By Sheila Goss, Tubbs Day Hiking Ambassador
We are fortunate to live in northern Vermont, where opportunities for snowshoeing abound. Within the past few years we have enjoyed making the discovery of, and exploration of, the Catamount Trail system. The 300 miles of Catamount Trail is a fully conserved public-access trail that spans the length of Vermont, from Massachusetts to the Canadian border.
Some of the popular sections can see a bit of skier activity on snowy weekends, but that just provides an opportunity to head to some more remote, though equally scenic, sections of trail. The Catamount Trail has some steep hills, flat sections through woods, frozen cascades and brooks, seasonal and open views, and dense wooded areas…basically, the variety of conditions you might expect to find in a Vermont winter.
Here are some great snowshoer tips for sharing backcountry trails from the Catamount Trail Association.
Catamount Trail Association Snowshoer Tips & Guidelines
The CTA website provides clear guidelines for trail use, and suggestions for safe winter ski and snowshoe travel. Much of the CTA is out of cell phone range, and should you be injured, it may be a while before anyone finds you. Also, be sure to follow the principles of the Vermont Backcountry Ethics, a program of the CTA and VT Backcountry alliance; signs are placed at many trailheads, reminding users to follow these principles, for their own safety, as well as that of other users.
These snowshoer tips are great advice for snowshoe tours in any state or trail system worldwide.
- Snowshoers should travel in single file — creating only one snowshoe track.
- Snowshoers should keep to one side of the trail, allowing the other side the trail for ski travel. This is especially important on hills where folks skiing downhill need sufficient space to make turns, slow down, or stop.
- Whenever possible, snowshoers should avoid stepping on ski tracks.
- Unless you plan to ski a portion of the Catamount Trail that utilizes patrolled ski touring center trails, never ski alone.
- Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Use equipment designed for the backcountry.
- “Eat Before You’re Hungry, Drink Before You’re Thirsty” (i.e. fuel your body and stay hydrated!)
- Bring a map of the area you are skiing, and a compass (and know how to use it!) Do not rely exclusively on your GPS or smartphone, as reception can fail and batteries can die.
- Be prepared for emergencies; have adequate survival gear and supplies.
- Avoid cotton clothing.
- Before you go, familiarize yourself with any possible exit points. If your group has an extra car, it’s a good idea to leave one at a midway exit point in case some skiers want to stop early.
- Be aware of weather conditions and the time of day. The weather changes quickly in the mountains. It also gets cold and dark very early.
- Apply good judgment. The web page and CTA’s guidebook are aids, not substitutes for common sense.
- Be willing to turn back if circumstances call for abandoning a tour.
- Bring a first aid kit.
- Keep dogs leashed.
The Catamount Trail does share portions of the network with VAST (Vermont Association of Snow Travelers) snowmachine trails. We have rarely seen a snowmachine on the network in the areas we frequent, but in other parts of the state, it is more of an issue. The CTA is seeking alternatives to these shared sections of trail, but it is important to be aware that you may encounter snowmachines on the trail. For your safety, be aware that:
- Snowmachine operators cannot hear, and frequently cannot see, skiers and snowshoers before they come upon them. When using these shared stretches stay alert and be prepared to step off the trail at any time to allow snowmachines to pass.
- Snowmachine activity is much greater on weekends than on weekdays so you may want to time your outing accordingly.
On some routes shared by VAST and CTA you will not find CTA blazes, just the green or orange VAST arrow blazes. For this reason, it is suggested you keep a copy of updated trail descriptions with you.
Founded in 1984, the Catamount Trail Association organization advocates backcountry and cross-country skiing for the quality of life, recreational, health, economic and educational benefits they provide. Though primarily a trail for backcountry skiers, snowshoers are permitted on the trail system. Though we are not backcountry skiers, we are members of the association, since we take advantage of the work and effort of the association. The trail does not offer camping or hut options, but for a day trip in the backcountry of Vermont, the snowshoeing does not get any better!
So what is a “catamount”, and why does the trail bear that name? In Vermont, a catamount is a large feline, known in other locations as a cougar or mountain lion. In Vermont, the word “catamounts” is used frequently, to name sports teams, bars, restaurant, and trails, as a credit/homage to our wildlife heritage. The last documented sighting of a catamount in Vermont was in 1881, and that catamount is on display at the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier. Though it has been well over a hundred years since catamounts wandered the mountains and forests of Vermont, the trail passes through their old habitat.
There are 31 sections of the trail, numbered from south to north. We have explored sections 22 north to section 26, since trail access points for those sections can be reached within 30 minutes of our home. Each year, we attempt to snowshoe on a new section of trail, expanding our familiarity with the system. These trail explorations have also given us winter access to areas of the state where we paddle and camp in the summer, providing a new perspective on our beautiful state.
Since it is a winter-only trail, explorations and trail tracking are done in the snow, in sometimes challenging conditions. The CTA does a great job of keeping blazes and trail markings updated; in fact I went out on a work crew this winter with the director of the CTA and the local section chief, to re-blaze a portion of trail around a new sugaring operation. This was a great experience, since I had been unfamiliar with the trail landmarks on this section previously. I now feel confident that I could return there for a snowshoe trek.
It is important to note that some trail routes and conditions do change during the season for various reasons. It is a good idea to check updates on the website prior to heading out on an unfamiliar section.
The trail does pass through state, federal, and private land. This includes some cross-country ski areas and resorts, where specific rules may apply. When you enter the trail system of a Nordic center, please check in at the center. Skiing or snowshoeing the Catamount Trail does not exempt you from paying a trail fee (if required) at the center. It is important to note that most touring centers do not allow dogs on their trails; this restricts some of the sections where we can snowshoe, but with nearly 300 miles of trails, we have yet to get bored!
We have explored only about 10% of the Catamount Trail, and look forward to increasing that percentage over the next few years! We want to snowshoe the section 31, right up to the Canadian border (with our passports in our packs!), and also check out some of the trail in the southern part of our state.
It has been a pleasure to occasionally meet up with other snowshoers and skiers on the trail; inevitably, the conversation turns to our shared gratitude for this wonderful recreational resource. Certainly recommend that you experience this Vermont gem, and support the CTA!