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Changing XC Skiing Stereotypes: ‘Aren’t Groomed Trails Free?’


There are at least three unfortunate typecasts that are really important to the cross country ski world: 

“If you can walk, you can cross country ski”

“Oh, it looks like so much work!”

“It’s free, right?” (meaning: Well, I heard it was free, so I expect it to be free).

Okay, a lot of cross country skiers and not-yet-skiers take all three for the gospel, but here is the ski area operator’s view of these stereotypical views:

First, if you can walk, you can walk on XC skis, but it takes time – and at least one lesson – to really improve, glide, and enjoy skiing more.”

Secondly, “Well, it’s a lot of work if you ski a marathon, but what most people do is ski at their own pace for a couple of hours and still have tremendous fun and get some exercise and fitness while they’re doing it.” New cross country ski equipment performs better (glide easier, get a better grip on uphills, and have better overall control) and allow skiers to be more efficient and save their energy.

A response to the trail fee question is that there’s no free lunch. This answer is more complex than the others because there are a lot of groomed trails maintained by clubs, communities, states, provinces, federal agencies, etc. where there’s no formal fee. Also, skiers have the option of breaking their own trails.

Trail Grooming

Grooming is something that’s not only misunderstood by the public but also sometimes goes unrecognized. Lo! Pristine tracks and corduroy appear in the morning because grooming occurs mostly at night… so what you don’t see happen, you may not appreciate.

First, grooming has huge value, makes skiing and especially learning easier than breaking your own path. Grooming is expensive – and running an oversnow vehicle is just the most visible part of the cost. Even “no-fee” groomed trails aren’t free. They cost someone time and money.

It may be worth explaining that groomed trails typically aren’t just old logging roads through the woods and usually don’t just follow golf course cart paths. Area operators can tell you that it can be expensive to develop the best routes, create trails, and keep them in great shape for the public to enjoy. Selecting the best paths at golf courses without damaging grass isn’t simple either. More than 230 golf courses in North America now have machine-groomed trails.

The cost of trail grooming includes machinery (purchase, maintenance, fuel, storage, payroll, depreciation, replacement), land use fees (purchase, lease, taxes), signage and marking, insurance, parking lot construction and snow clearance, perhaps warming huts or yurts, ski patrol, lighting, snowmaking , etc. Ah yes, and there’s the cost of creating some trails.

Methow Trails Example

According to a story in the MethowValleyNews.com, grooming at Washington’s Methow Trails, cited as the largest XC ski area in North America is estimated to cost $6,400 for an average night of work. Think about clearing trails, trimming trees to make a wider canopy to allow snow to land, minimize debris on the trails, and to help skiers to avoid branches, angling the surface to complement the sunshine or avoid the wind and so on. Maintaining trails covered in wet snow is very different from dry snow. Icy conditions present a completely different challenge of grinding the surface and setting tracks.

It takes about a gallon of diesel fuel to groom one mile of trail according to Methow Trails. The snowcat blade allows a skilled operator to harvest snow moving it around so it covers the trail where needed. The operators could also use a bucket on the snowcat to collect snow and deposit it to uncovered spots.

Trail groomers can be responsible for maximizing every inch of snow, provide more consistent conditions and deliver more skiable days. So hats off to the trail groomer and their cross country ski trails – it’s worth the cost of the trail pass!

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