kockankski, who is one of the leading innovative wilderness outdoorsman. I watched an informal interview with him on YouTube with Tom Roycroft (the inventor) and Guru of bushcraft. He discussed an item called the ski-shoe. Ski-shoes are basically snow shoes that are shaped similar to a ski. Essentially, they can be made from start to finish within an hour. In that moment, I knew I had to make a pair for myself. Two weeks later I was off to my best friends cottage, which is to the west of Ontario’s Algonquin Park, with plans to craft my own pair of ski-shoes.
Mike heads out into a crown land area by snowshoe. Photo: Mike Prout
Armed with a pulk sled and your standard backcountry gear, I headed into the bush on a piece of crown-land to look for a Hemlock Grove. Essentially, you want to look for some evergreens that are a bit taller than the person making the ski-shoes. I generally look for an area that has a pocket of little trees. Green bendable trees are required. You can generally find them suckering up around big trees, so therefore there is very little environmental impact when harvesting them. You’ve got to love renewable resources! Measurement and size are a relative thing when it comes to bushcrafting. Objects are generally measured based on; the height of a person, the length of an arm, the length from elbow to finger, and from thumb too extended baby finger. The thickness of the tip of the ski shoe should be finger thickness and the width should be about the distance from your thumb to baby finger when extended.
Mike harvests some Hemlock saplings.
You will need 10 polls in total to create a set of ski-shoes, use five polls on each shoe. Once you have harvested the trees, cut off all the branches. Removal of all the bark is also a good idea as it promotes quick drying of the wood. I didn’t remove the bark until I was ready for the assembly process.
Mike’s pulk loaded with his Hemlock poles. Photo: Mike Prout
Once you have all 10 poles cut, you will also need a couple more bits of material. A couple of pieces of sapling the width of two fingers and a little longer than the middle of the ski-shoes will work. Split these two pieces down the middle to create four supports. You will need some sort of cordage made out of either natural materials that you find in the forest, or you can use string or rope. I like to use parachute cord because I generally have lots of it in my backpack. I didn’t keep track but I believe I used about 40 feet of P-cord to make the ski-shoes.
The ski-shoes should be about the width of your thumb to baby finger. Photo: Mike Prout
Once you have your 10 poles, four cross supports, and 50 feet of P-cord, it’s time to make the magic happen! This is the point when you choose your desired knots. There are endless types of knots that will work for tying the pieces together, but it’s best to use ones you’re familiar with. The knots need to be strong so they won’t come undone. Lay five pols out on a working surface. If there are natural bows in the polls, use them to your advantage by allowing the bend to face towards the ground. Tie the narrow ends of the tips together in a fashion that will allow them to be very secure. I started with Canadian jam knot and went overboard fastening all the tips together and securing it with a triple not. Repeat this process on the bottom end of the polls.
Tips of the ski-shoes lashed together. Photo: Mike Prout
The key to having a snowshoe that sheds snow properly is to make sure your bindings are placed on the correct balance point. Shoes that are not balanced have a tendency to bury their noses into the snow which means they’ll pick up unwanted snow and carry it around all day. And this will lead to some pretty sore legs. Avoid that from happening by using this very simple process to calibrate the correct balance point on your ski-shoes. Pick up the ski-shoe and allow it to titer on your hand. Move the ski back and forth until you find the centre balance point. Fasten a cross support at this point of balance. This will be your heel support.
It is important to notch the cross support wherever a pole intersects it. The notches should be spread out across the length of the cross support. Spread the poles out a little bit as you tie them to the cross support. The notches will insure everything stays in place when tied tightly.
Sizing and notching a cross support piece. Photo: Mike Prout
The second cross support should be placed ahead of the heel support. To calculate the proper position for it, grab your boot and place the heel on the heel support. Look at the boot and find out where the ball of your foot would rest on the ski shoe. This is where you will lash the forward support. The reason for this is when your foot is attached to the ski-shoe and you lift your leg, the front of the ski shoe will rise before the back which will allow them to shed snow.
Two cross pieces lashed down. Photo: Mike Prout
The final bit of the process is bending the forward tips of the ski shoes upward. Generally this can be easily done by tying P-cord to the ski shoe nose tip, bending the tip upwards, and then tightly tying off the P-cord to the forward cross support. At this point, the snow shoes will be ready for immediate use. If you want the bend to stay, leave the para cord attached for a few days until the wood dries out. I on the other hand, made a jig out of plywood to specifically bend the tips as far forward as possible.
Mike’s ski-shoes drying out by the fire while held by a jig. Photo: Mike Prout
Considering the size of the ski-shoe you would think they would be clumsy and inefficient. But I must say they have excellent flotation and skim quite easily across the top of the snow. The bend I put in the toes really aids in keeping the snowshoes on the surface of the snow. Because I used Hemlock, and removed all of the bark, they became very light after drying for a few days by the fireplace.
What a sense of accomplishment, creating a profound tool with nothing more than a pocket knife, some natural resources, and ingenuity. It makes for an amazing conversation piece that has a functioning practical application. It is absolutely amazing how something so simple can create such a high level of motivation and creativity. Nothing beats an excuse to get outdoors and immerse oneself in the natural environment. The guidelines I have laid down here are general ideas and can be personalized with a little innovation. I challenge you to get out and to make something similar whether it be something you put an hour into, or several hours into. The benefits from making a set of ski-shoes are not only to stay afloat on snow, but to allow you to de-stress and decompress in the natural environment. I would do it over again in a heartbeat just so I could smell the intense aroma of Evergreen as it impregnates the air, skin and clothes. Mix that with assembly by a campfire, or a wood stove, and you have a recipe for perfection. My definition of perfection is a culmination of trial and error to create something that gives life to the soul. Give it a go. Cheers!