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Risk management for Public Entities: Multi-Purpose Winter Trails

As the winter season brings about the colder and snowy weather, it transforms municipal places and spaces and provides the opportunity for patrons to participate in a number of winter activities, which can include the use of multi-purpose winter trails.
Two women walk with snowshoes on the backpacks, winter trekking, two people in the mountains in winter, hiking equipment

As the winter season brings about the colder and snowy weather, it transforms municipal places and spaces and provides the opportunity for patrons to participate in a number of winter activities, which can include the use of multi-purpose winter trails.

Although multi-purpose trails can be a source of fitness and enjoyment for patrons of all ages during winter, understanding their safety risks is essential for municipal entities. They need to consider a range of risks associated with operating these trails and address them through the implementation of a comprehensive risk management plan to help prevent injury, severe harm, or death.

The following guidance highlights key areas of consideration for municipal entities as they provide multi-purpose winter trails for their community. It should not be seen as an exhaustive list and should be used in conjunction with internal policies and procedures, as well as in compliance with local laws and regulations.


When determining where to establish trails within their jurisdiction, it is essential for municipal entities to understand both the environment in which the trail will be located and the activity types that will be permitted on the trail. While natural elements create great interest for trail users, in some cases they also need protection from trail use. Ideally, the trail should have minimal negative impact on the environment. To provide a safe and fun experience, municipal entities need to consider the following criteria:

  • Environmental assessment
    • Accessibility — how will users safely get to the trail? Is there enough space for user traffic?
    • Vistas — what are the geologic, scenic, or historic elements you would like to highlight on this trail?
    • Slope – will the steepness of the trail be safe for users?
    • Waterway crossings — will bridges need to be built to accommodate user traffic?
    • Wildlife — can a trail be built that allows users to see the wildlife without disruption?
    • Vegetation — how much vegetation will need to be removed to accommodate the trail?
    • Drainage — can a trail be built that maintains and leverages the natural drainage patterns?
    • Intersections — where will this trail intersect with other trails, train tracks, or road traffic? How will the traffic flow?
    • Avalanche and landslide risk — what is the avalanche and landslide risk of this area?
    • Sustainability — can a trail be built here with minimal disruption to the natural setting?
  • Permissible activities
    Consider which activities you plan to allow on your trails, as guidelines may differ.
    • Walking and hiking.
    • Snowshoeing.
    • Cycling.
    • Cross-country skiing.
    • Motorized activities, such as ATV driving and snowmobiling.


Municipal entities need to leverage various communication channels, such as media releases, website updates, and social media updates, to disseminate information to their communities regarding the multi-purpose winter trails in their jurisdictions. This information can include the following:

  • Location of the trails.
  • Hours of operation.
  • Emergency closures.
  • Permissible and non-permissible activities.
  • Safety measures in-place.


Municipal entities need to thoughtfully design the trails within their jurisdiction in order to maximize the safety of users. Well-designed trails will also aid with trail inspection, maintenance, and communication activities, as well as help ensure consistency on what the community can expect when using the trails.

  • Features
    • Trailhead — the start of the trail
      • Make sure trailhead is highly visible to users so that they understand they are entering a trail.
      • Understand that the trailhead establishes user expectations of the trail. If the trailhead is well designed, users will assume the trail is as well.
    • Trail treadway — the surface of the trail
      • Design the trail tread to sustain both the type and amount of intended use.
      • Anticipate that the trail tread may be much higher than the ground surface due to snow accumulation.
    • Trail clearing limit — the area around the treadway that is cleared for safe passage of users
      • Ensure vegetation does not intrude on or above the trail tread.
      • Anticipate how the weight of snow and ice on tree branches and bushes might affect their location.
    • Buffer zone — the space on the sides the trail clearing that protects the environment from trail traffic
      • Remove any vegetation that might obstruct the vision of users travelling downhill or around a bend.
      • Remove any noxious vegetation.
    • Slope –the steepness of the trail treadway
      • Install signage or markers advising users of steep areas on the trail.
    • Boundaries
      • Install fencing, bollards, or other barriers to control entry and exit to the trail.
      • Place barriers such as fences, railings, ribbon, or rope to help draw attention to and protect users.
    • Intersections
      • Maintain clear sight lines at all intersections.
      • Plan for traffic flow – the trailhead width should account for congregating users waiting for traffic to pass.
      • Post stop signs at all intersections where the trail crosses motorways.
    • Amenities
      • Parking.
      • Restrooms.
      • Benches.
      • Garbage and recycling area.
    • Visual Markers
      • Install visual markers such as signage at the following locations, as required or practically feasible:
        • Collision hazards, such as intersections with other trails, train tracks, or roadways.
        • Trail hazards, such as water crossings, rough tread, cliffs, and steep slopes.
        • Wildlife hazards, such as bears, wolves, and coyotes.
        • Vegetation hazards, such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac.

Inspection and maintenance

Municipal entities need to establish a comprehensive inspection and maintenance program to identify, rectify, and document safety hazards, which should include the following elements:

  • Inspection
    • Establish an inspection policy, which should outline the required frequency of inspections and activities taken to repair or remove any safety hazards.
    • Conduct regular inspections of the trail corridors to ensure that they are free from any safety hazards. Remove any of the following:
      • Any slip, trip, or fall hazards.
      • Any garbage, broken glass, and other debris.
    • Maintenance
      • Establish a maintenance policy, which should outline the actions and documentation associated with the repair or removal of any safety hazards.
      • Conduct preventative and demand maintenance to ensure that all identified safety hazards are rectified. It should include the following:
        • Where applicable, dispatch safety hazards to be repaired or replaced.
        • Post signage advising patrons if trail or equipment is unavailable for use or under repair.
        • Inspect all equipment repair or replacement prior to use.
        • Conduct grounds maintenance program to the trail.


In addition to the visual markers mentioned above, municipal entities should have the appropriate signage at the trail entrance and key locations to inform patrons of the following:

  • Safe trail use
    • Unsupervised trail — Patrons assume own risk.
    • Exclusion of liability.
    • Patron etiquette and conduct.
    • First aid kits.
  • Trail information
    • Length of trail.
    • Map.
    • Do not include difficulty levels – due to its subjective nature, there can be variability with its interpretation.
  • Restricted activity
    • No horseplay.
    • No alcohol and drug consumption.
  • Hours of operation
  • Garbage and recycling area
  • Emergency contact information
    • Emergency services.
    • Maintenance requests.


Municipal entities must design and operate their designated multi-purpose winter trails in a manner that helps keep all patrons safe. Through the development and implementation of a comprehensive risk management plan, measures can be put in place to help prevent injury, severe harm, or death and provide patrons with an enjoyable and safe experience during the winter season.

If you have questions, please contact your Marsh representative.