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17 Tips

How to be a better rider

Published in the October 2010 Issue Published online: Oct 18, 2010 Feature Steve Janes

So you are a good snowmobiler. You've ridden for a number of years, mostly staying on established trails and riding with the same group of friends. But now you are planning to go somewhere new, somewhere more exciting and challenging. And you are starting to wonder if you will be up to the test.

Well, the editors of SnoWest have established a western riding guide featuring 17 tips on how to snowmobile in extreme conditions. We recognize that despite how good a snowmobile rider may be, once you leave the comforts of your familiar riding area, you may face certain conditions that are new to you. Understanding some of the basics will help you to cope with your new environment.

  1. Mountain terrain is not level.Tip 1
    Although this is sort of a no-brainer, you'd be surprised how many snowmobilers struggle in the mountains because of balance. You see, here's the problem: when you're at lower elevations, it's easier to distinguish between up and down or flat and not flat. But in the mountains, since there's seldom any flat, things that look down are not always down-there's a bunch of convoluted angles mashed together. You may think you're on the uphill side of your sled because of an optical illusion and distorted perceptions.

  2. Counter-steering. how it works.Tip 2
    It's easy to understand how the snowmobile steers on the trail-everything is basically controlled by the carbides or wear bars on the skis. But in the powder, the wear bar has much less influence than the actual flat surface of the ski. So here's a good way to see what steering/counter-steering is doing. Hold your hand out straight in front of you, palm down and fingers together and pretend this is your ski (your arm is your snowmobile). Now to simulate the deep powder effect on your snowmobile, push your palm down so the angle becomes about 30-45 degrees (fingers pointing up) and turn your palm to the left. You can see that the flat part of your skis is now pushing into the snow and will likely drift to the right. That's counter-steering. The flat part becomes a sail and literally is pushed opposite the direction it faces.

  3. Getting familiar with your snowmobile.
    It doesn't hurt to get re-acquainted with your snowmobile each time you go riding. I find the best thing to do early on in the ride is to rock or wiggle your sled from side to side, finding a balance threshold. This also allows you to check how responsive your sled is to your body English in the various snow conditions. It will also loosen your own body up and get it prepared to react to the conditions a little more quickly.

  4. Dressing appropriately.
    There are two very common errors that most snowmobilers make when it comes to clothing. First, they over-dress with the wrong clothes. And second, they are under-prepared for the elements. So what do you do? Well first, buy/wear the appropriate winter fabrics. In other words, no cotton anything. If there is cotton on your body, you have just dressed for disaster. That favorite cotton sweatshirt that you like to wear under your Klim jacket? Well, it just negated the money you spent on that Klim jacket because the cotton will get you wet (from sweating) and make you cold. Now dressing in layers is a good thing . but make certain the layers are all breathable. It's not the weight of the fabric that keeps you warm, it's the technology of the fabric. So take the time and spend the money to get the good stuff.

    Before I ever go out on a ride, I ask myself: "Am I prepared to spend the night out with what I've got on my back?" (This includes what's in my backpack or on my sled.) I try to always carry an extra set of gloves with me and dress with at least one inner layer jacket that I can remove and pack with me as the day warms up. And then there are a few basics like shovel, saw, water, food and fire (matches) that can provide assistance to help me build a shelter and maintain my energy.

  5. Picking Lines.
    No, not pick-up lines. but the ability to pick and/or recognize potential lines and alternative routes. You should always be scanning the terrain, looking for an alternate route in case the rider in front of you gets stuck, makes a mistake or trenches out the line.

    There're two parts to picking lines. The first is when you're out front or riding independent from your group. Even if someone else is leading, you may choose to take another line through the trees. The key here is the ability to look for gaps and anticipate potential gaps. A gap has to have the potential to get you in a situation where you have other choices. Most of us look for openings (spacings between trees) and angles (so you can square up to the face of the slope). If you have to choose a route that has challenges, it's better to address the challenges on the lower part of the hill than on the higher part.

    The second part of picking lines is the ability to recognize "one-shot" lines. There is a misnomer that if one sled can make it up a line, all sleds can make it. Each time a snowmobile takes a line the conditions change for the next snowmobile. Some lines may only be suitable for the passage of one or two sleds. Lines can also be destroyed by a snowmobiler who trenches up the line or washes a line out. Some lines only have adequate snow for one or two sleds (rocky ledges or going over logs). The bottom line here is that you can't just follow blindly and wonder why you're the one who always gets stuck. Learn to read the snow.

  6. Getting out of the tracks.
    If there is a common desire amongst western snowmobilers, it's to have fresh, deep powder. When you're floating through untouched powder, you have the sensation of floating on a cloud. Yet too many snowmobilers will follow the leader and never get out of his tracks. There have been groups that hit a wide open meadow. and all they leave behind is one set of tracks. If there are four in the group, there should be four tracks through the meadow. If there are10, there should be 10. One advantage of this is actually a safety advantage. If someone in the group comes up missing, you can start counting tracks and see where/when he went astray.

  7. Getting unstuck.Tip 7
    If you ride in the mountains, you're going to get stuck. Those who claim they never get stuck likely never leave the trail. The really talented mountain riders not only get stuck, but usually they get stuck in locations where they are pretty much on their own to get out (the others in the group are likely already stuck farther down the mountain). So if you're trying to improve your riding ability, it's going to make life a lot if you learn how to get out of a jam the easiest way possible.

    Tip 7First, take time to assess your situation. Hey, you're stuck. You ain't going anywhere, so figure out your game plan. Are you going to have any help? What's the safest route out? Can you continue moving forward? Sideways? Do you have to go back the way you came? All of these questions will determine your best course of action.

    Tip 7With today's snowmobiles and the traction provided by the deep profile tracks, the dynamics of being "stuck" have changed somewhat. It used to be that the track couldn't provide enough thrust to propel the weight of the snowmobile through the snow. Although that's still the case, the difference is that the modern track will move a lot more snow. which leads to a lot deeper trench. This results in the snowmobile going from a fairly Tip 7flat position into the snow to a position where the front of the sled could be as much as four feet higher than the rear of the sled. That's a fairly steep grade.

    Eventually, as your snowmobile fights to propel itself forward and digs deeper in the snow, certain elements of your sled now begin to work against you. There is likely more drag in the front as it Tip 7pushes through the powder. But the main culprit is your running boards, which will start to hang up on the edges of your trench. Eventually, even though the track will continue to drop down deeper into the trench, your suspension will run out of travel and your track will literally dangle, not making any more contact to the surface of the snow.

    Tip 7Now, not only are you stuck, but your suspension is fully extended down. To lift your back end out of its trench, you'll likely need a crane. It's not like the good old days when you merely pick up the back bumper and set the sled over on fresh snow. This thing is down, it's wedged and it's weighted with 40 additional pounds of snow in the suspension.

    So what do you do?

    Tip 7First, take a walk. Literally. Walk around your sled. This not only gives you a moment to establish your game plan, but it also allows you to catch your breath and pack some snow down. And depending on how the base is, you can also figure out what you can or can't do.

    The first choice of action is always to have someone pull on your front ski. Just the added help getting out of a hole can go a long way. First, however, you need to make certain you're heading out in a level or slightly downhill direction. This may require you to pull the front of the sled around. Keep in mind, if your track is in a hole, it will be fighting with you (pushing against the snow both in the direction you're pulling and the direction it's pushing) every step of the way. That's why it was important to start walking around your sled. If you compact the snow down to the level of the bottom of the track, there will be no counter resistance as the track pivots around.

    Tip 7Another way to eliminate some of the resistance is to work your throttle as the front end is pulled around. The advantage of this is that a moving track acts almost like a chain saw cutting away all resistant snow. The track won't wedge if it's spinning as you pull it sideways around. Just be careful to "work" the throttle. There are times to be on the gas and times to be off the gas. You don't want to be digging deeper as much as you just want to cut away the sideway resistance.

    Also, this is a perfect situation for the use of a Snobunjie. Frankly, when a person tries to pull on the ski to get a sled out of a hole, you run out of arm pull before you run out of hole. A Snobunje offers about three times the length of an arm pull, which is usually enough to get the sled popped out of its hole.

    A second way to get unstuck is to completely roll your sled over. Depending on the depth of the hole and the degree of the slope, this can be relatively easy. It's a matter of getting on the high side of the sled, pushing it on its side and then letting it roll all the way over. (Don't worry about your windshield, handlebars or hood if you're in deep snow. Nothing is going to break. But if you are still slightly concerned, then just pop the windshield off.) The advantages of rolling your sled over are that as it rolls, the shape of the sled causes it to literally spin around so the front ends up facing sideways or downhill. You've also managed to pack the snow with the roll so your track is on top of packed snow facing downhill. You are no longer stuck. But before you fire it up and take off, take just a moment to check your throttle and brake to make certain they are free of snow.

    The only concern about rolling a sled over would be if you are on a severe slope there is a chance that once it rolls once, it will continue its momentum and roll again, and again, and again. Make sure you can stop it after its initial roll.

    Finally, the last option for getting unstuck is shoveling (which is possibly the easiest option when it comes right down to things). The biggest challenge with using your shovel is where you put the snow. If you're on a slope, you can throw the snow downhill. But the first two options of pulling ski or rolling sled tend to make more sense.

    The nice part of shoveling is that you can clean the snow away from your sled quickly so you don't have to fight with it. And if you're by yourself, taking the time to use your shovel may save you the most effort and keep you the driest in the long haul.

    Other tips for getting unstuck: 1) If you feel your sled losing its momentum as you climb, try to turn out of the slope before you lose it altogether. If you're not on a steep slope and still feel like you're losing your momentum (this can happen in really deep powder even on the slightest of hills) and you know you're not going to make it, grab a fistful of throttle and push off your sled. Sometimes just eliminating your body weight while your track is spinning will allow your sled to crawl back on top of the snow. You're likely still going to be stuck, but you won't be in such a deep hole. 2) Clear the snow from in front of the sled and stomp it down under the nose and back to the front of the track. This eliminates the severity of climbing out of a hole and also puts packed snow down under the base of the track. 3) When you're working the throttle to climb out of a hole, don't "spin" the track down. You need to give your sled enough throttle to make the track engage, but you don't want it to hit so hard that it breaks the grip. 4) Wiggle. It's that simple. Rock your sled from side to side as you crawl out of a hole. This helps compact the base while keeping your running boards from high-centering. 5) Once you start to move, keep your momentum. Get out of the hole and onto an old track set where you are safe to stop. And once you're out and safe, take a moment to cool down and catch your breath. Too often a person gets stuck, gets out and gets stuck again because he was either too tired or impatient.

    Too often we get ourselves stuck by doing stupid things like stopping in fresh powder and pointing slightly uphill. Always try to park on either level ground or facing slightly downhill. It's also smart to park on a set of tracks. That may mean making a small circle so you can park in your own tracks when riding in fresh powder. Just a little prevention will save a lot of work.

  8. Boondocking.Tip 8
    This is crawling through trees and terrain while you pick lines and work your way through areas where you just can't rely on the throttle because of the obstacles. The key here is to keep your momentum moving forward at all times on as consistent a basis and as fast-paced as possible.

    Boondocking is the combination of movement and lines. If you move too fast, you can get out of position to make the turns or leans necessary to stay on your lines. You also have to be able to choose good lines quickly, without hesitation. And sometimes you don't pick the best lines. (See Picking lines and Getting out of the tracks.)

    There's a big difference from picking the best lines and picking bad lines. Obviously, the best lines will get you where you want to go the easiest. Good lines will get you where you need to go, but you might have to work a little bit more. Bad lines usually put you out of position and into situations where there are few, if any, good options.

    The tendency for most snowmobilers is to stay in someone's track. in other words, let someone else determine the line and break trail. If you have a good leader who picks decent lines, then it's easy to stay in tracks. (But easy isn't necessarily fun.) But if you follow someone who picks poor lines, it doesn't take much for the entire group to be stuck.

    Unless you're in trees or terrain with limited options, movement and momentum are the key. Get your butt off the seat so you can be proactive to the change of slope. (See Mountain terrain is not level.) This is critical when your movement is uphill. Change in slope or snow requires instant change in body position and speed. Any slight pause or being out of position will increase your odds of getting stuck or losing your line.

(Tips No. 9-17 will be in the November issue.)