As a female backcountry rider and instructor of Mini's Back Country Basics, I get asked a lot of questions.
I get asked, "What are some techniques that a lighter novice or female rider can use to aid in maneuvering a sled in the backcountry?" and "Does having a female build require different rider input and methods?" as well as "How about the equipment you ride: should that be set up differently?"
My experience as a 140-pound rider in full gear has taught me the mindset that backcountry riding is not mastered with brawn, but more so with finesse. This way of thinking produces less fatigue, better control and more confidence for all riders. The end result is a higher level of satisfaction and enjoyment. Instructional steps are generally the same for all riders. However, comfort, confidence and learning aptitude are always a little different from one person to the next.
The concept of "throwing the newbie to the wolves" has worked for some; however, generally speaking, it creates fear and discouragement, especially for women riders. The best environment to introduce the basics of backcountry riding techniques is in a controlled environment.
Introduce technique and then the terrain.
The proper equipment is important as well. I often see the mistake of a new rider on the wrong equipment for that rider's capabilities, size and chosen terrain. Sleds that are bigger than 800ccs can be a handful in several aspects for the lighter novice.
A few key equipment setups can ease the learning curve for a female rider.
Chassis that are nimble and light feeling are optimal. Softening the shocks and taking out sway bars usually improves this. I've found the aftermarket suspensions made by Timbersled complement a female rider well. Their design reduces weight and requires a third of the rider input compared to a stock suspension.
Handlebars need to be set in a way that one's strength and leverage comes equally from the forearms, bicep and triceps area, not from the shoulders or rotator cuff region. This is very important, especially for women, as our shoulder area risks injury if placement of the bars is set too high or low.
The throttle and brake need to be adjusted on the handlebars while in a standing position, preferably with the wrist not overly bent high or low, as to avoid injury.
Gearing down a sled creates smoother low-end performance, enhancing learning at slower speeds. Black Diamond Xtreme Engineering is just one of the aftermarket companies which specialize in customizing sleds with proper gearing for their owners' method of riding and chosen terrain.
Track length is also very important. Particularly for women, longer tracks can become a handful and tiring and a track length too short requires more aggressive throttle input in certain applications, resulting in intimidation. A track around 150 inches in length is most optimal. Camoplast's 150 Challenger Xtreme is an excellent all-around choice.
Now that the important points of proper equipment setup have been addressed, let's go over achieving a fundamental maneuver, the free leg carve. Once mastered, the free leg carve may be applied toward a wide spectrum of backcountry riding enjoyments such as sidehilling, hooking a tree well, downhill U-turns through the powder or simply pulling a broadie in any untouched meadow you may come across.
The most efficient way to learn this is to first identify a sled's pivot point, followed by efficient utilization of making it work for you.
1 - Position your sled at one end of an open clearing and point it toward the other end.
2 - Place your right foot in the left foot well pocket and your left leg dangling over the snow just off the running board.
3 - While holding on to the handlebars, your shoulders should be pulled back with your head up and looking forward.
4 - Gradually bring the throttle up until the sled begins to move forward. Once it is moving in a forward motion, steer the skis to the right while maintaining upper body and line of vision pointed forward. Try to keep the sled moving forward steady and as slow as possible by feathering the throttle.
5 - While the sled continues to slowly and smoothly move forward, simultaneously extend your left leg out towards the snow and rotate your line of vision, shoulders and hips in a clockwise direction towards the direction the skis tips are pointed. This should cause your left arm to push while the right arm pulls on the handlebars and result in the sled tipping up. As the sled tips (pivot point), the left leg should continually adjust for balance.
6 - Next, bring your line of vision counterclockwise forward back over the hood while maintaining that countersteer attitude with your upper body. You will want to continually make gradual throttle adjustments for speed and balance. Practice this until you are able to make a straight line across the open area without letting the ski come back down on the snow.
7 - Now, try starting and stopping the forward motion of the sled without allowing the tipped-up ski to settle back down. This is very valuable while backcountry riding when faced with a situation of having to slowly maneuver a sled above challenging obstacles.
8 - Where you look is the key to directional control. If you desire to carve in a circular line you would keep looking over your shoulder in the direction you want to travel. Remember that throttle and leg placement may need slight corrections to maintain balance.
The hardest part will be bringing it all together. Throttle control improves with practice. You may tip over the first few tries from too much throttle or not enough. If you get frustrated, take a break and go back to it. A few minutes may be the key to your brain processing this maneuver.
Once you are comfortable with this maneuver on the level terrain, try it out across some gradual slopes and your result should be a very nice sidehill.
Congratulations. You are on your way to becoming a backcountry rider with finesse.
(Holt began riding snowmobiles six years ago while residing in Alaska. After her first season in Alaska, she moved to north Idaho where she began to learn backcountry mountain riding. Her first mountain sled was a Polaris 600 RMK and soon after she transitioned into Arctic Cat's M-Series and currently rides a pump/race gas Twisted Turbo M1000. Holt has been a featured rider for several snowmobile films including Sled Heads, 509 Films, Krazy Canadian Adventuresand Boondockers. She also instructs technical riding clinics known as Mini's Back Country Basics. In addition to providing these personalized clinics, she will be teaming up with Bret Rasmussen and Chris Burandt in Utah to help coach Rasmussen's upcoming clinics. Mini's Back Country Basics are conducted locally in Idaho or she will travel to other locations. Visit www.amberholt.comfor more information or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)