Cross Country Ski Trail Considerations

Trail Layout
Always favor loop trails over linear trails. Develop internal connector trails and cutoffs to allow different trail lengths and permit easy return access for tired skiers. Multiple, short loops with a single access point often are preferable to one long loop. Restrict two-way traffic to the access trail. If traffic must flow in both directions, provide a separate uphill and downhill segment on slopes exceeding 8 percent. When selecting trail routes, favor northeast-facing slopes, where snow cover remains the longest. 

Trail Length
Cross-country skiers travel 2 to 8 miles per hour with most skiers averaging a little over 3 miles per hour. Desired experiences usually range from 2 to 4 hours with trail lengths ranging from 4 to 8 miles. When possible, provide several short loops ranging from 1/2 to 3 miles in length. 

Clearing Width
Light use: 8 feet (one-way traffic)
Heavy use: 12 to 14 feet (two-way traffic)

At least 10 to 12 feet wide on steep uphill slopes to allow for herringbone or sidestep skiing techniques. Double the trail clearing width at trail or motorized roadway intersections. Provide even wider clearance or runouts on downhill sections. 

Clearing Height
8 to 10 feet above expected snow depth 

Additional space where branches may sag with heavy snow, especially conifers 

Tread Width
Light use: 5 to 6 feet (one-way traffic)
Heavy use: 7 to 8 feet (two-way traffic)
Uphill climbs: 10 to 12 feet

Trail Surface
Cross-country skiing trails require regular grooming to maintain a smooth surface. Grooming should begin when snow depth reaches 6 to 12 inches. Specialized equipment such as a large roller or drag with a packer pan may be built or purchased for heavily used trails. However, grooming also can be accomplished using the blade on a small tractor or the tread tracks of snowmobiles, small tractors, or off-road vehicles. The snowbase should be built from the bottom up, so regular grooming is critical after any substantial snowfall. 

On the trail surface, maintain the natural sod or establish a vegetative covering of mowed grasses or legumes. Vegetation plays a critical role in reducing erosion and catching and retaining the snow cover, especially on sloped sections. Remove rocks, logs, and other debris from the trail surface. Cut woody vegetation on the treadway flush with the ground. Avoid sandy soils on steep slopes as they are susceptible to erosion and tend not to hold the snow cover. If the trail will be used in summer, locate it on stable, well-drained soils and apply woodchips, shredded bark, or gravel in wet areas. 

Turning Radius
Provide gradual curves that allow skiers to glide through them. Avoid sharp turns or provide additional trail width to allow skiers to snowplow and negotiate the turn. Never locate a curve on or at the base of a downhill slope. If a downhill curve is required, install warning signs at least 100 feet prior to entering the turn and provide a runout, widen the trail, or increase the turning radius. The runout length, trail width, and turning radius should increase as the slope becomes steeper. 
100 feet
50 feet

Percent Grade
Grade variations enhance the skier's experience, provided that slopes are not too steep. Novice skiers have trouble negotiating slopes exceeding 10 percent, while experienced skiers often can handle short slopes of 40 percent. Break steep climbs by short, level resting places or sections.

Downhill runs should be straight and smooth. Wide switchbacks and gentle grade dips are acceptable methods for climbing steep slopes. End downhill slopes with straight level terrain at least as long as the slope or with a short rise in grade to allow skiers to regain control. 
0 to 5%
10% (sustained)
15 to 25% (shorter than 50 yards)
25 to 40% (shorter than 50 yards, experts only)
0 to 2% (preferred)

Sight Distance
Forward sight distances are not critical on cross-country ski trails except on steep downhill runs or where the trail crosses motorized roads, waterways, or other potential hazards. In these cases, level approaches (less than 5 percent grade) with forward sight distances of at least 50 feet are needed. 

Water Crossings
Use straight, level (less than 5 percent grade) approaches that allow skiers to stop prior to crossings. Never incorporate frozen lakes or rivers into the trail design. Natural water crossings may be used on small, shallow (6 to 12 inches) streams that freeze over early in winter. Ice forms on the bottom of wet skis making further skiing difficult or impossible. Always favor culverts, bridges, and boardwalks, especially if deep water or steep banks are present. Bridge and boardwalk decks must be flush with the trail surface with narrow gaps or no gaps between decking boards to allow for snow accumulation and compaction. The weight and size of grooming equipment play a critical role in bridge design. 

Must be located above the ordinary high water mark and should have rails at least 42 inches above the snow level.

6 to 10 feet (bridges often become narrower as snow accumulates)

Weight capacity:
Variable depending on bridge length, 5 tons or more for maintenance equipment

Compatible Uses
Winter: Snowshoeing
Summer: Hiking, bicycling, accessibility trails for persons with disabilities

Incompatible Uses

Parking area, resting areas and benches at regular intervals, trail shelters every 8 to 12 miles, information board, signs 

Reference: Rathke, D. and Baughman, M. (1997) Recreational Trail Design and Construction. Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota

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