Bro Brandon B inspired today's post with his comment yesterday. I can honestly say I do not know a whole lot about field expedient methods for making snow shoes. I read about it in a miltiary survival manual once. Basically you take a pine branch and then bend in back around on itself (thinning the part that bends or heating it up a bit helps) tying it together and then tying the thing to your foot is the jist of it. I don't think they work very well though they are better than post holing/ wading through the snow.
[A bit of background. I grew up doing a lot of cross country skiing and have done enough snow shoeing to know my way around it.]
Basically the whole point of ski's and snow shoes is to spread out your weight and keep you on top of the snow instead of sinking into it. They both help you move, relatively unimpeeded through snow when it is otherwise difficult or impossible to do so on foot. They are traditionally used in places that have significant amounts of snow throughout the winter. These traditions are especially strong in Northern Europe. I will discuss the characteristics of both then briefly discuss their pro's and con's.
Snow shoes are basically just a big thing that attaches to your foot to spread your weight out over a larger area. The old ones look like a big tennis racket and the more modern ones are made out of metal and or plastic. They vary in size based upon technology and the conditions and weight they are designed to handle. When you look at boyancy snow shoes are sort of like life jackets, they need to be purchased for an individual and their intended use. A set that works for a 90 pound kid will not work for a 200 pound man with a 50 pound pack.
The biggest advantage of snow shoes is that they are relatively easy to use. You need to walk a bit wide (think of the steriotypical bow legged cowboy from the old movies) and be very careful not to get the snowshoes crossed over eachother but fundamentally you are just walking. Most people can get comfortable on snow shoes by taking a short walk in them. Also snow shoes do well in varried/ uneven terrain (particularly in the woods where the holes around the bottom of trees, the snow doesn't accumulate under a pine tree so there is a big hole, can make skiing impossible, and lack of space for relatively long ski's is a real issue) and really deep powder. The disadvantage of snow shoes is that they are a lot slower to use than cross country ski's.
Cross country ski's are how people who live in really snowy places get around. Since you can glide on top of the snow (like water skiing or skating) you can move much faster and burn less energy than on snow shoes. Also on ski's you can go down a hill in two or three minutes that will take a half hour on snow shoes. I find that it is a lot easier to get into a rhythm and really cover ground on ski's than snow shows. However ski's do have some downsides also. First they are, while not too difficult to learn to use, certainly more difficult than snow shoes. In particular the less than ideal slopes (not a nice even cleared downhill style ski slope) inherant of cross country conditions and flexible bindings make it difficult to safely move downhill without a decent amount of skill. If I was keeping a spare set of something around to equip a random friend that came to my beautiful mountain cabin (I wish!) it would be snowshoes. Also some situations are better for snow shoes. Deep powder and moving through the woods are areas where show shoes beat out ski's.
Being able to move over snow under human power is a skill that has become a lower priority in a world of snow mobiles, snow plows and vehicles of all types. However if there wasn't fuel and the snow plows stopped moving it would, for folks in heavy snow areas, be the difference between utter isolation and being able to travel freely. Also cross country skiing and snoe shoeing are great cardiovascular exercise.
Some of my readers might be interested in how these winter travel skills have been employed by guerilla and partisan forces in the past. Some folks, if memory serves me correctly the Norwegians and the Finn's in particular capitalized on the mobility of their skiing skills to mount daring actions against much stronger but less agile and mobile enemies during WWII. In heavy snow areas a person who is a natural on ski's and a decent shot with a rifle could raise hell with a bunch of soldiers on foot.
If you live in an area with heavy snowfall then I urge you to learn to ski and snow shoe this winter.