Snowshoes and cross-country skis enable winter recreation. The sports associated with this type of gear do not require lift access. Despite these similarities, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are completely different sports. This becomes evident when looking at these two types of snow sport equipment. Their size, shape and features are as dissimilar as their functions.
Before they were used for winter recreation, snowshoes and cross-country skis served utilitarian purposes. Both provided transportation in deep snow. History experts at the International Ski Federation speculate that skiing dates to 6300 B.C. Russia, whereas United States Snowshoe Association historians believe snowshoes date 6,000 years ago to central Asia. Snowshoes and cross-country skis literally crossed paths during the Colorado mining era in the 1860s. If you visit the town of Breckenridge, you will see the Father Dyer Church. Dyer went from town to town on his skis, delivering the mail, along with the word of God. Locals called him the Snowshoe Itinerant, but the Father Dyer Church has a stained glass window that portrays an image of Dyer on what is clearly a pair of skis. Former Breckenridge Heritage Alliance director Linda Kay Peterson explains that what we now call skis were called snowshoes and what we call snowshoes were called Indian Feet. Dyer would use his Indian Feet to climb the hills, and change into his snowshoes to descend the slope.
The Father Dyer story indicates one of the main functional differences between skiing and cross-country skis. Snowshoe enthusiasts tell people that if they can walk, they can snowshoe. Cross-country skiing is a different story. Skis glide, but snowshoes do not. It was probably safer and more efficient to climb the hill using nongliding equipment, and to descend the hill using sliding and gliding movements. Of course, modern cross-country skiers now use special techniques to ascend the slopes on their skis. Poles are another feature common to both sports, but participants use them in different ways. Cross-country skiers use their poles for propulsion, whereas snowshoe enthusiasts for balance and for sensing the terrain.
Since snowshoeing uses walking and climbing movements, participants wear aerobic shoes or hiking boots. Cross-country skiing requires precise foot and ankle movements. Enthusiasts must wear specially designed ski boots, which fit the bindings that snap into the ski's bindings.
Size becomes significant if you are taking your equipment on vacation. Snowshoes range from 20 to 36 inches long, whereas cross-country skis range from 63 to 83 inches long.
Cross-country skis and snowshoes provide winter aerobic exercise, but cross-country skiing requires specific skills, and therefore has a longer learning curve. In proper conditions, you can snowshoe in your backyard or local park, but cross-country skiing usually requires special trails and trail fees.