The biggest disparity between going cross country (XC) skiing on your own through the woods and XC skiing at a commercial XC ski area is trail conditions. Trail grooming at commercial XC ski areas (that charge a trail fee) refers to using a vehicle with attachments to rework the snow to provide consistent ski and trail conditions.
A compacted trail surface with set tracks will help skis to glide forward with minimal energy loss so that skiing is easier, beginners can learn to ski under control more quickly, and skiers can go further more efficiently. Icy trail conditions can be renovated and made skiable, and trails with little snow can be made skiable and last longer. Other important grooming situations include packing new snow to decrease wind susceptibility and conditioning deeper snow pack on high traffic trails, instruction areas, and down hills.
According to the "Cross Country USA Ski Area Development Manual" by Nordic Group International, "Good trail grooming is somewhere between a craft and an art," but the most prevalent factors to grooming the XC ski area trails include the snow conditions, temperature, humidity and exposure, the type and size of vehicle and attachments, and operator skills.
Chris Meyers of Bohart Ranch in Bozeman, MT spoke with XCSkiResorts.com about his 26 years of trail grooming commenting, "For the skier, you want it to be easy to ski and you don't want it icy." He goes out before sunrise when the humidity is lowest and it is coldest for his grooming to get better compaction of the snow. Also, there're no skiers on the trails at that time. As the sun comes out, the trails set up.
In general, ski trail groomers use a snowmobile or a large snowcat and each has its benefits and detriments. To the ski area operator, the significant issues include the cost of acquiring the grooming vehicle, the cost of fueling and maintaining the vehicle, depreciation, and finding a reliable skilled groomer (operator).
"Snocats" are big tractors with treads, which employ front and rear attachments (such as snowblade, tiller, powdermaker, compactor, or tracksetter) to rework the snow. Doug Edgerton of Yellowstone Track Systems and distributor of the Ginsu Groomer shared information with XCSkiResorts.com about the cost of trail grooming saying, "The big vehicles can cost $200,000 for a new one, but many ski area operators purchase used grooming vehicles and attachments. Running a large vehicle could cost in the range of $75-100 per hour. Gasoline alone can be about $25 per hour. Smaller snowmobiles with attachments that are used for trail grooming can cost between $12-14,000."
Snow farming is used by many ski area operators to retain snow, create cache sites in drift areas and shovel snow for later redistribution. Wet areas can be covered in hay bales or hay over plywood to hold the snow. Snow fencing can be mounted on skis and towed to different trails to catch the snow during snowstorms.
Front blades on a snocat are used to move snow around and borrow it from trail edges or caches. Tillers are used to break up ice, crust, and ski-compacted snow. Snow rollers can pack the snow to prevent it from blowing away or melting too quickly. Of course, more areas are now investing in snowmaking to produce machine-made snow that has to be moved and conditioned on the trails.
The Jackson Ski Touring Center recently upgraded their fleet of snow grooming tractors with the addition of a brand new $175,000 state-of-the-art Kassborher PB 100 grooming vehicle, which was added a new grooming implement to supplement their early season grooming fleet. The new PB 100 grooming vehicle incorporates the latest in grooming technology and Jackson's former Executive Director Thom Perkins said, "Over the years, we've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing the surface of the trails to be able to groom with the first snow of the season. Skiers can be assured that with this new equipment, our crew will be able to provide even better skiing."
All in all, we have the trail groomers to thank for XC ski trails that are consistent, safe, and fun to ski. Photos: Maplelag Resort, MN (Top) Snocat trail groomer and (lower) snowmobile with rolling compactor.