Winter Roads in Manitoba

While road construction generally begins to wane with the onset of winter, the opposite is true for the construction of Manitoba’s winter roads. Constructed in cold weather, the Manitoba winter road network follows the path of least resistance, traversing natural terrain features such as muskeg, lakes, rivers and creeks.

With the first snow of the winter, lightweight equipment such as snowmobiles are used to pack the snow on both land and ice areas to lessen the insulating effect and thus allow the frost to penetrate deeper into the ground. As the ground hardens, heavy graders and snowplows are used to scrape away excess snow while ensuring that the roadway is sufficiently covered with snow to remain reflective, so that heat from the sun is not absorbed and the road remains frozen.

For long ice crossings, such as over a lake, tree markers are placed to define the route, which is typically about 60 meters wide. As soon as the ice is capable of supporting snow removal equipment, the path is plowed clear, so as to allow the ice to form naturally. On short ice crossings, such as across a river, the ice is cleared and flooded one or more times until it reaches the required thickness. Ice crossings must be able to support loads of up to 39,500 kg providing the speed of vehicles is kept to a maximum of 15 km per hour and vehicles are spaced at least one kilometer apart.

These winter roads not only facilitate the hauling of freight to northern and remote communities, but also provide the residents with temporary inter-community travel as well as road access to the rest of the province. Northern Manitobans in nine eastern and fourteen northern Manitoba communities are served by these roads during a brief period of about eight weeks from mid-January to mid- March, however, the prevailing weather conditions can shorten or extend this period by as much as two weeks.

Manitoba’s winter road system dates back to the 1950’s. It was built by private construction companies to provide a means of transporting freight to isolated northern communities that would be less costly than air transport. Freight was transported on a string of sleighs (cat trains) pulled by track dozers. However, the cat train method was slow and cumbersome, restricting the amount of freight that could be transported.

In 1971, the Province, through its Department of Northern Affairs, assumed responsibility for construction and maintenance of the winter road network. Under Provincial auspices, the roads were upgraded to a standard that would accommodate truck access. Supervision of the system was transferred to the Manitoba Department of Transportation in 1978, where it remains today.

Use of the road system requires considerable safety precautions. Adverse weather conditions and wave action on ice crossings can seriously affect the viability of the route. The Department of Infrastructure schedules pre-season meetings with truckers to acquaint them with the prevailing conditions and the precautions to be taken. Portions of the road may be closed as deemed necessary.

The construction and maintenance of Manitoba’s winter roads are examples of projects that reflect the remote access and northern development strategies for meeting the transportation needs of each community on the winter road system. The Province recognizes the important role the winter road system plays in overcoming social and economic challenges facing the northern and remote communities in Manitoba.

Since 1999, spending on the seasonal road system has tripled, with the aim of using more overland routes, improving safety, allowing the roads to stay open longer each season, reducing construction difficulties and addressing environmental concerns. To achieve these objectives, the Province has identified a number of strategies, including the relocation of existing winter roads, the construction of new roads as well as upgrading existing winter and forestry roads, and exploring enhanced rail and ferry services.

The initiative is a part of the government’s broader access and northern development strategies, which require that government departments co-ordinate their efforts to meet the objectives of the strategies and make northern development a priority in their everyday decision-making.
The winter road system, the majority of which is funded jointly with the federal government, is managed and monitored by the Province. The construction and maintenance work is generally contracted out to the communities involved, creating local employment opportunities.

The Manitoba winter road system, far from typical in its mode of construction, maintenance, and use, provides an excellent example of adaptation to unusual circumstances.

DISCLAIMER: Information presented has been compiled from sources believed to be current and reliable; however, it cannot be assumed that all acceptable safety measures, current road conditions and general winter road information are contained in this web site or that other additional measures, road conditions and general winter road information may not be required under particular or exceptional circumstances. Road users are responsible to familiarize themselves with all safety issues, routes travelled and general winter road information provided in this web site.