Low-tech ways to keep moving when the temperature and the grid are down
According to scientists, seasonal snow can cover up to 33 percent of the Earth’s land surface. Currently, only about 12 percent of the Earth’s total surface is permanently covered in ice and snow, and most of that is located near the poles. This can vary due to climate changes that are constantly occurring. Areas that normally get snow aren’t getting it, and places that never see snow are getting buried.
As I write this piece, there is about a foot of snow on the ground, and more is coming. The temperature is below zero. My pellet stove is cranking, trying to keep my home warm.
NOT ALL OF US HAVE THE MEANS TO MAINTAIN A DOG TEAM, BUT WE CAN AFFORD TO GET A PAIR OF SNOWSHOES AND/OR A PAIR OF CROSS-COUNTRY SKIS.
Here, in northern New England, and in similar places, cars, trucks and even 4×4 vehicles are not the most dependable way to get around when winter hits. Often, the most effective mode of transportation is a snow machine.
To one degree or another, these options are manageable now, but what will happen if there is no fuel to run these vehicles?
Snowshoes have been around for more than 4,000 years. The traditional webbed snowshoe was developed by Native Americans, and this basic design has changed little since that time.
Dog sledding, snowshoeing and cross-county skiing will become something more than winter pastimes.
We hope it doesn’t come to that, but let’s take a look at these three means of travel, both historically and where they are today. You will see that while some things have changed, the fundamentals have remained the same.
An EMP, whether naturally occurring from the sun or from a deployed nuclear device (an increasingly real possibility in our world today), could easily bring down the power grid. How will people obtain fuel to keep their homes warm or obtain food and water? If that should happen, it could set us back technologically 100 years or more. Things would have to go back to the old ways.
I started snowshoeing as a kid, back in a time when wooden snowshoes were the norm and not something that decorated the wall in someone’s ski lodge.
My first pair of “shoes” was passed down to me from my aunt—and they were already old when I got them. They were made by Faber, a Canadian company. The webbing material was rawhide, and the bindings were leather. Thanks to proper care, the webbing is still in good shape, but the bindings had to be replaced. Those wooden shoes were heavy and have since been retired. They were replaced by shoes made of more-modern materials.
The snowshoes I use today are Gold 10 Backcountry shoes made by Colorado company Crescent Moon. The frame is aluminum, and the bindings are made from an ice- and snow-repelling material. The cam buckle loop strap and ratchet, similar to what is found on downhill skis, make these snowshoes effortless to put on and take off.
Snowshoes have been around for more than 4,000 years. The traditional webbed snowshoe was developed by Native Americans, and this basic design has changed little since that time. My Abenaki ancestors used snowshoes for hunting, trapping and just for getting from one place to another during the long northern New England winters.
… many people don’t realize cross-county skiing developed about 2,000 years ago in Scandinavia as a means of traveling efficiently over snow.
They designed their snowshoes to mimic the snow-traversing abilities of the animals they hunted. Animals such as snowshoe hare and lynx have no problem getting through the snow, because their wide feet help keep them from sinking into the deep snow. Some of those early snowshoe designs are still with us today: the “beavertail,” “Huron” (named after the native people who designed them) and the “bearpaw.”
The original shoes were handcrafted from strong, flexible wood such as birch and ash. The webbing would have been made from animal gut and the bindings created from moose or caribou hide. While these shoes made travel across deep snow efficient, they were, and are, very heavy. Thankfully, things have changed.
Of all the means of winter transportation, dog sleds have changed the least.
Snowshoes have become lighter and more durable. Starting in the 1950s, they became smaller and lighter by using aluminum tubing—a popular method to this day. Nylon webbing replaced animal gut and rawhide. These new materials generally do not stick to or collect the snow and ice—something the old wooden shoes had a bad habit of doing, obviously adding to their weight as you traveled.
Snowshoes are often viewed as things “yuppies” and “tree-huggers” use while looking to get “back to nature.” Nevertheless, they are valuable tools for those who hunt, ice fish and trap. They provide access to the backcountry places that are home to those things we need.
If the unthinkable should happen, snowshoes will be vital tools for those looking to provide for their families.
I began cross-country skiing about 20 years ago. Although I have been snowshoeing most of my life, I decided to take this up for one, simple reason: Traveling from point A to point B is much quicker on skis. This is especially true if a path has been beaten down or if there is a layer of ice. Cross-country skis are quicker than using snowshoes but are much harder to use in deep snow and also make it quite difficult to pull a sled or carry a heavy load.
We have all seen them—those people frolicking across well-groomed trails with skis strapped to their boots. Often called “Nordic skiing,” cross-country skiing is a very popular winter pastime. Even so, many people don’t realize cross-county skiing was developed about 2,000 years ago in Scandinavia as a means of traveling efficiently over snow.
The original skis used by the Laplanders measured 9 to 11 feet long and were made from wood. Although the popularity of Nordic skiing spread across snow-covered Europe, it wasn’t until Scandinavian and other European settlers arrived in the United States (primarily in the Midwest) that this form of transportation became known. At that time, skis were still wood, and the bindings were made of leather.
Cross-country skis have evolved immensely since then. Modern versions are shorter and made from synthetic materials. They are much more flexible and durable, and their bindings work much the same way as those on downhill skis. No more fear of rotting leather or broken skis. As popular as this activity is in the United States, the very best skis are still made in Europe.
If you want to move a great deal of material (such as firewood or food) in the dead of winter through deep snow and over significant distances, nothing beats a dog sled. Dog sleds rarely break down and, as long as you feed and properly care for your dogs, they never run out of fuel. If something does break on the trail, it can usually be repaired from available resources. In other words: Dog sleds are the perfect form of winter transportation.
We do have dog sledding in New Hampshire, but I was first introduced to it while visiting Alaska. The idea of sled dogs was introduced into Arctic Russia about 3,000 years ago. Since that time, sled dogs and dog sleds have been used by Arctic peoples native to Canada, Lapland, Greenland, Siberia, Alaska and Scandinavia. In fact, the Lapps have adapted the dog sled to use with reindeer.
Of all the means of winter transportation, dog sleds have changed the least. Originally, the native people of Arctic Canada and Alaska used toboggans pulled by dogs to move supplies. Eventually, actual sleds were developed to make this means of transportation more efficient. Over time, specialized dogs were also developed to pull these sleds, with each area having its own special breed (see the sidebar below).
Even today, dog sleds are still made the way they always have been. They are still constructed from strong wood, such as ash and birch—although there has been some work recently with fiberglass, plastic and aluminum. Historically, to keep the sled runners from sticking to the ice, the bottoms of the runners were covered with seal skin. That was later replaced by sheet steel; and now, most sled runners have a plastic material similar to the material used to make skis.
If you want to move a great deal of material (such as firewood or food) in the dead of winter through deep snow and over significant distances, nothing beats a dog sled.
Depending on the job, dog sleds can measure anywhere from 6 to 14 feet long. The longer sleds, called “freight sleds,” can easily transport several hundred pounds. They are perfect for hauling wood, containers of water or a deer.
No matter what happens in the world, life will go on. Those who are prepared will survive. Not all of us have the means to maintain a dog team, but we can afford to get a pair of snowshoes and/or a pair of cross-country skis. Load your gear on a sled, and don’t let the snow keep you from providing for your family.
How Does a Snow-shoe Work?
The way a snowshoe works is a matter of simple mechanics. Just as the lynx and snowshoe hare’s wide feet allow them to cross deep snow, snowshoes allow humans to do the same thing by distributing the wearer’s weight over a bigger area. This weight distribution keeps the hunter, hare or lynx from sinking into the snow. The larger the snowshoes’ surface areas, the more weight they can distribute and carry.
Walking in snowshoes takes a little practice. While you walk as you normally would— one foot at a time—you need to spread your legs apart a little more than usual to keep the shoes from hitting each other when you take a step. The wider the shoe, the wider you need to spread your legs.
The dogs that pull sleds are just as important and specialized as the sleds themselves. While any dog can pull a sled, sled dogs have been specifically bred to do this job.
Sled dogs can be broken down into two groups: small and large. The dogs many people see in racing and events such as the Iditarod are usually smaller dogs in the 50- to 75-pound range. These dogs are built for pulling and speed.
The dogs used for hauling cargo are large dogs that often weigh 100 pounds or more. These dogs are bred for their pulling ability, and although they aren’t fast, they have endurance and can pull weight over a greater distance.
Alaskan husky: Huskies, which weigh between 40 and 75 pounds, are very common in sled-dog racing. Alaskan huskies are mongrels, having Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute heritage, as well as pointer, Saluki and even greyhound blood.
Alaskan malamute: Malamutes are larger dogs that weigh between 80 and 120 pounds. It is thought by some that malamutes were one of the first domesticated breeds of dogs. Although they are not built for speed, their great strength is their best asset.
Chinook: The Chinook originated in New Hampshire. It is a large, strong breed that weighs between 55 and 90 pounds. Its lineage traces back to mastiffs, Greenland huskies, and German and Belgian shepherds.
Greenland dog: The Greenland dog is also large. Like the malamute, this dog is bred for its great strength. The Greenland dog generally weighs in the 66- to 71-pound range.
Siberian husky: The Siberian husky is probably the most recognizable of all the sled dog breeds because of its two different-colored eyes. It is a smaller dog, weighing between 40 and 60 pounds. Even so, it pulls like much larger breeds.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November, 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.