I spend my winters regularly exploring trails around the Canadian Rockies. I’ve learned that just because there’s a snowy trail, doesn’t mean it’s a snowshoe trail or that it’s appropriate for winter hiking. I enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat biking – but rarely would I use the same trail for all three sports.
Similar to hiking in the summer, there are a few trail manners or winter trail etiquette you can follow to ensure friendly smiles from other winter users.
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1. Check the trail regulations
Like the warmer months, each trail has its own set of guidelines and regulations on what you can and can’t do. Make sure to check those guidelines ahead of time to avoid any accidental faux pas.
Here are a few regulations to keep in mind for maintaining winter trail etiquette:
- Always check to see if the trail you want to hike has an official opening date for winter hiking. Some trails cross through sensitive alpine meadows that can be damaged if used while wet. Wait until these areas have enough snow to cover the fragile vegetation.
- Check to see if the trail you plan to hike has any restrictions or warnings. We have trails near my house that are open to all users until December 1st. After that date, hikers are not allowed on the trails. Sometimes, these restrictions and warnings may be related to avalanche-prone areas and be for the hiker’s safety.
- Read the trail map or any signage at your chosen trailhead carefully when you arrive. Respect any closures, and know where you’re allowed to go hiking and snowshoeing. Some trails are designated for specific sports only and some trails are shared trails.
- If you’re planning on bringing pets with you, make sure they are allowed where you plan to hike. Most groomed trails do not allow dogs, and many parks will require them to be on a leash at all times.
2. Avoid stepping on ski tracks in the snow
Ski tracks on the trail can be human-made or machine-made. Either way, for proper winter trail etiquette, you’ll want to avoid stepping on these tracks when you’re winter hiking or snowshoeing.
Similarly, you may notice that some winter trails will be groomed, meaning the snow has purposefully been packed on the trail. These types of trails are usually created for specific winter sports.
Cross-country skiers use groomed trails with machine-set tracks, and many fat bike trails are groomed for easy riding. Snowshoes can cause indents on these groomed areas, thus resulting in safety issues and make the trail unusable for skiers and fat bikers. For example, if a skier coming down a steep hill accidentally catches an edge on a hole or frozen rut created by snowshoe crampons, the skier may fall and get seriously injured.
To avoid these hazards, snowshoers can snowshoe next to the ski tracks on shared trails (machine or human-made), use designated snowshoe trails, or make their own tracks on or off-trail in a fresh snowfall.
Read More: Snowshoeing 101: Techniques for the Beginner
3. Step off the trail when not hiking
As part of winter trail etiquette, all trail users should work to keep the trail clear for other users when taking a break. Breaks might include photos, or snacks too. Keeping the trail clear means all fat bikes, skis, snowshoes, backpacks, etc. should be moved off to the side of the trail.
While off the trail, other users can get around your group, which is especially important on shared trails. On shared trails, skiers and other users may have less maneuverability to pass you in the deep snow off the main packed trail.
As snowshoers, we can the advantage of being able to navigate deep snow and step off the trail.
Read More: Winter Photography Tips for Snowshoers
4. Know who has the right of way
Many trails are designated for multi-use enjoyment in the winter, and it’s not uncommon to encounter other users on skis or even on fat bikes.
If you’re on a busy or narrow trail, remember that faster hikers/users always have the right of way. When downhill and uphill hikers are at a crossroads, let the downhill hikers go first. Downhill hikers are typically faster, and it allows the uphill hiker to take a break. Also, if you are slower, are hiking with children, or are in a large group, step off to the side of the trail to allow others to pass.
Similarly, skiers, fat bikes, and snowmobiles have the right of way. It’s much easier for a hiker to step to the side of a trail than it is for somebody on skis or another mode of transport. Skiers will also find it challenging to stop suddenly on a hill. Be aware of other enthusiasts on the trail so you can stay safe while snowshoeing.
5. Bring your snowshoes to each trail and avoid post-holing
Post-holes are created when hikers plunge through the snow while they aren’t wearing snowshoes, creating large divots in the snow. Trails that get full of postholes are unsafe for all trail users, and stepping into a hole can cause leg injuries or sprained ankles for other hikers.
If you do not want to wear snowshoes, make sure you choose a trail that is well packed down by previous hikers. Then, observe to make sure you are not leaving divots or holes in the trail.
To help with proper winter trail etiquette, I always bring my snowshoes, and if I don’t need them, I strap them to my pack. However, I still have them with me in case the trail has soft snow.
I know a lot of hikers look at the initial trail by the parking lot, see that it’s packed down, and then leave their snowshoes in the car. However, the beginning of a trail is not a good indicator of what the conditions will be along the entire length of the trail. Conditions can change, especially as you approach alpine meadows or lakes higher up.
6. Follow Leave No Trace principles
Last, but certainly not least, follow all Leave No Trace principles while out on the trail. Leave No Trace was designed to protect and preserve our natural lands and is critical to keep the trail enjoyable for all outdoor enthusiasts. The principles include:
- Plan ahead so you know your route and are prepared for your outing.
- Travel/camp on durable surfaces. For snowshoers, this also means avoid stepping on vegetation that may be popping up out of the snow.
- Dispose of waste properly. Bring a small shovel to dig a hole off-trail or bring bags with you to pack it out.
- Leave what you find, and avoid taking any part of the trail home with you.
- Minimize campfire impacts and learn some tips for campfires in winter.
- Respect wildlife and observe from a distance.
- Be considerate of other visitors, so all of us can enjoy nature together.
Read More: Leave No Trace Principles for Snowshoers
What are your thoughts on winter trail etiquette? Please share your experiences below and any of these recommendations in action.
This article was originally published on Oct 18, 2019. It was updated to include new formatting and Leave No Trace info by Susan Wowk on February 6, 2021.
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