By: Steve Meurett
Should the riding of fat bikes at established cross country ski areas be allowed? Is it opening a can of worms or providing another recreational opportunity for people who love the outdoors? It’s no secret that Wisconsin winters have been pretty lackluster in recent years, making for very short ski seasons or marginal conditions at best. It’s also becoming apparent that fat-biking is booming and many more cyclists are enjoying riding all year-myself included.
This winter riding surge is not without some controversy. Many of the best XC ski areas in the state are also home to established mountain bike, hiking and snowshoe trails. Often, these “singletrack” trails are designed and hand built by volunteer riders and other trail users themselves, so it’s understandable why they would like to expand their riding prospects to those trails. Some popular destinations, like Levis Mound near Neillsville and Lowes Creek in Eau Claire, have embraced the new sport and worked hard to provide separate riding opportunities within their trail system. These two trails are also county owned and with the influx of fat bikes, revenue has also increased. In fact, a week or so ago, cyclists outnumbered skiers at the Levis Mound Trail.
These two examples work because dedicated enthusiasts have worked hard to prepare trails-packing snow by snowmobile and snowshoe, clearing brush as needed and being respectful of the adjacent groomed ski trails. In the right conditions, fat bikes can damage the skiing surface, so using existing singletrack has been the perfect solution. As an official in the Clark County Forestry and Park department commented “these bikers spend a lot of money on their bikes and tend to be very respectful of the other users, unlike some other county forest users.” That sentiment has echoed among skiers, bikers and snow shoers alike from my experience-everyone has been super friendly while meeting on trail. Of course there is also a lot of curiosity upon seeing the new fat tire bikes.
Some cross country ski areas do not allow fat bikes, like the popular Nine Mile Forest in central Wisconsin. It is one of the premiere ski trails in the state and is also home to a vast network of singletrack. There are plenty of fat bikers in the Wausau area and a newly formed mountain bike club (CWOCC-Central Wisconsin Offroad Cycling Coalition) is more than excited with the thought of riding those trails in winter. Since currently the trail is closed to winter biking (on any type trail), the club has started work on at the Big Eau Paine County Park near Halder. While any discussion on allowing fat bikes at 9 Mile has not looked promising, it’s possible with the success at other ski areas in other counties, perhaps the ban could be revisited.
Pre-Dawn Ski Grooming at Levis-Trow – photo by Steve Meurett
Not allowing fat bikes on groomed ski trails (like foot travel) is the norm at most trail systems, and it seems to work. Could there be a fear of conflict between snow shoers, hikers and bikers? Maybe….but at a system like Nine Mile, the astounding number of trails away from the chalet could insure few problem encounters-if indeed any existed-like I mentioned, everyone seems to get along pretty well. Is it that land managers fear bikers trashing ski trails? Conceivably. Personally, as a ski trail groomer myself, I want perfect conditions if at all possible, but having other trails dedicated to fat bikes (and snowshoeing) has worked and we have zero problems. It could also be single user groups want a trail to themselves-and that is somewhat understandable. Long time clubs who have worked hard to develop a trail may be very protective and less than enthused about sharing a public facility. I think that can be unfortunate, for multiple users can co-exist, as has been demonstrated in many locations.
Then why not play together? I don’t think more people recreating outdoors is a bad thing-but then I am biased. Maybe this is a growing pain of a new sport, much like when skate and classic skiers bumped heads 25 years ago, but now get along just fine. I hope it can work, for I’m finding it isn’t a bad problem to have to choose between a bike, a pair of skis or snowshoes when I head the door, as long as there are plenty of places to use them.
Editor’s Note – Our Amigo Steve Meurett is a trail builder and groomer, as well as being an avid skier and fat-biker. Steve lives up near Black River Falls in West Central Wisconsin. For the last 20+ years, Steve has played a key role, in designing and building, a little slice of heaven called Levis-Trow Mountain Bike Trails. IMBA named Levis an IMBA Epic Trail back in 2002 and things have only gotten better since then. Steve also does the grooming of the xc-ski trails, at Levis, and he now is grooming a loop for fat-bikes. Steve is on the front lines of Fat-Bike Trail Advocacy.
Singletrack Grooming at Levis for Fat-Bikes
Tell us what you think – and remember, we’re all in this, together!
My biggest complaint is the hikers on the trails that don’t wear snow shoes and make deep foot prints in our groomed single track trails for the fat bikes. Just like skiers dont want foot traffic on thier trails, us fat bike riders don’t want that foot traffic ruining our trails. Snowshoes are totally welcome and are also used to pack down treacherous single track too difficult to utilize motorized grooming. I agree too that there are conditions where fat bikes can rut up ski trails like in temps above freezing, but when conditions are right, fat bikes leave less of an imprint on the trails than the skate skiers do.
It’s tough to keep everyone happy, but with responsible trail use, I think that expanding ski trails to fat bike use can be a good thing.
Great article. I have been drawing from the trail edicate and access concerns Fat-Bike has been sharing to formulate a approach to trail access issues locally.
Here in Ogden Utah we have a bit of a different scenario, but many similarities. I am working with organizations on a state level to implement a Test case separating disciplines (Fat Bike, XC Skis, …) using signage and transition zones. The majority of Fat Bike terrain locally is in the form of windy single-track, and does not lend it’s self to XC Skiing, it just happens to intersect it. This is the problem location. No one should have theirs trails neglected nor Bogart-ed.
I am looking to the experiences of others to help us here in Ogden Utah avoid complications and to smooth the Ride. – m
Great article, I’ll be forwarding this on to the local ski areas. Keep it up.
Regarding Nine Mile Forest, the circumstances are a little different then the situation at Levis Mound. First, Nine Mile is close to a major metro area that by proximity generates more demand on the facility from all sorts of user groups. Marathon County has taken an active role in balancing the demands of user groups against the available resource. As a result, there are more or less, given seasons for these activities. For example, mountain biking has a season that runs from May to Oct 15. It cuts off in the fall due to the potential for conflict with hunters. Skiing and snowshoeing cannot officially open until after the deer gun seasons end. This usually means skiing does not open until Dec 15th.
There are several concerns about potential user conflict with the introduction of fat bikes that has caused the County to take a go-slow approach. First, while fat bikes would be limited to certain trails, they would still need to cross the ski trails and the impact of that is unclear. Second, many of the summer mountain biking trails that were suggested for the fat bikes are on the official snowshoe trails and there is concern that this could create some user conflict. There are a whole host of other questions that need to be looked at more carefully before they can allow fat bikes out at Nine Mile. An excellent compromise was made with the opening of the Eau Pleine Park with basically exclusive use of the trails there. Underdown to the north of Wausau is also another nearby destination that is willing to accomadate the fat bikes.
While it may be in the future for Nine Mile to be a fat bike destination, there needs to be a go-slow approach to make sure that current user groups are not negatively impacted. While there isn’t much doubt in my mind that the fat bike riders are good trail user citizens, the more deliberate approach Marathon County is taking is warranted since the asset in question is already heavily utilized and taking on additional uses could unnecessarily cause more issues then it creates.
John, I think I’ll add in my opinion on 9 mile a little here (and just my opinion)… I do take some issue with the season structure at 9 mile (again, MHO)-The fall closure around Oct. 15th is too limiting-I understand, 9 Mi is close to a population center and has many more users, but for hunters, the trail system can be put to an advantage (bow hunting for instance) by stand placement-that is common at Levis Mound, almost like a deer drive. As for small game, 9 MI has tons of recent cut excellent bird habitat and I believe bikers and hunters could share the system. My parents own land adjacent to 9Mi and it is far from the closest singletrack and bordering great small game cover.
Again, there are far more trail users there, but there are also more miles of trail. I think opening some of the singletrack to fat bikes, ones that are further from the chalet, can limit snowshoer conflict. I personally don’t think that will be an issue anyway, but it could be addressed by segregating some of those trails. Packing fatbike trails takes a ton of time and effort, so I would guess that work would only be put into some of the trails anyway, again, limiting conflict.
We have had almost no impact where fatbikes cross ski trails. Less so that hikers or deer 😉
The Underdown and BEP may be good destination trails, but they also are away from the population center you mentioned that would use them, so 9 MI is much more convenient.
I’m not sure what Marathon County has for rules governing “non-developed” trails or snowmobile trail use on cty property, but in Clark Co. they are open for non motorized travel any time of year. Obviously, the deer season would not be safe unless blaze orange is used. My only thought here is could sno mo and atv trails be a resource for riding when other trails (ie: singletrack) is closed? Just a thought.
I see the point of moving slow at 9MI, but I also hope it can move forward-I ski a lot, ride and snowshoe and grew up as a kid on the 9 Mi trail, so I hope I have some perspective on what I hope can work. Thanks for your comments.
Great article. I think there’s a couple factors at play here as well. It seems in areas that have dedicated trail crews or advocacy groups, winter access is less of a problem. Also, areas where the skiers and MTBr’s are the same people, seems more accessible as the various users know and respect eachother.
In other areas(SE WI), skiers and MTBr’s are totally different people that don’t cross over much. That’s where access (to ski trails) is more challenging. That’s also when it pays to get involved, build trails and you have a lot better chance of getting to use them year round.
At our county park which has separate ski, MTB & hiking trails, we’ve agreed wth the park management to only allow fatbikes and snow shoes on the MTB trails during heavier snow and bikes must always yield to other trail users at intersections. Take it a little easy, be courteous and everyone can get along!
I do all three activities. I don’t have a problem with it as long as the trails don’t get trashed and people don’t abuse it.
We are enviously dreaming of such an opportunity here in Ottawa, Canada as well.
Most of our XC ski trails are managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC). The Holy Grail for fat bikers here would be legal access to the Gatineau Park trails which feature hundreds of kilometres of groomed and trackset parkways and groomed trails. The park also features cabins with woodstoves to warm up in and a series of winter camping cabins and yurts. It’s currently a no go though – bikes are banned anywhere in the Park from November 30th – May 15th. Skiers here are extremely anti-anything other than skis on the groomed trails.
The NCC also has management responsibility for Greenbelt trails in the Ottawa area. The NCC does not ban bikes there explicitly so sharing is starting to be an issue.
On the positive front, our local IMBA affiliate (OMBA) has worked with the City of Ottawa and created a network of biking trails in the South March Headlands- a conservation area in an urban setting. Fatbikes, snowshoers, walkers and some skiers are sharing reasonably well there. We have more goodwill given the OMBA membership has worked hard building the system, mapping and signing it as well as maintaining it.
C’est ben correct comme ca , la Sépaq est pire encore que la CCN
nordic trails are always gonna be a problem because nordic councils will always see it that way, except in certain locations. I think we need to groom our own trails with snowshoes. So simple, so much more fun to ride, and no conflict with others.
This is a good read that reflects both some good situations and very familiar user conflicts within our respective areas. Here in Bend, Oregon we have great Nordic systems, but none of them have been receptive to even opening dialogue about allowing Fat Bikes. I have offered to sit down and open dialogue and hear concerns and try to work with two specific local groups and neither is receptive listening. That said, I have been more than welcomed by crowds in the Snowmobile Community when I have been encountered sharing some of the same trail that they use. Most are curious, and I always take the philosophy of giving them the right away, being defensive in my riding rather than trying to encroach myself upon them. The MTB’er’s rule these same trails when it’s dry, so I think there is a pre-exisiting condition amongst certain crowds. The Snowmobile’s have been curious about the bikes, but keep in mind that my tracks don’t do anything to disturb what those guys are doing on their sleds. The idea amongst the nordic skiers seems to be that I’m going to doing the red bull rampage on their nordic system, and, as most of you know, that is simply not the case.
I have forwarded videos from Grand Targhee and Methow and even solicited both of those groups for advice in opening dialogue and they have both responded with great feedback and given me insight into what the perspective may be from the Nordic side of things.
I hope to have an audience at some point. 4 local shops carried Fat Bikes this year and 3 of them sold out of most of it’s stock. Plus, Fatback has a warehouse and distribution center here, so the exposure of Fat Bikes within the community has been raised. Hoping enough interest will make all parties sit down and work out strategies to play well together.
The only solution to not wanting to share trails is to buy your own land and manage it the way you want. Public trails are for everyone – times change, new user groups emerge, and they all have a right to access public land.
XC skiers use multi-use trails all the time; footprints, pawprints, horse tracks, bike tracks, and loose dogs and all, and it’s all fine. There’s no reasonable argument for not sharing trails with other users.
As an XC skier I am worried about damage to the groomed surface. As mentioned, in many conditions, fatbikes leave less of a rut than skate skiing, but keeping bikers of trails in the wrong conditions is hard.
For snowshoers and bikers, no issues.
Fatbikes on snowmobile trails, safety concerns apply. If you’re grooming a snowmobile trail, you might not want to come flying around a corner and run into a biker.
Fatbikes and hikers, well I’d say, if its ungroomed, it’s fair game, but if its groomed, stay off without snowshoes.. This again can be hard to enforce.