“Aren’t Groomed Trails Free?”

Grooming is more complicated and expensive than most people think.

There are at least three unfortunate stereotypes 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 gospel, but here is an xc ski area operator’s view of these stereotypical views:

First, if you can walk, you can ski. But “it takes time – and at least one lesson – to really improve, glide, and enjoy skiing more.”

Second, it’s a lot of work. “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 better grip on uphills, and have better overall control) and allow skiers to be more efficient and save their energy.

Third, it’s free right? 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.

Appreciating 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. What you didn’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 over-snow vehicle is just the most visible part of the cost. Even “no-fee” groomed trails aren’t free. They cost someone time and money.

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 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. As you can see, it’s not a simple task. But it’s one that is often unrecognized and under appreciated.

So hats off to the trail groomer and their cross country ski trails.It’s certainly worth the cost of the trail pass!

Beautifully groomed trails make the xc experience accessible and easy for all, especially beginners.


  1. This is a GREAT article.

  2. Thanks for photos – top: Maplelag Resort, MN and bottom: Methow Trails, WA

  3. Suzanne Welch says:

    Good article. I’d add a point to the section on its hard. I coached and gave lessons for years, many of those who are struggling are on skis that are too big or too stiff for them to handle. Also, old equipment, especially 3-pin bindings, which are still out there, cause skiers to feel like they have no control and again lead to difficult experiences.

  4. Really good article. A major retailer set XC back years when they advertised, “You can do it in your own back yard.” Folks tried it and most of the skis they sold wound up stored forever in a garage. This was in the 70’s and that retailed now runs clinics for newcomers on groomed trails because that’s how you have fun.
    Dave Irons

  5. Kelli Majiros says:

    I sure miss my local xc ski area in the Laurel Mountains of SW PA! Now that I live in the Poconos I can’t find anything like it! I wish more resorts had xc skiing onsite.

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