If you’re tromping across a Nordic ski trail, befuddled by lift lines, or generally unaware of how to coexist peacefully with fellow outdoors enthusiasts in an increasingly crowded outdoor space, it may be time for a refresher on fundamental snow sports etiquette. With so many people taking up skiing and snowboarding and hitting the backcountry this winter, it couldn’t be more important. So we’ve reached out to a couple of outdoors experts for their basic how-tos on sharing the outdoors. They’re here to help. There’s no shame in not knowing, but brushing up on a few key rules can make things safer and more functional for all.
How to share a ski trail — Nordic or downhill
Nordic skiing or snowshoeing? The Mountaineers’ Betsy Robblee said brushing up on etiquette would be a good idea this year especially, and the outdoors group has its own comprehensive guide to how to navigate cross-country ski trails, crafted by their Foothills Branch Cross Country Ski Committee. Here are some highlights:
Cross-country ski trails can be one-way or two-way, so always be aware of your trail’s direction (this should be clear from signage and maps at individual ski areas). You wouldn’t drive the wrong way on a one-way street; don’t ski the wrong way either, for similar reasons.
Cross-country ski trails typically accommodate classic and skate skiers, but there are specific rules for each. Classic skiers get dibs on the two ski tracks located close to the trail’s edge. Skate skiers should use the wider, textured part of the ski trail (although you can double-pole in the tracks, too).
Don’t clump up. Skiing right next to someone else from your party is fun, but it makes passing difficult. Keep to single file. This is an especially important rule given the current need for social distancing — don’t force your fellow trail users to group up.
Stop safely. Get out of the tracks and make sure your skis aren’t blocking the way for other skiers.
Pass with care. Classic skiers should pass by getting out of the tracks, going around slower skiers, and getting back into the tracks. A verbal warning of your intention to pass (“On your left.”) can also be helpful.
Downhill skiers have the right of way. For reasons of physics, it’s not a good idea to stand in the way when someone is coming downhill. Yield the right of way and be prepared to get to the side of the trail.
Never, ever walk on ski trails. Never! No! This goes for snowshoers, too. If you’re planning to use a cross-country ski trail for anything that isn’t cross-country skiing, you need to know a few things about grooming, aka the PistenBully-formed smooth surface that makes it possible for skis to glide. Walking on the groomed surface creates divots and clumps that can cause skiers to fall. And this goes for the entire groomed surface: That wide part of the trail that looks like corduroy? It’s part of the grooming, too, and it’s what skate skiers use exclusively. If it’s damaged, they have nowhere to go. Falls can also gum up the trail, so if your hard landing leaves an indentation on the trail, fill it in before going on your merry way.
What about snowshoeing? Kindra Ramos of the Washington Trails Association (WTA) puts it best: “Snowshoeing is permitted on Nordic (or cross-country) ski trails, but snowshoers are requested to keep to one side and not walk across the ski track,” she says. “On steep grades, snowshoers should keep in mind that skiers have the right of way. Do your best to move to one side and allow skiers to pass.”
Sticking to the outside of the ski trail is likely your best bet, with one caveat: If you’re snowshoeing with a dog, the WTA suggests sticking to dedicated snowshoeing areas and staying off ski trails. Groomed trails in Washington’s Sno-Parks don’t allow dogs, because like footprints, their paws ruin the terrain for skiers. You should also assess your dog’s behavioral readiness to be around other people and wildlife, and keep your furry pal on a leash.
These same rules apply to “uphill traffic” at downhill ski areas. If you’re using a downhill ski area for anything but skiing, stick to the sides of trails so you can be easily avoided by skiers. And make sure you’re allowed, and in compliance with specific ski area regulations. For example, at Alpental, uphill traffic is only allowed when lifts are in operation. If the ski area is closed to skiers, it’s closed to you, too.
The conditions of social distancing have made some downhill best practices even more obvious (it’s pretty hard to avoid giving someone else’s skis their space in a socially distanced lift line), but new skiers should be extra careful not to stop on ski trails with traffic behind them.
What about the backcountry?
If you’re just going for a wintry hike, you may not run into the same crowding issues in the backcountry as you would on a ski trail, but you should consider other risks. The WTA recommends checking ahead for weather conditions and avalanche warnings; the Northwest Avalanche Center is a good resource for this. You should also look into road conditions through the Washington State Department of Transportation, and remember that go-to summertime hikes may be risky or even deadly choices in winter. It’s better to hold off and wait for spring — or choose a route that’s closer in — than to wind up in an unsafe situation.
Due to the presence of avalanche chutes or other seasonal hazards, the WTA recommends that hikers in winter avoid Granite Mountain, Big Four Ice Caves, Lake 22, Mount Dickerman, Snow Lake and Source Lake, Mount Pilchuck and Iron Goat Trail. They’re not worth the risk.
When public lands reopened in late spring and early summer, outdoors groups touted a new coalition called Recreate Responsibly, to “offer a starting point for getting outside to keep yourself healthy and to maintain access to our parks, trails, and beaches.”
The group has released an updated set of guidelines for winter, encouraging skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and hikers to plan ahead, practice physical distancing (including wearing a face covering while playing outside), check weather conditions and bring extra gear, keep activities low-risk to prevent injuries, stick to locations close to home, and leave no trace — pack it out if you pack it in.
While these regulations are specific to COVID-19, the final recommendation is not. But it may be the most important outdoor etiquette rule of all: “Build an inclusive outdoors. Everyone deserves to experience a winter wonderland. Be an active part of making the outdoors safe, accessible, and welcoming for all identities and abilities.”