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 route 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. Below are a few recommended guidelines.
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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. 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:
Official Opening Dates
Always check if the trail you want to hike has an official opening date for winter hiking. Some routes 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.
Read More: Leave No Trace Principles for Snowshoers
Restrictions or Warnings
Check if the trail you plan to hike has any restrictions or warnings. For example, we have trails near my house 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.
Closures and Trail Use
Read the trail map or any signage at your chosen trailhead carefully when you arrive. Respect any closures, and know where you can go hiking and snowshoeing. Some trails are designated for specific sports only, and some are shared or multi-use trails.
If you’re planning on bringing pets with you, make sure they are allowed where you plan to hike. Most groomed trails and some national parks do not allow dogs. Moreover, many parks will require dogs to be on a leash at all times.
2. Avoid Stepping on 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 tracks are usually created for specific winter sports.
Cross-country skiers use groomed trails with machine-set tracks, and many fat bikes use groomed trails for easy riding. Unfortunately, snowshoes can cause indents on these groomed areas, thus resulting in safety issues and making the route unusable for skiers and fat bikers. For example, the skier may fall and get seriously injured if they come down a steep hill and accidentally catch an edge on a hole or frozen rut created by snowshoe crampons.
To avoid these hazards, snowshoers can still have fun on the trail by snowshoeing next to the ski tracks on shared trails (machine or human-made), using designated snowshoe trails, or making their own tracks on or off-trail in fresh snowfall.
For more information about how we can all enjoy the trails together, check out Trails Are Common Ground which advocates for all trail users to avoid shaming and blaming and instead promotes resources that will help all of us become better trail citizens.
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 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, ensure other users can get around your group, which is especially important on shared trails. Skiers and other users may have less maneuverability to pass you in the deep snow on the side of shared routes. However, as snowshoers, we have the advantage of navigating deep snow and stepping off the trail.
4. Know Who Has the Right of Way
As mentioned above, many trails are designated for multi-use enjoyment in the winter. Thus, it’s not uncommon to encounter other users on skis or even on fat bikes when snowshoeing. Also, inevitably you’ll encounter individuals moving at a different pace than you on the trail.
Different Modes of Transport
Knowing who has the right of way on shared-use trails comes down to safety and maneuverability or the ease of stepping aside in the situation.
For example, fat bikes are expected to yield to hikers and skiers because they typically maneuver quickly. But if the fat biker is going swiftly down a hill or is climbing a steep hill, it may be easier for the hiker to step aside and let them pass. Similarly, if a skier is quickly descending, the hiker can more easily step aside and let them pass, which helps the skier’s safety.
Sometimes it can be complex to navigate other users on the trail. However, organizations such as Trails Are Common Ground advocate for all trail users to avoid shaming and blaming and instead promote resources that will help all of us become better trail citizens.
Hikers of Varying Speeds
Similar to shared trails, when downhill and uphill hikers are at a crossroads, the uphill hiker has the right of way because it is easier for the downhill hiker to step aside (since the uphill hiker is most likely using more energy). However, you may see occasions where the uphill hiker steps aside to breathe. If that’s their choice, that’s okay too.
If you are snowshoeing at a slower pace or are hiking with children and notice hikers quickly approaching behind you or they call out to let you know of their presence, step aside to let them pass. Large groups should also hike in single file on a busy trail to not take up too much room on the path.
Overall, it’s best to use common courtesy for the right of way. In addition, being aware of other enthusiasts on the trail helps us stay safe while snowshoeing.
5. Avoid Post-Holing
Hikers create postholes when they plunge through the snow while not 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 ensure you are not leaving divots or holes in the path.
I know many hikers who 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 route is not necessarily 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.
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 just in case the trail has deep or soft snow.
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 keeping the trail enjoyable for all outdoor enthusiasts. The principles include:
- Plan ahead to know your route and know what to bring to prepare for your outing.
- Travel/camp on durable surfaces. For snowshoers, this also means avoiding stepping on vegetation that may be popping up out of the snow.
- Dispose of waste properly. Please 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 that we can enjoy nature together.
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 October 18, 2019. Clarifications to these recommendations were completed on February 8, 2022, with the most recent update on November 29, 2022.