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Article Breakdown: Managing Land Use Conflict among Recreational Trail Users (Neumann & Mason, 2019)

Updated: Jan 11

Summary and Application By: Kelsey Johansen


Fat Bikers Riding Along a Winter Trail in the Mountains

Article Summary

In this Article Breakdown, I explore the key findings of Neumann and Mason's (2019) journal article on Managing land use conflict among recreational trail users: A sustainability study of cross-country skiers and fat bikers published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism and talk about how their findings, based on research conducted in Alberta and British Columbia, can be applied by trail organizations in other parts of Canada. If you're interested in reading the original, full, academic article, you can access it here.


Neumann & Mason's (2019) research explores the types of conflicts that occur between cross-country skiers and fat bikers, and defines applicable solutions for cross-country ski facility managers to reduce these conflict while integrating the use of fat bikes into their trail systems. But first, let's look at some of the important background information...


The Rise of Fat Biking

Recent developments, including technological advancements in the last 10 years, have lead to the popularization of fat biking, also known as snow biking or fat tired biking.


Comparison between a MTB (Top) and Fat Bike (Bottom)

Fat bikes excel at riding on soft surfaces, making them ideal for riding in deep snow, soft sand, and over loose gravel. As with any bike, riders should avoid muddy trails to minimize damage to the trailtread, and the creation of ruts as the trail dries.


While the fat tires provide extra traction and comfort on these types of terrain, there is often a learning curve that goes with learning to ride a fat bike. This is because the wide soft tires of fat bikes mean that they have a lot of rolling resistance, plus fat bikes are often heavier, and have fewer of gears. This can require extra effort to pedal, while also making for a slower ride compared to traditional MTB bikes.


As fat biking has increased in popularity, enthusiasts in search of venues to ride have turned to cross-country ski facilities. While some cross-country ski facilities have expanded their product offerings to include fat bikers, as well as other types of winter trail users (e.g., alpine touring skiers, splitboarders, and snowshoers, etc.), others are hesitant to do so, citing concerns over user safety, and potential conflict or trail damage.


Cross-Country Skiing in Canada

While fat biking is a relatively new recreational activity, with modern fat bikes becoming commercially available as recently as 2005 (when Surly released the original Pugsley fat bike frame) and 2013 (when Trek and Specialized released their first fat bikes), records show that cross-country skiing has been practiced in Scandinavian countries for the last 4000 years. Cross-country skiing was brought to Canada in the 1880's by Scandinavian settlers who began organizing ski clubs and creating trails, and contemporarily, over 3.5 million Canadians own cross-country ski equipment and during the winter months over 2 million Canadians ski at least once a week (DBC, 2009).


Not surprisingly, this means that cross-country skiing is well-developed as a winter sport in Canada with a lot of information available about the needs of cross-country skiers, how best to groom trails for different styles of cross-country skiing (e.g., traditional / nordic, skate ski, skijoring, etc.), and that there is well-established trail etiquette within the equally well-established Canadian, and indeed global, cross-country skiing community.


As Neumann and Mason (2019) acknowledge, "while cross-country skiing has a

well-established past, it is only in the last decade that fat biking has established itself" (p. 2). This means that that cross-country ski facilities have been present in Western Canada for over a century, and historically have faced limited competition for recreational use of

their trail networks on public land.


To ensure that the introduction of fat biking is properly managed, and creates a positive opportunity to "increase the use of public land for healthy pursuits with high economic impacts in tourism, recreation and leisure related industries" (Neumann & Mason, 2019, p. 2), the differences in the needs of both user groups must be understood, as well as the potentials for conflict.


To understand these issues, and generate recommendations that would help other cross-country ski areas to maximize the economic and social benefits of expanding their product offerings, while still maintaining the high quality experiences of their existing users, Neumann and Mason (2019) interviewed cross-country ski facility and area operators, and trail users in British Columbia and Alberta using a community-based participatory approach.


Here's what they found...


Perceptions of Conflict on Multi-Use Trails and Perceived Impacts

As people working in trails, you know that inter-user group conflicts are not new. But do you know why it happens, or how to prevent it? According to Neumann and Mason (2019)"conflict among outdoor recreationalists can take place when a goal or objective of one user group is interfered with by another user group's physical presence or behaviour" (p.2).


When we think about the impact of behaviour, it is easy to see how recreationists' behaviour can alter the desired social or physical components of the experience. For example, by going in the wrong direction on a trail or in tracks, not yielding right of way to cross-country skiers traveling downhill in the tracks, failing to fix your divots after a fall so that it has a limited impact on the track and track wall, and postholing (damaging a snow trail when hiking, or snowshoweing by allowing your legs to sinking deep into the snow with every step).


Understanding the impact of a user group's physical presence can be a bit tricker. Often it arises as social values conflict, which occurs when groups do not share the same values regarding an activity, or a leisure setting. Think, for example, about conflicts between hunters and birders / wildlife photographers who use the same geographic locations for their leisure pursuits. Simply the knowledge that the other group recreates in the same space can ruin the experience, even without direct contact between the two user groups (Neumann & Mason, 2019).


Safety and Risk

Neumann and Mason (2019) also found that differences in speed, trail direction and user

control played a large factor in the perceived safety and risk of integrating fat bikers into infrastracture historically only used by cross-country skiers.


One of the key differences between technical use of a fat bike, compared to cross-country skis, rests in the skill required to brake and change direction to, for example, avoid a collision.


Neumann and Mason (2019) note that commercially manufactured fat bikes have "brakes to control speed and a handle bar to control the direction of travel"(p. 5), both of which can be mastered by novice fat bikers with minimal basic pre-ride instructions. This differs for cross-country skiers, where "the control of speed and direction are entirely related to the skier's technical ability" (Neumann & Mason, 2019, p. 5). As a result, "cross-country skiers require greater skill, experience and room to stop and maneuver their skis efficiently" (ibid) in comparison to fat bikers and their bikes.


This is important factors for trail managers, and trail users, to understand, as the ease with "which new users can control their speed and direction are important factors in signing, mapping and right-of-way on a trail system" (ibid). Consequently, the ski resorts studied by Neumann and Mason (2019) "decided that fat bikers must give way to cross-country skiers and snowshoers" (ibid). Combining 'right of way' education, with information sessions about what fat biking really is, helped the ski resorts studied by Neumann and Mason (2019) to ensure that "not a single reported case of a close call or collision between a fat

biker and a cross-country skier [occured] since they opened their facility to fat biking" (p. 7).


Damage to Trails, Different Trail Users' Needs and User Seperation

Rather than safety and risk, the most common complaint among cross-country skiers who has negative encounters with fat bikers was related to trail damage (Neumann & Mason, 2019). This is largely attributed to the different trail conditions needed, and trail impacts associated with, classic nordic skiers vs skate skiers vs fat bikers. Groomed trails, such as those depicted below, help cross-country skiers to achieve their recreational goals.


Groomed Ski Trail Overlooking Foggy Mountain Range
Groomed Ski Trail Overlooking Foggy Mountain Range

This is because classic nordic skiers rely on the groomed classic track to guide their skis

around the trail system, while skate skiers rely on a smooth and level surface to maximize the glide and efficiency of their stride. In the image above, you can clearly see two sets of uni-directional classic tracks, interspersed with smooth and level surfaces for skate skiers. Trails like this are "typically set into the snow by a grooming implement on either side of a level skate lane in the middle of the trail" (Neumann & Mason, 2019, p. 7). Setting and maintain these tracks, requires considerable effort by a team of, often volunteer, groomers.


Development of fat bike-specific trails also allows resorts, facilities and organization to development trails that meets the needs of diverse fat bikers with different skills and experience levels, and who, as a result, are looking for different riding experiences and trail conditions.


Grooming seperate and designated fat biking trails helps ensure that fat bikers stay off the smooth and level surfaces set for skate skiers, and separation of trail users helps reduce conflict (Neumann & Mason, 2019, p. 8). But grooming is not just about reducing conflict. Fat bikers also benefit from groomed trails - riding groomed trails makes for a much easier and enjoyable outing, especially for newbies because groomed / packed surfaces are easier to ride. The best conditions for fat-tire snow biking are hard packed trails with a 4-inch base.

In this short (4-minute video), fat bike enthusiast James McKee breaks down the history of fat biking, the importance of grooming fat bike trails, and talks about leading a team of volunteers who groom the Cranbrook BC area's Fat Biking trails with a machine known as a 'Snowdog'.


Separating users also helps to reduce the overall user volume on trails, which in addition to reducing inter-user group conflict also reduces environmental and trail impacts. However, Neumann and Mason (2019) recognize that "Separating trail users on purpose built

trials is a common, yet resource heavy tactic for resolving conflict" (p. 8). To address this they recommend employing a mixed system of both single and multi-use trails. One simple and cost effective way to achieve this is by opening summer single track mountain biking trails to the fat bikers during the winter months and designating them as fat bike only trails. Then, ski resorts can subsequently idenify existing trails as being optimally designed for multi-purpose (fat bike and cross country skiing) or cross country skiing (classic and skate) only.


If this approach is undertaken, it is important to reflect on whether the ski resort in question has the skills and equipment needed to groom summer singletrack mountain biking trails during winter, or whether they will operate them either as ungroomed trails, or in partnership with a local mountain biking or singletrack club who takes over winter grooming responsibilties through a trail stewardship or other partnership agreement.


A clear understanding of best practices for integrating fat bikes onto ski trails, or creating new multi-use trails, is therefore an essential next step towards conflict-free integrated use.


Best Practices for Integrating Fat Bikes on Ski Trails

In sub-zero temperatures, "a fat bike tire does no more damage to a ski trail then a skate ski gliding over the surface of the snow" (ibid). However, in warm spring conditions or in above freezing temperatures, immediately after the trail has been groomed, or with the improper tire pressure or tire size fat bike can cause damage to these purpose-specific groomed trails.


In addition to grooming practices, and user seperation, the development of best practices, including, education, communication, and user seperation can help avoid this. Ski resorts studied by Neumann and Mason (2019) implemented the following best practice guidelines for fat bikers:


  • Fat bikes should yield to all other trail users and ride only on designated trails.

  • Ride on firmest section of designated trails.

  • Do NOT ride in, on, or across, classic tracks.

  • Stay to the right on all corners.

  • Allow a minimum of 6 hours for snow to set up after grooming.

  • Use fat tire bikes only.

  • Clean muddy tires before riding on snow trails.

  • Do NOT wear headphones while riding.

  • Use bright lights and reflective clothing if riding at night.

  • Be an ambassador of the sport - be polite, educate other riders, discourage bad behaviour, and follow the rules.

  • Help out and get involved by joining your local cross-country ski club or volunteering to help maintain the trail system.


Fat bikers should also avoid riding trails if:


  • They are leaving a tire rut deeper than 1 - 2 cm.

  • They are having a hard time riding a straight line.

  • Their bike tires are less than 3.7 inches wide.

  • Their tire pressure is greater than 6 psi.


Education and communication strategies help ensure the smooth roll out of these best practices, and should target all trail users.


Education and Communication Strategies

Neumann and Mason (2019) found the following education and communication strategies and topics the most effective way to mitigate inter-user group conflict in Western Canada:


  • Education and Communication Strategies for Cross-Country Skiers:

    • Information Briefings for Cross-Country Skiers focused on sharing the trail, learning safe stopping and turning skills, resort grooming practices, how to avoid damaging groomed trails / set tracks, differences between fat bikers and mountain bikers, and right of way education.

  • Education and Communication Strategies for Fat Bikers:

    • Information Briefings for Winter Fat Bikers focused on sharing the trail, safe stopping distances for fat bikers, how to determine optimal trail riding conditions and reduce snowpack degradation, resort grooming practices and riding skills needed for groomed versus ungroomed and shared versus fat bike trails, how to avoid damaging groomed trails / set tracks, differences between classic and skate skiers stopping distances, fat biking best practices, and right of way education.


But that's not all that Neumann and Mason (2019) found; they also note that conflict can be further mitigated with good trail design and maintenance.


Mitigating Conflict with Good Trail Design and Maintenance

Lastly, Neumann and Mason's (2019) study confirmed that trail designed using sustainable

building techniques can reduce the environmental impacts on trail systems as well as the potential for inter-user group conflict (p. 8). Some ways to ensure this when designing winter fat bike trails include:


  • Designing and constructing fat bike trail to always intersect at 90-degree angles with cross-country ski trails to ensure maximum visability of other trail users, and

  • Considering the radius of the corners and the steepness of the hills when designing trails that will be groomed trails with the snowmobile - this means implementing gradual corners, that are a minimum of four feet wide and have an appropriate grade (<10%) for the snowmobile to climb;

  • Designing and building trails that are specific to intended users, while considering aspects such as grade, sight lines, trail width, and technical difficulty will help trail users achieve their recreational goals;

  • Routinely maintaining and grooming trails for their intended users helps to ensure that the intended user group continue to recreate on the trail, which also deters access and use by unintended users; and,

  • Routintely grooming BOTH cross-country ski and fat bike trails also helps to ensure that trail users stick to their intended trails, and do not migrate onto the groomed trails intended for other user groups.

Now that we've explored all of Neumann and Mason's (2019) findings, let's take a look at how they can be operationalized in other parts of Canada.

Application to Canadian Trails

Ultimately, Neumann and Mason (2019) concluded that fat biking experience offerings can be successfully integrated into those provided by a traditional cross-country ski facilities, resorts, and other winter tourism facilities without compromising the experiences of either trail users group. However, to be successfuly, these facilities need to use diverse managerial strategies, including:


  • Effective communication and education of the trail users, including two-way communication between different groups of recreationists and continuous user education through appropriate signage and outreach;

  • Identification of trail user requirements, and subsequently, designing and building of both single and multi-purpose trails;

  • Maximising the capacity of the facility and the available resources; and,

  • Monitoring of environmental impacts including the disturbance of wildlife. (Neumann & Mason, 2019, p. 1).

While this study was conducted in Canada, it is important to note that what worked in British Columbia and Alberta may not work in other Canadian provinces and territories with different historic winter trail use patterns and activity preferences.

Management Best Practices for Winter Multi-Use Trails

Canadian ski resorts, and cross-country ski clubs looking to capitalize on the socio-economic benefits of fat bike integration on winter multi-use trails should carefully consider their own context before wholesale adopting these findings. This means:


  1. Asking the user groups you hope to integrate onto winter multi-use trails about their "gut reactions" to the news, any reservations they have, including fears over safety, and preexisting inter-user group conflicts that need to be addressed first;

  2. Once you are prepared for some of the questions you may receive, hosting a series of

  3. Survey your province / territory or region to see what the right-of-way and yield practices employed else are, and where appropriate either adopt or modify these for use on your trails to make it a smoother transition for your users who may be accustomed to multi-use winter trail use best practices used elsewhere;

  4. Carefully consider the facility capacity and resources your have at your disposal, including appropriate financial and human resource capacity (including salaried, seasonal / part-time and volunteer staff);

  5. Join a Regional Trail Organization or Provincial / Territorial Trail Organization to help cultivatei nformation exchange between trai operators / facility managers focused on sharing the successes and failures of integration tactics, signage ideas, trail

  6. Recruit volunteers from amongst your diversified trail user group, and train them as trail groomers, or get them involved in group rides and events. This fosters positive and reciprocal relationships with all users who access a ski resort, club-operated trail system, or multi-use local trail.


Integrating fat biking presents a unique opportunity for cross-country ski facilities to diversify, while also taking advantage of a new market that is not as directly affected by climate change compared to skiers (Neumann & Mason, 2019, p. 9). Despite this, Neumann and Mason (2019) advise that ski facilities avoid being blinded by these economic benefits, and undertake diligent pre-planning before attempting to integrate fat biking on existing trail networks, including the steps outlined above, as many variables can influence the success or failure of integration and ultimately the future of winter fat biking.

Additional Resources

IMBA Canada has a series of recommended Best Practices for Fat Biking that discussed basic equipment guidelines for a fat bike that will primarily be ridden in snow, as well as

best practices for fat biking on Groomed Nordic Trails, for riding on Snowmobile Trails, and for riding on natural terrain and in the backcountry.


Singletrack Comms recently published a short guide explaining winter trails highlighting the trail infrastructure and grooming needs of diverse winter trail types and REI has published a Guide to Winter Trail Etiquette which provides an excellent overview of general winter trail user's etiquette, as well as specialized guidelines for cross-country skiers, snowshoers, alpine touring skiers and splitboarders, and fat bikers, which also includes a note on snowmobilers.


Where To Go from Here

If you're looking for more information about trail planning, check out our earlier blog posts 'All Trails Should Have a 'Shovel-Ready' Project' by Kirsten Spence and Jane McCulloch, 'Recreation Ready or Tourism Ready: What Carrying Capacity Has To Do With It' by Kelsey Johansen, or 'Transformative Placemaking, Regenerative Tourism, and Trails' by Kelsey Johansen.


Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, including how to apply any of the study's recommendations to your trail, how to manage land use conflict among recreational trail users, please reach out to us at: info@trailresearchhub.com.


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