Winter Trail Etiquette For Snowshoeing and 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.

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.

person looking at a trail sign and map

Read the signs carefully so you know which trails are designated for which winter sport. Photo: Tanya Koob

Some of the links in this article may contain affiliate links. When you make a purchase using these links, part of the proceeds go to Snowshoe Mag at no additional cost. Additionally, as an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Please see our disclosure for more details.

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.

Read More: Why All Snowshoers Should Be Avalanche Aware (Even Beginners)

hiker and pet on snowy trail in Alberta

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

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

winter trail etiquette: two skiers on ski tracks with snowshoe tracks next to them (multi-use trail)

Here you can see ski tracks with separate snowshoe tracks to the side. Photo: Tanya Koob

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

person on snowshoes looking at lake and mountains with arms outstretched

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

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.

Read More: Snowshoeing for Beginners: The First-Timer’s Guide

winter trail etiquette: snowshoer and skier side by side on an open winter trail

Typically skiers and downhill hikers have the right of way since they’re traveling at a faster speed. Photo: Tanya Koob

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.

Read More:
How to Choose a Trail: Tips for Learning When You Need Snowshoes
Choosing a Backpack: Features to Consider for Backcountry Snowshoeing

trail etiquette: person walking on trail with snow with snowshoes strapped to backpack

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

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. 

snowshoer in distance on Chester Lake Trail in Alberta

Follow Leave No Trace principles to protect and preserve our beautiful outdoors while snowshoeing or winter hiking.  Photo: Tanya Koob

Read Next:
Take Your Friends Snowshoeing (Really, They’ll Love It)
Winter Trail Users Should Stop Hating
Snowshoeing is Boring (and Other Myths I Once Believed)
Top 10 Snowshoeing Tips for First-Timer Snowshoers

About the author

Tanya Koob

I am the mom of a spunky 10-year-old boy and I live in Calgary, Canada at the doorstep to the fabulous Rocky Mountains. Our family makes it a priority to get out to the mountains most weekends for big adventures from hiking, camping, biking, and paddling in summer to skiing and snowshoeing in winter. I am the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

7 Comments

  • The controversy over snow shoer’s walking on ski trails is much ado about nothing. I have nordic skied for 62 years and have never heard the argument until just recently and have never ever had a situation or heard of a situation where snow shoe tracks made nordic skiing dangerous. I love the fact that there are more people snow shoeing as it makes bc skiing so so much easier. They are welcome to use my tracks so the next time it will be even easier too. So that means what we are really talking about is esthetics. Are we really going to complain because our pretty ski tracks aren’t pretty anymore?

    • Hi Jeffrey. I thought I’d take a moment to answer as the author of the story. I am both a winter hiker and a skier so I am able to appreciate both sides of the issue here. I live in the Canadian Rockies, and skiers have a few key challenges and key issues with hikers here.

      First, our big issue is with winter hikers choosing not to use snowshoes. I too have benefited from a snowshoer packing down a ski trail for me and have been appreciative. Our big issue is with the winter hikers and trail runners who refuse to use snowshoes (even though the snow is soft and deep enough to justify using them.) Hikers go out and leave huge boot holes in our ski trails that do make our trails dangerous. It makes it very hard to snow plow down a steep trail when it’s gauged out with boot holes. Even when snowshoeing, I’ve had problems with trails that have been used by hikers and left with huge posthole marks. In general, if you are going to be postholing, it’s very appreciative to both snowshoers and skiers if you choose either snowshoes or skis for your outing.

      Second, around here, we have many areas that are groomed for cross-country skiing. The skiers pay to use the trails, they pay for the grooming, and they pay for the perfect corduroy. Yet, even though there are signs everywhere, we still get winter hikers using the trail. They ruin the trails for skate skiers who need the perfect corduroy (and pay for it.) It’s no fun to be on Nordic skis on a groomed trail that has been gauged out and marked up by a variety of boots, snowshoe crampons, running shoes, etc.

      As far as ski touring in the backcountry, everything here is multi use and we all have to share the trails and learn to get along. I completely agree with you there. However, there are still common guidelines that we all aim to follow to make the other users happy. For example, it’s not polite to snowshoe over somebody else’s ski tracks. They worked hard to create them, often breaking trail, and they want to use the same tracks on the way down again. I have skied up a trail in the backcountry, creating a beautiful trail to follow down, only to turn around and to find out that my ski tracks are gone. It’s not that hard to hike beside ski tracks. Unfortunately here, I find that hikers want to walk side by side rather than single file, and hence, there is no room to stay off the ski trails.

      In general, it all comes down to sharing and playing nicely. We have so many beautiful areas here for snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies and yet a large number of winter hikers here don’t want to go off trail, they don’t want to break trail, they don’t want the beautiful powder that makes snowshoeing amazing! They want packed trails and if it has corduroy, even better. 🙁

      • As you can see I did not mention hiking. I believe that skiing and snow shoeing are completely compatible except possibly on groomed trails, although it is my opinion based on my years of experience (I have lived on land used by a nordic ski area that has snow shoeing and groomed ski trails running through my back yard for the last 8 years) that snow shoeing on groomed trails leaves little to no damage whatsoever. Most people who snow shoe would find going on groomed trails the opposite of the experience they are looking for and don’t do it except to cross. As I said that until this year it has never been an issue that I have ever heard discussed or the subject of a complaint. I would certainly hope that all are welcome into the outdoors without any special rules that would disrupt our enjoyment of the same. Especially in this year of the covid pandemic. I hope this is received not as a criticism but more as a suggestion. We don’t need anything to make us feel more uncomfortable than we already have been feeling in the last year.

        • On behalf of everybody at Snowshoe Magazine we want to stress that all are welcome in the outdoors. We hope you will continue to get out to ski, to snowshoe, to explore, and to be happy. We wish you nothing but the best.

  • 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!

      • I like it when you snow shoe on my ski tracks and I love to find snow shoe tracks to ski on because it makes the skiing so much easier. I’m really unsure what the fuss is about since until this winter I have never heard it mentioned in my sixty plus years of nordic skiing.