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Trail Counting

It is easy to speculate about how many people are at a trailhead on a given day, but without accurate numbers, it is difficult to advocate for this constituent of winter recreationists. As the traffic in the mountains increases, our competition with ski resorts and other commercial industries for the Central Wasatch backcountry resource grows. WBA represents a ghost population – we all know we are out there, but without solid numbers, we can be dismissed and disregarded. Having reliable user numbers has already proven essential in dealing with policy makers, and will continue to be vital if our issues are to be taken seriously.

In 2014, WBA launched our Trail Counting Program (TCP). The TCP is critical to our mission in several ways. First and foremost, it is the most accurate picture available of the number of people who use the Central Wasatch backcountry during the winter. Second, the data will be shared freely with environmental organizations, agencies, policy makers and other interested groups and organizations. Third, it is information that we will use to demonstrate the urgency of implementing public education to reduce the impacts of users on a finite and vulnerable landscape.

Over the past five years, the TCP has grown to include sixteen sites in Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood, and Mill Creek canyons. In 2016, WBA was granted a ten-year Special Use permit by the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest to conduct our counting project between December 1st and May 1st. A committee of volunteers runs the TCP, each of whom contributes various forms of expertise to the program. The sites monitored include the most heavily used trailheads in the three canyons. Due to limitations on resources, less frequently used trailheads are excluded. Though not comprehensive, our trailhead counting project has created the first verifiable picture of winter backcountry use in the Central Wasatch.

The program continues to evolve with the input of volunteers and field experience. From its inception, the project relied on off-the-shelf motion-activated “game“ cameras. These are widely available and relatively inexpensive. Each time an individual or group enters the camera’s field, it takes at least one date and time stamped image. Starting with the 2017-2018 season, WBA incorporated three infrared TRAFx trail counters as these provide a more reliable, accurate, and efficient method for counting. This cut down on the volunteer time required to count trail users, making results available much faster. It is WBA’s goal to get this information in as close to “real-time” as possible and then to post the results here for all to view. For the 2018-19 season, we transitioned all of our current sites to infrared counters.

There are, however, still some limitations to the infrared counters:

  • People totally bypassing counters.
  • Counters can’t distinguish between uphill and downhill traffic. Simply  halving the number is not helpful as people do not always enter and exit past the same counter. (This is a known limitation of trail counting projects).
  • Counter error is an unknown. For example, a counter can be buried, or point to the wrong location due to change in snow depth. Typically the result is an undercount.
  • Groups of people close together can sometimes register as one individual.

For the 2019-2020 season, we…

  • Used a new format for in-person counting on a waterproof form using one hour counts instead of two.
  • Conducted more frequent inspections to ensure counters were correctly aligned and operating. No counter has failed or run out of batteries during the last three seasons now.
  • Added six new sites all in Big Cottonwood to capture several popular trailheads not currently monitored and increased the breadth and completeness of our count.
  • Doubled our capacity to download data and vastly simplified the logistics of data collection with an additional download shuttle.

Our plan for the 2020-2021 season includes:

  • Add more in-person counts. Three to four per site per-season. Resulting data will help in developing an adjustment factor that will help to calibrate the accuracy of data.
  • Bring on more volunteers! Drop us a line to get involved.

2018-2019 Season Statistics

Trail Counting Program volunteers at work