Trail Etiquette for Snowshoeing and Winter Hiking

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. By learning to read trail signs and do your research about trail etiquette, you’ll be met with friendly smiles from other trail users, no matter the snow sport.

Snowshoes were designed for powder, so get off the groomed trails and go exploring!

1. As part of trail etiquette, do some preliminary research before you drive to the trailhead

Know what you’re going to hike before you drive out. Don’t just blindly head to a parking lot where you know there are trails and stumble off in any chosen direction.

Many parks have designated trails marked for individual sports. Designated trails can help avoid conflicts between trail users and allow for maximum enjoyment for each group.

For example, cross-country skiers enjoy groomed trails with machine-set tracks. Snowshoe on these trails, and you will destroy the tracks for the skiers. Similarly, many fat bike trails are groomed for easy riding. Again, the trail users will not appreciate seeing your snowshoe crampons digging holes in their path.

Read the signs carefully! Avoid designated ski trails and look for signed snowshoe trails

Tips for Preliminary Research

Here are a few simple research guidelines for completing preliminary research. These guidelines will help everybody to enjoy their day on the trails:

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 ski trails near my house that are open to all users until December 1st. After that date, hikers are not allowed on the trails.

Read the trail map or any signage at your chosen trailhead carefully when you arrive. Stay off trails marked for skier use only, respect closures, and know where you’re allowed to be hiking.

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.

This trail is open to all users until December 1st only. Know the rules for where you want to hike.

2. Avoid groomed trails and stay out of ski tracks!

This trail etiquette tip should be obvious. However, based on the posts I see in online groups, there are a lot of angry skiers out there, and we hikers can do better!

In a nutshell, when you hike on a groomed ski trail, you endanger those choosing to ski on a trail that was maintained for their safety. A skier coming down a steep hill does not want to catch an edge on a hole or frozen rut created by one of your snowshoe crampons. If this happens, the skier is going down and can be seriously injured.

It doesn’t get more obvious than this sign. You are on a ski trail. Choose a different trail for hiking.

Even if you hike off the ski tracks, your snowshoes (or even worse, holes created from your boots punching through the snow) damage the grooming that skate-skiers need in the middle of the trail. Dogs can also create divots in the trail creating unsafe conditions for skiers once these holes freeze over.

And if you’re wondering why you can’t just walk to the side of the groomed trail, avoiding the tracks, the reality is that nobody does! We all like to walk side by side in the middle of the trail so we can talk to one another. Nobody wants to hug the edge of a trail, walking single file.

This trail is a groomed trail for classic and skate-skiing. You should not be hiking on it.

3. Don’t hog the entire trail

If you need to stop for a break, or take a photo, or have a snack, step 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 will have less maneuverability to pass you in the deep snow off the main packed trail.

Also, remember that faster hikers always have the right of way. 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, 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.

We all need rest and photo breaks. Just step off the trail before you go crazy with the photoshoot.

4. Always 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 that destroy a trail. Trails that get full of postholes are unsafe for all trail users. 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.

This trail was firm enough that we were able to enjoy our hike with ice cleats rather than snowshoes

I always bring my snowshoes, and if I don’t need them, I strap them to my pack. But I still have them with me in case the trail is soft.

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.

Bring your snowshoes and then strap them to your pack if you don’t need them.

5. Practice sharing the trail on multi-use trails to maintain proper etiquette

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.

Guidelines For Using Proper Etiquette On Shared Trails

Follow these guidelines for multi-use trails.

Make sure it really is a shared trail! Chances are if you see grooming or machine-made ski tracks, you might be on the wrong trail.  Seeing tracks may not always indicate an incorrect trail, but you should definitely watch for signs as soon as you see corduroy!

Most trails can be shared when you practice proper etiquette (notice the hiker avoiding the ski tracks)

Skiers should always 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. Skiers will also find it challenging to stop suddenly on a hill. In this case, you’ll want to quickly jump out of the way if somebody is skiing down a steep slope towards you.

Hike to the side of the trail when possible. As mentioned above, avoid walking in the middle of a groomed trail and don’t step on the ski tracks.

Here you can see ski tracks with separate snowshoe tracks to the side. Not stepping in tracks is proper trail etiquette!

Make your own tracks! If you’re in the backcountry, make your own tracks. Don’t snowshoe over any tracks set by skiers (even if they aren’t machine-set tracks.) It’s disrespectful to ski in somebody’s tracks, and it makes the person’s ski out more difficult (after they worked to build a good track on their way in.)

All trail users should work to keep the trail clear for other users when taking a break. Keeping the trail clear means all fat bikes, skis, snowshoes, backpacks, etc. should be moved off to the side of the trail. This would be another reason to bring snowshoes so you can step off the trail for breaks without sinking up to your waist.

Get off the beaten path and make your own trail when snowshoeing

What are your thoughts on trail etiquette? Have you seen any of these recommendations in action?

2 thoughts on “Trail Etiquette for Snowshoeing and Winter Hiking

  1. So, basically, don’t ever snowshoe on any trail that a cross country skier has been, is now, or may be using in the future. Stay in the bush away from all trails and the XC skiers won’t complain.

    Got it.

    • We want snowshoers to enjoy the trail just as much as XC-skiers. Sharing the trail requires work from all parties. Snowshoers don’t step in XC ski tracks, just like XC skiers won’t use snowshoe tracks. However, we can still both have fun on the trail, side by side. The ability to break our own trail sometimes presents the most beautiful scenery too!

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