Trails across Canada have seen an explosion of use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and with this, many new trail users have discovered trails and fallen in love with the natural outdoor experience they provide. As we head into winter, trail use and trail designation changes for a variety of very important reasons as described here.
For those of us in cold-weather climates with sub-zero winters, snow brings with it a dramatic shift to the landscape for anywhere from 4-6 months of the year. Cold and snow dramatically hide that years growth, creating a fluffy white canvas for the life that will spring forth the following year.
Spring, summer and fall trail maintenance is relatively straightforward with tree trimming and control of foliage encroachments on the trail. Most trail systems during these three seasons can be used by all user groups as they wish. Winter changes all of that.
Winter requires using specialized trail maintenance equipment every time it snows to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all trail user groups. The challenge is that many groups require very different grooming and trail needs. This is when winter trail use designations come in and adjust how we all use trails for a few months every year.
As we embark on what is sure to be another stunning winter season of trail use, this article seeks to explain the various winter trail needs of each user group. If all trail users understand these important details, we can better appreciate winter trail designation and the critical role we all play in being good trail stewards for:
- the general safety and usability of the trails,
- maximum user enjoyment of the trails,
- the volunteers who spend countless hours maintaining trails and repairing compromised winter trails after mis-use.
Trail users in this category include walkers, hikers, trail runners, dog walkers, etc. Trail design requirements and trail surface needs are minimal with this user group with the exception of trail runners who generally seek out more adventurous trails, not unlike most mountain bikers. Grades (inclines and declines) are generally kept to a minimum for novice level trails and may increase with more moderate and advanced trails.
The major safety requirement for winter users in this group is to have a generally flat and well packed trail to walk or run on where post-holing is kept to a minimum.
Post-holing is described as taking place when a person’s foot breaks through the snowy surface of the trail, creating a hole in the trail surface. For pedestrian users, stepping into these holes can lead to leg injuries or sprained ankles. As described below, these can lead to even more severe injuries for some user groups.
With the exception of trails signed for specific use, pedestrians are encouraged to use all trails in winter but if frequent post-holing is taking place, they may consider avoiding the trail until proper grooming has packed the trail surface.
XC Skiers (Cross-Country or Nordic Skiers)
XC skiers use trails with specially groomed machine-set tracks to keep their skis running safely and enjoyably down the trail.
The primary trail design requirement for XC skiers is that they have winter trails free from disturbed tracks, dirt, stones and branches. For the safety of skiers, this typically means having XC trails free of other user groups entirely. Damaged XC trails often render them unsuitable for skiers until the next snowfall and subsequent grooming.
Hikers, snowshoers, fat bikers, dogs and other user groups can unknowingly and very quickly cause vast damage to XC groomed trails, thus resulting in safety issues and making the trail unsuitable for skiers. When XC skiers are descending a trail with speed or coming around a corner, catching a ski on a damaged section of groomed ski trail (or worse, an unexpected post-hole) can lead to serious injury and at the very least, be extremely unpleasant and frustrating for the skier.
XC skiers ski on dedicated trails groomed and cared for exclusively by fellow skiers. These trails are generally not for use by other trail user groups.
Not unlike skiers, fat bikes require groomed trails to make for an enjoyable trail experience but these trails require different grooming than XC ski trails.
The tires on fat bikes are generally 4” or wider and run at very low tire pressures (as low as 1 or 2 psi) so that the tire squishes out and “floats” across the snow without punching deeply through the packed surface.
Ideal fat bike trails are flat, smooth, well packed, free of soft spots, and as described above, without post-holes. Riding over uneven trail that is riddled with holes and boot depressions is similar to driving over gravel road washboard (but without the vehicle suspension). Unexpected soft spots in the trail and uneven surfaces can lead to a frustrating and unenjoyable trail riding experience and in rare cases, injury when fat bikes are travelling at speed.
Trails designated for fat biking can take much of the winter to reach maximum ride-ability, but can be quickly undone by those who use them without regard for maintaining trail integrity.
Fat bikers can also compromise winter trail integrity by riding with too much air pressure in their tires, which may cause deep ruts or damage trail edges and corners. Unless conditions are exceptionally firm, suggested tire pressure is generally 3-10 psi.
Fat bikers primarily ride trails designated for their use only. Occasionally, they share some trail sections with pedestrians, provided the surface has become smooth enough to make for a comfortable ride. In many areas, fat bikes will ride pedestrian-focused trails, regardless if it makes for an enjoyable ride, creating a smoother and more firmly packed trail for everyone.
The needs of snowshoers are the least particular of the winter trail user groups described here. The broad surface area of snowshoes permits them to travel well over most winter terrain, from well packed trail to soft fresh snow.
Snowshoers are generally free to travel on all trails, including both pedestrian and fat biking designated trails, but should avoid XC trails unless signage indicates otherwise.
The size, shape and even weight distribution of snowshoes means that they greatly enhance the trails they travel over. For this reason, large dedicated fat bike trail systems often invite snowshoe use all winter season.
Winter Trails For Everyone
Freshly groomed (or tracked) trails often need a few hours (or overnight) to consolidate and firm up enough to support use. If things feel exceptionally soft, all trail users (except snowshoers) may want to try an alternate route or return when the trail has “set.”
Volunteers maintain the grooming and repair of all trails throughout the winter season. They do this to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all trail users. Frequent mis-use and damage of the trails cause frustration and unnecessary repair work for trail volunteers.
Appreciating winter trail designation becomes easier to understand when the experience and needs of each user group are clearly defined—both from a safe-use perspective and how everyone chooses to enjoy them.
All winter trail users share a common love of being outdoors and enjoying the magic of the season. The mix of deeply inhaling that crisp cool air, working up a sweat in sub-zero temperatures, elevating one’s heart rate, or just casually enjoying a walk—these are at the core of what every winter trail user appreciates.
Trail access, construction and maintenance don’t come easily, free, or without a lot of sweat equity by (usually) some very dedicated and selfless volunteers. Add a lot of winter snow into the mix and all of the above is magnified many times.
With the information shared here, it is hoped that all trail users will become greater trail stewards and appreciate the work being performed by the volunteers that make our trails so special for everyone.
Winter trails are quiet and still in ways that can not be adequately described until you find yourself gazing up at a stand of tall spruce or poplar trees where even a whisper sounds like too much noise. Snow brings a silence and beauty to nature that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
So, don’t let the cold keep you indoors. Get outside and explore.
Stay safe, keep our trails safe, respect the designated trail use, and enjoy the beautiful outdoors this winter.
Special thanks to the many website articles that were read and researched for this piece, the valuable contributions of the VLR Board, and the many friends of VLR for consulting on this article and/or offering their review including: Kevin Newton (Westman Trails Association), Clayton Swanton (Dauphin’s Northgate Trails), Jeff Hehn (Saskatoon’s Fat Tire Brigade), and Leigh Heigh (Camrose, Alberta).