Parking lots at Vermont trailheads were overflowing for much of the summer, and trail system managers say it could be the same when the snow falls.
The COVID-19 pandemic drove a boom in outdoor recreation during the summer.
“At the end of last season, when all the resorts shut down, the retailers immediately sold out of all the backcountry gear they had,” said Greg Maino, communication and events director for Catamount Trails Association, which maintains a network of cross-country skiing trails.
By last month, Maino said, those retailers were seeing triple normal sales, pointing to a likely boom in cross-country skiing this winter.
R.J. Thompson of the Vermont Hut Association said winter reservations for the nonprofits network of huts, rented out by people who use them to access winter trail systems, tell a typical story.
“Our Chittenden Brook hut is 100% full from Jan. 1 to the end of March,” he said.
Thompson said the location doesn’t usually sell out until December, but this year it was booked up by September, and the other seven locations around the state are already 15% to 20% ahead of where they were for bookings last October.
Recreation managers are expecting snowshoeing to see a leap in popularity, as well.
“We have snowshoes that are free to anyone who’s a member, but it’s only $10 a month to be a member,” said Rutland Recreation Superintendent Kim Peters.
Peters said the city is preparing a variety of offerings, such as indoor bocce for the winter once the relevant state guidelines are released, Options for residents who want to keep their recreation outdoors as the pandemic lingers into winter include Pine Hill Park and 20 acres of the former College of St. Joseph campus, assuming city voters approve a $1.4 million bond next month.
Keegan Tierney, director of field programs for the Green Mountain Club, said the organization expects heightened usage to continue on the Long Trail, even though it doesn’t maintain the trail through the winter.
“The system is open in the winter,” he said. “We just made some active choices, in the club’s history, to not manage for winter use. If we had to manage it, it would mean things like plowing our parking lots up and down the state. We couldn’t do that, financially.”
Tierney said Green Mountain Club trails are mostly well-used enough that people will be able to snowshoe on them in the winter — if they can find parking.
Holly Knox, district recreation program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the federal agency maintains trails for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fatbiking, said the service expects parking to be the limiting factor on access to those trails this winter.
“We only have so many trailheads that are plowed in the winter,” she said. “What we can do is educate the public about skiing places that are less busy.”
Maino said Catamount’s chief concern going into winter is parking as well.
“One of the things we’re encouraging people to have is a Plan B or even a Plan C, or a Plan D,” he said. “Go early, go late or go during the week.”
Maino said overflowing parking lots have the potential to be dangerous in winter and to create tensions with landowners around trail systems. Also, he said newcomers to back-country skiing need to know what they are getting into.
“Your typical resort skier — they’re probably a very competent and comfortable downhill skier,” he said. “There are a lot of things about the back country they need to be aware of — how to dress, how to pack, how to stay safe.”