Cross-country skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers, fat bikers, dog walkers, hikers and runners are hitting the trails to get some exercise and to enjoy the winter woods. Where these users share trails, there can be conflicts if people don’t know or care about their impact on the trails. An inconsiderate or uninformed user can wreck the trails for others.
Early this winter, we went snowshoeing on Albany’s Tin Mountain Conservation Center trails. Our trek started well until we encountered the tell-tale mark of a “bare booter” in the snowshoe track. Someone walked on it with no snowshoes, leaving holes where their boots had sunk into the deep snow, making the surface uneven to walk on. Abandoning the wrecked trail, we shook our heads at the lack of courtesy or knowledge of the bare booter and wondered if they had any fun post-holing. It must have been hard, exhausting work. How much easier it would have been to put on a pair of skis or snowshoes!
Early one morning, I went out on Jackson’s Wentworth fields to check out skate ski conditions. Overnight, the groomer had left a beautiful smooth, well-packed platform. I was enjoying the glide until I encountered footprints all over the trail. I had to deal with holes left by their boots! Those obstacles stayed there all day and into the night when the groomer came back. People who bought passes that day to ski at a “groomed” area had their experience compromised by an inconsiderate trail walker.
Last week, I decided to ski at Whitaker Woods. I expected to see skiers, dogs, snowshoers and maybe a fatbike or two. But I was not prepared for the number of bare-booter tracks I encountered. Right down the middle of the skate lane were holes and chunks left in their passing. I was glad I had chosen classic skiing that day. However, when I jumped out of the tracks to snowplow on the downhills, one of those chunks caught my ski and down I went! Later, I encountered a couple walking their dogs on the trail oblivious to what their bare boots had done to the groomed trail. Some people just don’t get it.
Grooming trails takes lots of time, money, and expertise. Cort Hanson at Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring and Snowshoe Center said his grooming machine cost more than $130,000 and he has to hire two employees to do the grooming at $65 an hour. MWVSTF grooms for 3-4 hours a day, most days of the season. Over time, costs add up. Skiers, snowshoers and fat bikers are required to purchase a pass to use the trails. Walkers are not. Those that pay for a pass should be able to expect well-groomed, smooth trails. It’s insensitive or uneducated for people to walk on these with bare boots.
Breaking trails requires effort, too, and those following them should be considerate of that. Walking on snowshoe or ski trails with bare boots is thoughtless, wrecking it for others. Those who insist on bare-booting should make their own tracks away from groomed or broken out ski and snowshoe tracks.
Snowshoers should be careful not to walk all over the ski tracks, making them useless. Even walking in the middle of the skate platform makes divots that can trip up skiers. Instead, they should walk on the sides of the groomed trails to have minimal impact.
Those riding fat bikes should be careful not to leave “tire ruts” in soft snow that freeze up and become rock solid, making riding or walking the trail awful. All trail users need to be aware of what their actions do to the trail and how they affect the experience of others.
Terminology: Just to make sure people understand the terms post-holing, bare booting and tire rutting, I’ll define them here:
Post-holing: When walking on trails with soft or unconsolidated snow, the hiker/walker’s feet sink through the snow, creating deep holes in the snow, making travel difficult, tiring and dangerous. Post holes can be knee, hip or waist deep. Often, the postholes freeze in place, leaving dangerous and annoying holes for others to negotiate around. Post-holes leave uneven surfaces.
Bare booting: Walking on groomed ski or packed snowshoe trails without snowshoes, often leaving indentations in the snow making skiing or snowshoeing unpleasant and sometimes dangerous.
Tire rutting: When fat bikers ride on a trail when it’s soft and temperatures are warm, their tires sink in more than an inch. The tire rut they leave freezes up when the temperatures drop and remains as an obstacle for other riders and walkers.
So, what’s to be done about post-holers, bare-booters, and tire rutters? I asked Cort Hanson at Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring about the issue. In Whitaker Woods, because it’s town land, paid for in part with Federal money, they can’t exclude walkers from using groomed trails. Putting up signs asking them not to walk on trails could be considered a restriction. They can regulate fat bike use by limiting riding to a designated multi-use trail in Whitaker. When conditions allow — trails are hard-packed and less likely to be affected by tire ruts — fat bikes can ride the other trails in Whitaker Woods. Other trails in the MWVSTF network are clearly signed to restrict walkers, dogs and fat bikes.
As for the walkers, Cort hopes they will be sensitive to sharing the trails with others by walking on the edge of the trail rather than in the middle. Educating users to the impact they have on trails is the issue. In MWVSTF’s brochure they delineate trail use etiquette for fat bikes, skiers, and snowshoers — fat bikes: “stay off trails with more than 3 inches of new snow, if you leave a rut deeper than 1 foot, please stop riding. Skiers and snowshoers: no pets on tracks, do not walk on tracks.”
However, do people read the brochures? Walkers probably never see them since they don’t have to purchase a trail pass.
At other cross-country centers, signs are often posted to warn walkers to stay away from “sensitive” trails. Trail maps show where trails are multi-use and fat bikes, walkers, and/or dogs are allowed. Many touring centers ask snowshoers to walk carefully across the groomed trails, not wrecking the tracks, and to walk beside, not on the groomed surface. But we don’t have any control over the bare-booters except to talk to them when we encounter them and ask that they walk elsewhere or use snowshoes.
There is no easy solution to the trail wrecking problem. Guide books and hiking blogs make recommendations for winter trail etiquette. Touring centers can put up signs and list rules in their brochures. But post-holers, bare-booters, and tire rutters may never see them.
The best we can do when encountering someone wrecking the trail is to have a “friendly” conversation with them about the damage they’re doing and how that affects other trail users. We can make suggestions of other places they can go or where they can walk or ride to do the least damage. That’s about all we can do — be tolerate and educate. Many people have no clue what it’s like to encounter post holes on the hiking trail or chunks on the groomed trail. Ask them to be mindful and respectful of other trail users and the effort it takes to make trails, groomed or not. Ask them to be trail conservers, not trail wreckers!
Great Glen Trails: Tuesday Nordic Meisters and Fatbike Meisters, into March, 9 a.m.-3:45 p.m. for Nordic, 4-6 p.m. for fatbikes.
Sundays, Bill Koch Ski League, young skiers from 1st to 8th grade, 1:30-3:30, through March.
Jackson Ski Touring Foundation: Friday Skate Clinics, Friday mornings, call JSTF to register and get details.
Friday Gliders, Sliders, and Easy Sliders, into March, 1-3 p.m., 2-hour social ski followed by snacks and beverages.
Bretton Woods Nordic Center: Thursdays Ladies Loppets, Feb. 28, 10:45 a.m.-noon, activity based, a social group working on improving techniques.
Bill Koch League Recreational Ski — Sundays, 10 a.m.-noon, for young skiers K-8.
Feb. 24 — MWVSTF’s 30th Annual Chocolate Festival, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., ski, snowshoe or shuttle to trailside lodging establishments, restaurants and stores and sample delicious chocolate treats. $30 advance and $35 day of event tickets support the Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring and Snowshoe Foundation, a non-profit organization.
Sally McMurdo is a cross-country ski instructor at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. For almost four decades, she has explored New England's groomed and ungroomed trails on all kinds of skis.