WBA’s winter trailhead counter project provides the first ever long-term record of non-motorized winter recreational use in the Central Wasatch. For years we’ve all heard variations of opinion on how many more people there are in the backcountry these days. The obstacles to collecting this kind of data are daunting, especially in winter. The information we collect isn’t exact with all of the places people enter and exit the backcountry, the limitations of counting equipment, and other hurdles. An exact count is a completely unreasonable expectation. What our data can do is to give us numbers – not perfect, but better than nothing which was the only information available before this project began. What it can best tell us is the distribution of users among the trailheads where counters are located, the times of day and days of the week where user numbers peak, and over the course of a season, user numbers by day at each of the trailheads we monitor. Because we monitor at the same sites, year-after-year our data also allows comparing use patterns from year-to-year.

The WBA’s all volunteer project collects user numbers from infrared counters at fifteen sites in Mill Creek, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood Canyons from December 1 to May 1. For all sites data extends back two seasons. At its first four sites the project’s data goes back three seasons. Infrared counters are not cameras. By design the equipment only registers the heat signature of a passing body. It doesn’t distinguish between animal and human, uphill or downhill – in other words YOU ARE COMPLETELY ANONYMOUS!

What are the inherent limitations?

  • Trailhead monitoring projects in any season typically undercount the number of users. Counter technology isn’t perfect. Sometimes a counter will register one count when in fact two or more bodies close together have passed the site.
  • Weather, snow load on branches in front of counters, increasing snow depth, occasional vandalism, and user trail reroutes all contribute to counter error invariably (you guessed it) resulting in an undercount. WBA volunteers check counters throughout the winter, but sometimes days or even weeks might pass between inspections.
  • Assuming that each user registers two counts – a standard assumption of trail counter projects everywhere – one going up and one coming down, bypassing the counter particularly on the descent by no means uncommon, will result in a significant undercount for that site. This is even beyond the limitations already mentioned above for all sites.
  • Counter location is also a limitation. We try and place our counters at locations where backcountry users begin or end their journeys. Many sites are on also on roads which tend to result in undercounts because people clump together. The equipment is also less accurate when counting a wide space like a road. 
  • Since our project operates under a U.S. Forest Service special use permit our equipment is always located on public land. Fortuitously public land provides enough good sites to mostly meet our needs, but not everywhere. It also limits us from gathering data at any private land location where customary backcountry use occurs, but where the public’s right of access is in no way guaranteed. 
  • The intent of our project is to count users before they disperse. We typically have no idea where people go after they pass our counter sites. The information we collect does not provide a granular view of mode (ski, board, snowshoe, foot), where people go in the backcountry, for how long or anything similar.

What is the benefit of this project?

  • For starters this information, even with its shortcomings is a first in documenting non-motorized winter recreational use in the central Wasatch outside the boundaries of ski resorts. Data makes it harder for land managers and others to dismiss the fact that significant winter recreation use exists and that it’s not inconsequential.
  • Equipment reliability has proven to be exceptional. No counter has ever quit working, each has collected five-months of contiguous data.
  • Right now, WBA’s data can inform our community about the popularity of particular trailheads, their busiest days and times of day. Comparison year-to-year provides input on how anecdotal factors like weather and snowpack might influence the ebbs and flows in backcountry use. At present, WBA is collaborating with the Utah Avalanche Center (see below) to understand how perceived avalanche risk and forecast messaging might or might not influence user choices to enter the backcountry.
  • Other entities are beginning to see our data as a resource for projects of their own. As inevitably recreation planning becomes more important to managing the Wasatch the picture our numbers paint will inevitably inform decisions that affect backcountry users. Other research questions, like the correlation between avalanche hazard, weather and parking pressure might be answered by combining WBA’s data with other already extant resources.
  • As a byproduct of in-person counting conducted throughout the season – a measure that increases data accuracy at some sites – WBA also collects granular data on the types of users at that site. Though only a snapshot, these surveys provide a little more context on which trailheads are predominantly used by skiers and snowboarders, which are frequented for hiking, or an even broader cross-section of uses. Expanding this program, as we hope to in the future, will provide a nuanced picture of types of use at different trailheads.

Collaborations & Applications

  • Starting in 2020, WBA loaned its infrared counting equipment to the U.S. Forest Service Salt Lake Ranger District on a trial basis for a summer to help the Forest Service in its efforts to understand and manage the network of trails and trail usage in the Central Wasatch. Now in its third season the pilot project has evolved. A longer-term relationship of sharing resources to assist in developing a more complete year around picture of dispersed recreation use in the Central Wasatch will soon be formalized in a five-year “Non-Funded Challenge Cost Share Agreement” between WBA and the USFS. WBA will run the counter program in the winter to track backcountry recreational use. During winter WBA will now be collecting data at twenty sites with an expansion of monitoring in all three central Wasatch canyons supplemented with counters belonging to the USFS. In the warm months the USFS will use WBA’s equipment as well as its own to continue its ongoing study of recreational trails in the Central Wasatch. Canyon use is year around and many of the issues are not seasonal per se.
  • Another direct outcome of WBA’s project is that its data was used in the Forest’s recent National Visitor Use Monitoring (NVUM). The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest conducted National Visitor Use Monitoring (NVUM) during the USFS Fiscal Year 2022 (October 1, 2021 – September 30, 2022).  Each Forest conducts NVUM on a 5-year rotation to produce an estimate of recreation visitation and descriptive information on those visits.  WBA’s trail counter project provided “proxy” data to this process using the data compiled from our joint project with the Forest Service. Proxy data are direct counts, such as those captured via the infrared counters, representing recreation visitation.
  • In December 2021 Ned Bair of the Earth Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara used WBA’s data for an “Ignite talk” at the prestigious American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting.
  • Jordan W. Smith of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University also cited the potential value of WBA’s data in his October 2021 presentation to the Central Wasatch Commission of the Central Wasatch Visitor Use Study Phase I Report.
  • Beginning in fall 2019 WBA also joined forces with the Utah Avalanche Center in UAC’s ongoing research into user behavior and avalanche risk. WBA’s data was used in UAC’s pioneering work that resulted in an article titled: Quantifying environmental warning signs and human behavior for the deadly 2020-2021 avalanche season in the Central Wasatch, Utah that appeared in the The Avalanche Review, 40 (1) (2021).
  • Liam McGee, a student at Westminster College, used WBA’s data in his 2023 GIS research paper titled Avalanche Frequency by Elevation, Aspect, and Predicted Human Interactions in the Central Wasatch Range.

Recognition of WBA’s trail counter project has grown locally, regionally and nationally particularly within the past several years. The data generated is of immediate value to our members in developing a picture of backcountry use and the relative popularity of different areas. Our work also has growing recognition and credibility with researchers and land managers. The data fills a niche in understanding the bigger picture of seasonal use in the Central Wasatch. One that will be of value in the dialogue of how best to manage the interactions between us and our beloved backyard range in the years ahead.

If you are working on a paper, research project, grant, or other advocacy project where you believe the WBA trail counting program data could be of use to you, please contact us at info@wasatchbackcountryalliance.org.

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