The Mountain West riding areas are predominantly on public
land that is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and each forest is made up of ranger districts that are generally located in
the nearest large town.
For example, the ranger district that manages the Forest
Service lands around West Yellowstone is called the Hebgen
Lake district, of the Gallatin National Forest. The forests and
districts can be researched on the website by state (see address below) and
each district is a valuable source of current conditions on the trail, weather,
snowmobile regulations and avalanche conditions.
It is common for ranger district offices to have employees
who regularly monitor these important factors and they are generally called
Snow Rangers. The Snow Rangers are out five days per week to check the trail
conditions, re-mark trails that are hard to follow, enforce Forest Service
regulations, meet with recreationists and check avalanche conditions.
There are some Forest Service offices that support an
avalanche forecasting center and each forecasting office employs avalanche
experts who assess conditions daily to send out a general forecast for the
mountain areas. It is prudent for any winter recreationist, whether skier,
snowmobiler or snowshoer, to check these valuable forecasts every day they are
riding in the Mountain West.
The forecast can provide excellent local weather updates,
new snow totals for the area you want to ride and information on the avalanche
conditions—information that may save your life. The avalanche centers
throughout the Mountain West offer short and long classes in avalanche
awareness and attendance is highly recommended before taking your sled into the
Here is a series of things to check off your list before you
ride in the Mountain West:
weather forecasts for the areas you are going to ride and use all available
sources to get this information. Avalanche forecast centers are great sources
of local weather information; the NOAA website at www.noaa.com.
Hydration and Food—All
riders should carry extra food and water in the mountains and it’s a good idea
to carry some method of treating water that you may find if stranded or stuck.
Water filters of all varieties are available in outdoor stores and many
different pill or liquid treatments exist.
Maps and Orientation—Forest maps and topographic maps are available at Forest
Service offices throughout the Mountain West and it is recommended that you
carry a compass or GPS alongside these maps. A basic understanding of map use
and orienteering with compass or GPS should be obtained before riding in the
mountains and this can be done through books or classes offered at many
community colleges or universities.
addition to your wintertime riding gear, always carry an extra pair of socks,
gloves and an extra wool hat in some sort of waterproof bag, either a
lightweight dry bag or a trash bag, but something to keep these items as a dry,
warm emergency item.
Snowmobilers are behind when it comes to weighing what the
new machines are capable of against what level of avalanche awareness the rider
possesses. Do you have an 800cc sled being ridden by a 350cc avalanche
The goal for all mountain riders should be to equate those
two things prior to riding in avalanche terrain. What makes an 800cc avalanche
awareness? Snow Rangers report a few common weaknesses in snowmobiler
Owning an avalanche beacon, but not knowing how
to put it on, turn it on or use it
effectively. Professionals who practice weekly and daily can find a victim in less
than five minutes, but the first time owner, who does not practice, averages more
than 20 minutes—not enough time for a buried rider to have much chance for
survival. Snowmobilers who are serious
about their safety and the safety of those they ride with, should find ways to
make practicing with the beacon a part of every trip to the mountains.
Shovels should not be under the hood, nor should
they be strapped to the back of the sled. An avalanche will remove a rider from
the sled and if the shovel is missing when it’s your turn for a rescue, then
you won’t be able to dig your friend out of the debris.
Snowmobilers don’t take avalanche classes as
often as other user groups and these classes are offered throughout the Mountain
West in the fall and winter. Organize your trip so that you can take a class
before you hit the trail and apply what you have learned as soon as you get
outside. The things you learn in an avalanche class could save your life and,
therefore, those things should become part of your life. That boils down to you
understanding that the learning doesn’t stop when your class is over and that
being safe in avalanche terrain means being a student of winter and avalanches
for the rest of your life.
Avalanches can occur in deceptively moderate riding areas
and thinking that an area is not capable of producing avalanches, because it
doesn’t look extreme, is a big mistake.
Riders often remark that they “don’t ride in avalanche terrain,” however,
any open slope over 30 degrees steepness can slide if there’s enough snow.
In the Mountain West, you’ll likely encounter avalanche
terrain as soon as you leave the groomed trail.
Only highmark, or expose, one person at a time
in avalanche terrain. If your partner is stuck, then watch him from a safe
Carry, and know how to use, rescue gear.
Beacon, shovel, and probe. The rescue gear should be on your body, that means
beacon strapped in a harness, and the other items in a pack. It is critical to
practice with your rescue gear.
Recent avalanche activity means the snow is
unstable and similar terrain should be avoided.
Take any length avalanche awareness class, any
chance you get and allow yourself to be fully prepared in the mountains, not
guessing you are prepared.
13 snowmobilers killed in avalanches in the Mountain
West in 2007 and many more seriously injured.
Forest Service Regulations
Wilderness areas are off limits to motorized
use, including snowmobiles, and each ranger district office can tell you where
these areas are and answer any questions you might have about visiting those
areas. Wilderness areas are portions of public land that were set aside by Congress
to be distinctly different from other areas of the National Forest; where
recreation and human considerations are primary outside Wilderness, non-human
considerations such as solitude, wildlife and untouched nature are primary
considerations inside Wilderness areas. Generally, the fines are high and
violators can be sent to federal court, but the damage for riding in the Wilderness
goes beyond the pocket book. Snowmobilers who ride in the Wilderness paint an
ugly picture of the sport, and as violations continue, the overall reputation
of snowmobiling will decline at the hands of a few. Snowmobilers need to use
the maps and other resources available to get a good view of the Wilderness
without intruding on its less tangible values.
Non-resident snowmobile tags are usually a state
requirement and, with most of the snowmobiling taking place on Forest Service
land, then the Forest Service enforces compliance for these tags. Each western
state has its own snowmobile user tag that must be purchased and placed on the
snowmobile prior to unloading. Forest Service offices near riding areas can
tell you how to get a tag and these tag fees generally support grooming and
Wildlife—there are many areas of land that are
closed to off trail snowmobiling because of wildlife concerns and these areas
can be uncovered at a local Forest Service district. Wildlife in the Mountain West
are one of the most spectacular things about the area and many times
snowmobilers will find themselves face to face with elk or moose on the trail.
Wintertime is particularly hard on these animals, as they lose hundreds of
pounds through the colder months and it is the responsibility of a snowmobiler
to avoid riding near these animals if at all possible. Slow down when passing
them and generally try not to cause them panic or stress that could kill them
in the wintertime. If you are riding with a large group, then pull off and hold
everyone up so that you can walk to the next corner for a look at a moose or
It is important to check in with the Forest
Service office prior to riding in an area to see what, if any, areas are
restricted and learn why they are so. Forest Service officials appreciate the
opportunity to speak with recreationists at all levels and both parties often
benefit from the interaction.
Forest Service website: www.fs.fed.us
National Avalanche Forecast website: www.avalanche.org
Weather forecast websites: www.noaa.com,
Books: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce
Tremper; Snow Sense, by Jill Fredston and Doug Fessler
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Shoutis
works out of the Bozeman Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest in