March 18, 2010

Hybrid tries to marry fleet-footed, sure-footed

— Several years ago, the winter sports lovers at L.L. Bean wondered how to offer a snowshoe that was faster than all the others, but stable enough for the snow explorer who didn't want to ski.

click image to enlarge

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The result was an unusual hybrid that the folks at Bean think has a big future.

The outdoor outfitter got together with Karhu, which is now part of K2, and created the sliding snowshoe, said Scott Balentine, L.L. Bean's winter sport product developer.

''What we had seen at the time was an awful lot of participants in snowshoeing who don't participate in Nordic skiing,'' Balentine said. ''The thought was this was a product that was somewhere in between.''

While this hybrid ski serves a niche market, Balentine said L.L. Bean expects the ''Boreal sliding snowshoes'' to increase in sales.

In the five years it's been offered, Balentine said the sliding snowshoe has seen low growth each year, but L.L. Bean still has high hopes for its hybrid ski.

Balentine said the growth in the snowshoe industry has inspired L.L. Bean's product developers to work on improving and expanding the sliding snowshoes, making versions for different types of skiers.

And today, a few more companies make them, such as Rossignol and Solomon.

''We're one of the few people who sell it,'' Balentine said. ''It's for someone who enjoys going out in the woods snowshoeing, who wants to go a little farther and a little faster. It gives them stability and traction.''

The sliding snowshoe has the same stability of a snowshoe, and the clip-in top that attaches like a snowshoe.

But what makes these snowshoes unusual is their ability to slide like a ski, while still being able to climb like a snowshoe.

The sliding snowshoes' bottom has a climbing skin that when flipped adds traction.

Balentine said back in the 1960s mohair was used for the climbing skin on backcountry skis.

Today, he said different synthetic materials are used, but the idea is ancient.

''When you trace it back to the Native Americans, they used different types of animal fur,'' Balentine said. ''When you push, the hairs align so it creates traction. Then as you glide, the hair follicles fold over.''

Rugged and unique as the sliding snowshoe appears, Balentine said it's used less by the mountaineer types, and more by folks looking to explore a field behind their house.

But he pointed out that's a whole community of explorers looking for a way to travel on the snow.

Those intimidated by either the work in snowshoeing or the speed of Nordic skis find a comfort zone with this hybrid Balentine said.

Even winter sports outfitters in Maine that don't carry the sliding snowshoe recognize its value.

Of course, this is Maine, where winter can last six months -- and many get excited over that.

''If you're looking to knock around in the backcountry, then they can be kind of fun,'' said Justin Kane, event coordinator for Kittery Trading Post.

Charlie Ek, the Trading Post's outdoor educator, said the unusual hybrid offers advantages and disadvantages.

Ek said the sliding snowshoe is perfect for folks looking to explore the woods and cover a lot of ground, people like hunters or maple syrup farmers.

One huge advantage to the hybrid for those who have never skied or snowshoed is you can use your hiking boots with them.

''You'd have longer range than you would with snowshoes, and not as vigorous an activity,'' Ek said.

But Ek said the big disadvantage is they are significantly slower than skis.

''They are an in between, neither fish, nor fowl,'' Ek said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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