Winter Riding Conditions

We are continuing with our recent practice of opening Sugar Bottom Trails for winter riding in January. Because of the limited number of riders and the desire to limit the effort required by trail status updates, we have implemented a Winter Conditions status. Riding during Winter Conditions very much relies on the judgment of each rider as conditions can vary greatly during the freeze/thaw cycles. When Winter Conditions apply, riders should avoid riding whenever doing so will result in damage to the trail, regardless of ambient temperature or snow cover. Trail ruts exponentially contribute to permanent trail damage – if you’re creating ruts, leave immediately. If we aren’t able to self-regulate our riding during Winter Conditions, we will be forced to revert back to closing trails from December through March or later.

The winter freeze/thaw cycle does not occur on a precise schedule. When soil freezes all the moisture turns to ice crystals between the particles of the soil and in clay or loam soil they are tightly packed together. As the moisture freezes the crystals expand and tear the clay apart shattering it, then as it thaws the soil become more porous and allows more moisture in. This is repeated with every successive thaw, and does not require recent rain or snow. It simply requires moisture to be present, which may have been there months prior. If the trails are dry before the freeze/thaw cycle begins, the trails will not be affected as much. As soon as moisture is added to the system, however, conditions degrade rapidly during each thaw cycle. The general rule here, however, is that if nighttime temperatures get below freezing, you should be safe for an early morning ride, before the sun is up in full force. Usually, if you are off the trails by 10:00am, you should have zero problems. Beyond that, it gets complicated by the presence of snow, sunshine, and wind. Some factors to keep in mind:

  • The presence of snow tends to insulate the ground. If snow falls on warm soil, the soil will oftentimes not freeze and even if ambient temps are below freezing, the snow will melt from beneath, creating a muddy mess eventually.
  • If snow falls on frozen ground, it works the opposite way, snowpack can keep the ground frozen even when ambient temps are above freezing.
  • Sunshine on south-facing slopes can melt snow and frozen soil well into the 20’s. This is why morning rides are most reliable during the freeze/thaw cycle.
  • Strong winds can help dry trails more quickly and if it’s cold and cloudy, can help keep them frozen solid for good riding.
  • Night rides are another option during the freeze/thaw cycle. If ambient temps have dropped below freezing and the sun is gone, the ground will begin to re-freeze.

Trail Status indicators are maintained by a limited number of volunteers who have other jobs. Reliable reports from the ground and common sense trump the trail status lights. If the conditions on the ground don’t match what the status indicators tell you, please report it in the ICORR forum, Facebook Page or Group, emailing ICORR, or by directly contacting a trail crew member. We rely on our volunteers to keep the indicators updated so the more people we have reporting on trail conditions, the more accurate the indicators.

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