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Winter trail etiquette

A mix of tracks is seen on the Whiteface toll road. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Initially when I sat down to write this, I was going to write, with some frustration, that following the conventions of winter trail etiquette is simple common sense and that some folks just don’t do it. After rolling that thought over in my mind for a short while, I realized that these conventions aren’t necessarily simple common sense at all, especially if you don’t participate in one or more of the many winter pursuits that people enjoy here in the Adirondacks.

There are all manner of ways to enjoy freshly fallen snow and growing ice. Snowshoeing, ice climbing and the dizzying array of different little niches within the ski community are just a few, let alone fat-tire biking, ice fishing and so on. Each one is a little bit quirky and has its own unique brand of adherent. Some folks cross over between the different disciplines, some stick happily to their lane, but each of these pursuits and every niche within them has an etiquette that enthusiasts generally stick to. As with anything else, when such enthusiasts observe the uninitiated or the novice break with these rules of etiquette, it’s often cause for scorn, frustration and mockery. This might be because they’re creating difficult or dangerous conditions for others, or just because their lack of awareness is galling, but it’s a fairly universal phenomenon.

It’s not as often that we consider things from the perspective of that novice or the person who is sharing the trail with you but has, say, never skied before, while you are an avid ski fanatic. For example, if you weren’t a skier, you might assume that it’s just fine to walk in the middle of the hard, packed down ski tracks you find on the Jackrabbit Trail (or, as I encountered just yesterday, on the toll road up the back of Whiteface). It sure seems easier than strapping on snowshoes again after a long day of shuffling around with them. Perhaps in your mind it’s actually better for everyone than making a new track through the fresh snow off to the side of the trail. Maybe you are familiar with the summer Leave No Trace practice of sticking to the existing trail rather than expanding it by walking on its edges, and you think the situation is the same for the winter. Or maybe you’re just on a carefree jaunt in the woods, and you’re not thinking about the consequences your actions might have on someone who is doing something entirely alien to you. You might have no idea that you’re leaving holes in the trail that will create a hazard for other recreators.

Referring back to the person I encountered on the toll road — my initial gut reaction when I saw them walking, bare-booted, down the middle of the ski trial was anger. They had snowshoes strapped to their backpack but weren’t using them, instead leaving fresh divots in the trail. As I began to (rather tersely) ask them to put their snowshoes back on and please not leave post holes all over the ski track, the feedback I got immediately was bewilderment. They had, no doubt, been passed by other skiers. Who knows if those folks said the same thing, but when I had finished my overheated scolding, this person issued some apologies and walked off to the very edge of the trail as I carried on. In my frustration, I had just assumed that this person was being intentionally obtuse. As I saw them approaching without wearing what “the rules” state is the proper footwear, I was crafting my message as if I was going to get a sneering response or a curt dismissal. That was not the case. What I was met with was confusion.

What I’m left with is the realization that those of us who do enjoy these sorts of winter pursuits can’t assume that everyone knows how frustrating some of these things are for us. It’s easy enough to grumble and complain about it after we’ve passed folks committing a trail sin. It’s easy to condemn them as stupid and selfish — and, to be sure, some of them are. Plenty of folks out there just don’t care that they’re making someone else’s life harder as long as it’s not impacting them directly. We see that all the time these days, as a matter of fact, on all sides of the political spectrum and from every walk of life. But we shouldn’t let our understanding of a sport that is, ultimately, niche and particular determine how we pass judgment on those who might not know the things we do. Especially when they are most likely out there on the trail for the shared reason of enjoying the stunning beauty of the Adirondacks mid-winter. Instead, as always, consider taking the time to try to educate before you skip right to chastisement.

In that spirit, I’ll conclude with an appeal to an introductory rule of etiquette. That is, please — think about where you’re walking and what is attached to your feet if you’re out on a trail in the winter. Snowshoes or skis, while not mandatory outside the High Peaks Wilderness, should always be worn while traveling in snow any deeper than 8 inches, even if (perhaps especially if) the snow on the trail is packed down. If you aren’t convinced that this makes travel easier, then please think about who you share the trail with. Is it a dedicated ski trail, or is it primarily for hiking? Reading any sort of tracks in winter is a whole lot easier than any other season. If you notice a clear, clean, straight line in the snow, you’re probably on a trail that people ski. While walking with snowshoes on ski tracks isn’t the worst thing in the world (unless you are the guy on the Bloomingdale Bog trail who deliberately erases ski tracks with his snowshoes — please don’t do that), consider sticking to the edge instead. If it’s primarily a hiking trail, still be mindful of the conditions and the packed track.

Leaving postholes is not just an annoyance; it creates a serious hazard for everyone. Postholes (the foot-shaped craters left by people without proper footwear) are a real and serious danger, not to be taken lightly. If someone goes down with a broken ankle because they couldn’t avoid the hole you left, they might not be able to safely extract themselves before hypothermia sets in, to give one simple example. Whether you’re a skier or a hiker, be aware that any divot or mark you leave may freeze into a semi-permanent feature in the following days, so if you do leave a hole in the trail, take the time to repair it with some fresh snow. Finally, though it might not seem this way for someone new to using them, traveling through snow with snowshoes or skis on is considerably easier than the alternative. The amount of effort you waste by punching knee deep holes for miles is astonishing. If you don’t own them, snowshoes are cheap to rent and easy to use once you get the hang of it. So please, if there is one bit of winter trail etiquette to stick to this winter, it’s to not leave postholes.

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