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Snowshoes, Postholing, and Winter Trail Etiquette

Skis or Snowshoes Required
Skis or Snowshoes Required

It’s a common courtesy among winter hikers to wear snowshoes when hiking on winter trails that are covered in unpacked snow deeper than 8 inches. Hikers who don’t wear snowshoes usually posthole, plunging knee or waist deep into the snow and creating a deep hole that other hikers passing by the same spot might fall into. This can lead to serious leg injuries, but is easily avoided if everyone using the same trails uses floatation like snowshoes or skis.

Trails that have been cratered by someone postholing are extremely annoying to walk on. It’s a lot like playing the game Twister while walking across a minefield. Plus, you have to scratch your head, and ask why anyone would want to posthole in winter because it is so exhausting, not to mention dangerous, because a single person postholing alone can easily become trapped in deep snow. Before you set off on a winter trail covered in unpacked snow, take the time to equip yourself properly with snowshoes and other winter gear so that you can be self-sufficient and not put others at risk if you need to be rescued.

Snowshoers should stay off ski tracks
Snowshoers should stay off ski tracks

But hikers aren’t the only ones using winter trails, especially where cross-country skiing is popular too. Postholing and snowshoeing in existing cross-country ski tracks is also frowned upon because it’s disrespectful to the person who broke the ski track in the first place and will wreck the track, making it much harder and less enjoyable for skiers to ski back on.

When snowshoeing along ski tracks, snowshoers should walk outside an established ski track or create a parallel track next to an existing ski track. That way both snowshoers and cross-country skiers can enjoy the winter trail system in their own way, without conflict or ill will. There’s plenty of snow for all of us to enjoy.

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37 comments

  1. As both a skier and snowshoer, I couldn’t agree more. But I can’t figure out how to effectively reach the clueless bare-booters. I doubt many of them are reading your blog….

    • I make a point to speak with them when I see them. You can’t be confrontational though. There are also lots of new winter hikers who do read the web, so at least we can reach them.

      We’ve had an unusually large problem with postholers this winter in New Hampshire…I thought writing something might help.

      • I admit to being one of the clueless ones. I read this blog regularly as an avid three-season hiker and only went winter hiking for the first time last month. I “potholed” across eight miles and it was awful. I had no idea what I was in for and I apologize for my stupidity! I learned the hard way and I guarantee it won’t happen again!

      • 8 Miles – That is pretty impressive.
        Thanks for saying something here. That takes guts.
        Did you wonder at any point during that hike why it was so difficult to make progress or if maybe you were missing something? I’m just asking – not trying to be “smart”

  2. Try as I might, it’s difficult for me to understand what motivates those who do the postholing. It seems to me that most folks prefer doing things in the easiest manner possible. And so, why would one choose to bareboot it when it’s much less strenuous to walk through deep snow wearing snowshoes? Could it be a matter of economics, i.e. some postholers simply can’t afford snowshoes? Or, is there some macho aspect at play here? Do some postholers feel it’s somehow more “manly” to trudge through the snow without those “sissy” snowshoes? I just don’t get it, but am most willing to listen and try to understand other points of view about this topic.

    • It’s two, things I think, inexperience (not knowing about snowshoes/skis, and a big one, expecting the snow to be as shallow in the woods as it is in the city) and economics, snowshoes and skis are expensive and most people don’t own them.

      Nobody is doing it to be macho, they didn’t bring snowshoes because they either don’t have them or don’t think they will be needed.

      • Snowshoes aren’t that expensive…

      • Speak for yourself mate, especially as a teenager, I can’t justify paying $300 for a bit of gear I’ll use for only a quarter of the year. Snowshoes are expensive but affordable, but skis? Huge money pit. Boots, bindings, skis, wax, all this stuff you need, that you will only use once in a while.

        Young or infrequent hikers can’t spend a ton of money on accessories, when they often barely have enough for the necessities- as a youth I hiked with my schoolbag, a $8 foam mat, a $10 tarp, and my sleeping bag, pride and joy, was a cheap synthetic bought on overstock ;)

        At the end of the day, although we love talking about gear, this hobby is about being outdoors, not what’s in our packs.

      • What are you saying? That winter trail ettiquette doesn’t apply to you?

      • Speak for yourself mate, especially as a teenager, I can’t justify paying $300 for a bit of gear I’ll use for only a quarter of the year.

        Guessing from the use of “mate,” you may be based outside of North America. I don’t know how much a decent pair of snowshoes runs in your neck of the woods, but in the U.S. and Canada a sturdy and perfectly serviceable pair can be had for half that, and I don’t know of any that top out at $300.

    • For me, the first time I post-holed was the first (perhaps second…) time I had actually attempted a snow covered trail. To the coordinators surprise, I did bring snow shoes and put them on to start. However, the start of the trail was icy and steep, and I felt like I was taking 1 step forward, and two steps backward. It just wasn’t worth it. Everyone else in the party was staying up, the ‘shoes became cumbersome, and I took them off. I ended up being *that* guy. I just could not find the good footing, and post-holed the entire way. I ended up ripping the inseam of both legs of my pants to the crotch! That trip sucked! I looked at it as it had to be an issue of technique. In a party of 7 or 8, I was the only one…?

  3. @1happyhiker
    Inexperience?

  4. What about education? Is it possible to get signage (or more, or improved signage) at trailheads?

    • Signage would probably help, but we have hundreds of trails in New Hampshire and the signs be ugly and exoensive to maintain.The problem extends just beyong skiing trail sI’m afraid.

  5. My postholing adventure was definitely inexperience. We were visiting friends in Colorado in winter and exploring the mining areas around Leadville when I decided to take a hike. About four steps out, I decided bare booting was not only dangerous, but no fun whatsoever. I switched to cross country skis and things went much better–until more inexperience set in. Our Colorado friends kept wiping out on a steep downhill stretch and I loudly proclaimed they needed to lean forward like they were on alpine skis and offered to demonstrate the technique. I wondered why everyone wanted to borrow my camera before I tried that stunt… At least I didn’t eat yellow snow!

  6. I think postholing in the Adirondacks is even illegal. Does DEC cite people for postholing?

  7. People are always going to bitch about other people if given the chance….snowshoers about postholing,hikers about bikers(on trails),snowmobilers about skiers,hikers,bikers,’shoeing.Me?I dont care…if you dont have the proper stuff,so what,just seeing more people outside doing things is fantastic.The trails are everybodys to use

  8. In my early twenties I encountered my first deep snow in the Catskills. Growing up in NYC I rarely saw deep snow. I was ignorant of how challenging it could be until I was postholing up to my waist at the base of Slide Mtn. I gave up on it very quickly. At the time a ciukd barely afford the gasoline to travel to those mountains let alone purchase snowshoes. inexperienced people are often ignorant of the etiquette involved in sharing the outdoors. My worst wilderness faux pas was stopping to camp with two of my buddies right next to a couple who were obviously trying to enjoy some privacy. With obvious annoyance they packed up and relocated.

  9. Besides not making potholes on the trail, the other items I’ve noticed:
    * If you have a dog, please keep it under control. Nothing is scarier for a Nordic skier on a twisty, downhill single track than seeing Fido running back and forth. Dangerous for the skier; dangerous for the dog
    * Do not take a break at the bottom of a hill. Ideally, take it at the top and off to the side
    * Winter is where the rules of courtesy are reversed. Downhill traffic has the right of way. Basically, who ever has more control.

    It is not just a matter of courtesy, but safety, too. Even a reasonably experienced backcountry skier (like myself) has trouble being in control when there are potholes, uncontrolled dogs and a group of 10 people sitting at the bottom of a hill. :)

    For the skiers part, if you are unsure of your ability to control yourself in the terrain, side step down. When passing a snowshoer, a nice greeting before you come up to them is not only courteous, but also safer.

    Finally, when the trails say “Skiers only” or “Snowshoers only” or “no dogs”, the signs really do mean, skiers only, snowshoers only or no dogs. :)

    • I was glad you made the point about people resting on the trail. I often see a large group resting on the trail, blocking the way. And if you want to go by you will get angry looks for disrupting their rest.
      People don’t realise that it is very dangerous. If a group is resting on a less visible part of the trail, you might accidentally knock one of them over.

  10. I wish people around here would listen to this advice. The local trails I snowshoe on I usually never see other people with snowshoes. Maybe 1 out of 10 people I come across on the trail use snowshoes. This makes the trails uneven, icy, and even dangerous once everything gets packed down. Some skiers don’t even use the same broken ski paths. I think some people just like to break their own fresh trail every time, so we end up with 4 or 5 parallel ski paths and no room for the hikers.

  11. bit off topic here, but why can’t equestrians follow leave no trace and ride single file without widening the trail when horses beat them up. Instead they lave a muddy mess of a tail….

  12. I just did a 11 mile section hike up the south side of MT Greylock and back down.

    The trail was an absolute mess because of postholers. It was extremely dangerous.

    For those of you complaining about the price of Snowshoes, you can rent them at REI for $20 for the first day and $5 each additional day.
    I had a pair of older snowshoes I broke in the Whites earlier this year so for this hike I rented a pair of MSR Denalis. I’m doing in overnight on the long trail on the 22nd and plan to rent again.

    • I just did a 11 mile section hike up the south side of MT Greylock and back down.

      The trail was an absolute mess because of postholers. It was extremely dangerous.

      I imagine it was a lot worse than usual because of the past couple of days’ thaw/freeze. Not that it’s ever good, unless you happen to be out early enough to break trail (which is its own challenge, obviously).

  13. We learned this lesson a few years back when my wife post-holed the path to the barn, making it extremely difficult for me to carry two full 5 gallon water buckets while wearing snowshoes. Now we wear our snowshoes throughout the season until that path turns to snow-concrete. Sometimes still wear the shoes due to a lack of crampons. Also, plunging hip-deep in snow while carrying about 80 pounds of water will convince you to keep your snowshoes on for the benefit of yourself and others.

  14. I must admit I did a bit of postholing in my younger days – not the best experience. Now more mature, I make sure snowshoes are on hand when exploring.

  15. As a skier frequenting mixed use trails I often find snowshoe tracks pleasant and easy to ski. I can only think of one time (Catamount trail near Grout Pond) when a single snowshoe track made things more difficult.

    As to post holing, could someone please speak to the moose?

  16. This is weird. I live in the Pacific Northwest and almost never see postholes, period. Everyone is on snowshoes or skis. I wonder what the difference is.
    Anyway, my friends and I are often the first to arrive at a snow park and to start out on fresh snow on snowshoes. We make a nice groove as we go. Twice now I’ve had XC skiers come up behind us, in our tracks, and scold us for being on their track. Seriously.
    I’ve been scolded by XC skiers for walking where they wanted to be when that particular track is the only safe passage in that area.
    For the most part I still try to avoid a trail used by XC skiers but secretly I’m thinking, “Hey, it’s the wilderness. If you want a groomed trail go somewhere and pay for it.”

  17. I recently cut short a climb because of the extensive minefield of deep, frozen post-holes…dangerous for me, but also for my dog ( on a trekking line, always!) who could easily break a leg in the deep holes. On this trail, a popular one in a tourist town, I believe it is inexperienced hikers, who probably never thought to use snowshoes….I can’t believe it was much fun boot-hiking in that deep mush!

    • I’m from PA, so we don’t get quite as much snow here, not really enough to need snowshoes in my opinion. I can see that postholes can be a safety issue, but honestly never heard of this until now. The worst I deal with are boot prints in the xc tracks, which happens far too often, but probably not deep enough to be considered postholes.

      Anyway, here is my point of view on snowshoes–maybe shared by others who don’t use them. I’m a runner as well as a hiker. When we do get a foot or more of snow on the trails, I prefer just my running shoes. I can’t even tolerate hiking boots, let alone snowshoes. They alter my stride too much, and I like to feel the ground under my feet. I know runners who use them, but it’s not for me. I also enjoy the challenge of the deep snow, and find it excellent training. Everyone here seems to think it is inexperienced hikers causing the problem, but I’m nowhere near inexperienced. Different gear for different people. However, if I’m on a trail with snowshoes or ski tracks, of course I stay out of them.

      If it’s not postholes, it’s going to be fallen trees, wild animals, etc. It is the wilderness. I dread the day that the trails will all be graded and paved.

  18. Its all too frequent that a ski up to Mount Garfield gets ruined by a post holer. But saying something isnt going to help. It would be helpful if a sign was posted.

  19. I post hole as often as possible during my winter ascents. Not only is it more challenging but I get a good feeling that somewhere down the road, a snow shoer will choose to go through the holes instead of around them and then make an angry post about it on the internet because they have nothing better to do.

  20. I just go where postholers can’t.

  21. Philip,

    A few questions related to all of this, specific to the experience I’ve seen out here in Colorado the past couple of years (in a relatively low-population resort area).

    1. How do the rules of etiquette change on multi-use single-track tails? That’s a lot of what we have up here, mostly developed by the local MTB community. In snow season, there’s not enough room on those particular trails for the skiers to have their own tracks.

    2. On double-track or wider trails, I’ve never see skiers stick to a single line, or one side, or anything close to that. They seem to use the entire trail, often crossing back and forth. Consistently. Now if it were me skiing, I’d understand as I lack the skill to stick to a track. :) But it does make it difficult for another user, either on shoes or on a bike, to not trample over or ride over the ski tracks. Lately, since a lot of us in the community are trying to keep the trails packed in to allow bikes and runners/hikers to use the trails without damage, we make a deliberate effort to smooth out and pack-in as much of these multi-use trails as we can.

    3. Have you found signage like the ones in your post to actually help with the runners and hikers? Increased traffic from this user group seems to be the most trouble on the trails around here lately, just for the reasons you state. I don’t know why anyone would want to go post-holing on purpose (I’ve certainly done it by mistake when I’ve biked into an area I shouldn’t and didn’t realize until it was too late), but certainly a lot of us like being our in the forest so I understand the appeal of just being out there. I’ve often wondered if some friendly etiquette signs would change enough user behavior to have a positive impact or not (I have seen this to be very true with the biker community, at least).

    4. Does official grooming on multi-use trails have an overall positive impact for all groups, or not? I know some skiers want the backcountry experience (even though these really aren’t backcountry trails), so I’m not sure if they’d frown upon grooming or not. It would certainly make the problem of hikers, runners, dogs, and bikers from doing any damage to the snow on the trails.

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