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November 3, 2010

Sledheads' Backcountry Riding

Instruction Manual


You need help. Your feet are all 
over the place, your eyes are wandering, 
your grip is all wrong and 
frankly, it looks like it’s your first 
attempt. 

And you haven’t even made it out 
of the john at the gas station. We’d 
hate to see how big of a mess you 
are once you’re on the snow.

Lucky for you, SledHeads is here 
to help. With more than 75 tips 
from the sport’s top riders, we’ve 
assembled the ultimate big mountain 
backcountry rider’s guide. 

And if you find yourself in another 
bind, it never hurts to have a little 
extra paper lying around.

Big mountain riding can 
be a bit intimidating. Make 
sure you and your buddies 
stay together and communicate. 
You already know 
that you are in avalanche 
terrain so be aware. Don’t 
be afraid to yell at that 
guy (yeah, you know who 
you are) who always sidehills 
across two avy bowls 
above all his friends. That 
guy needs to hear it. Not 
only is he putting himself 
in danger, he is putting all 
his friends in harm’s way as 
well. Use your avy training 
and don’t be afraid to talk 
about the conditions and 
about the zone you are in. 
Shred safely because your 
loved ones want you to 
return.

-Rob Hoff

This picture was taken at the Lost Trail Hillclimb held on
Chief Joseph pass near Salmon, ID. Those of you who are not
familiar with RMSHA, I will give you a quick rundown. There
are gates and flags staggered all the way from the bottom
of the mountain to the top. There is one racer on the course
and the racer must go through the gates or he will have a
highmark wherever he turns out. This particular picture was
taken when I had a hard right corner coming up. What I did
was position my right foot forward and apply pressure to the
front of the running board. My left foot was kept in the middle
of the running board for a good balance point. My body was
shifted to the right but not too much so I could keep my balance
and momentum in check. I made sure I had a line picked
out around the corner and proceeded to make my way around
the corner and set my front end down after I had my sled
pointed in the right direction.

-Keith Curtis

Plan your outcome. 
If you want 
to get to the top 
of the hill, across 
the hill, through 
the trees, what 
are you going to 
do? What happens 
if it doesn’t go as 
planned? Where 
do you go if it all 
goes bad?

-Marty Sampson

Filming tip: When filming in deep powder, try 
backlighting the rider. Position yourself in a way 
where the powder that bursts off the sled and 
athlete will be brightly lit up by the sun. Also 
looks amazing for still photos. Simple to do, just 
have the rider come toward you in a line drawn 
from the sun to the camera.

-Jim Phelan


Read the terrain, up, down, 
left, right, where is my sled 
going to want to go? Always 
look ahead for the lay of the 
terrain, not in front of your 
skis. You need to be able 
to predict where the sled 
is going to want to go by 
understanding the contour 
of the terrain you’re riding 
over. Without looking out over 
the area that you’re riding in 
you can’t make that prediction. 
It sounds simple, but we 
all have ridden up to someone 
in some horrible position and 
asked, “Where did you think 
you were going?”

Once this is mastered you’ll 
ride with much less energy 
and let the terrain call out 
your routes and maneuvers 
instead of fighting it. 
Eventually you may master 
this to the degree that you 
can do it by feel instead of 
sight; that’s where you can 
become one with your sled 
and surroundings.

-Marty Sampson

When carving down hill, the use of the brake is 
more important that you would think. Keeping 
one finger on the brake to control the down hill 
descent is key. This slight on-and-off braking 
keeps the sled’s nose down and driving into the 
powder, giving you that “over the head fresh” 
powder feeling. Different angles of slopes mean 
different or even longer holds on the brake. 
Some slopes require heavy braking and leaning 
forward and driving the sled into the snow as you 
turn. Other slopes that are deeper in powder and 
have less slope require both braking and then a 
quick blurp on the gas to properly execute.

-Brad Ball


Photo courtesy www.logchalet.com

Skiing with an engine, as I call it. Nothing like ripping a 3500-foot downhill descent. Even better 
is when I pass some of my skier and snowboard buddies lol. It depends on how steep the slope 
is and on what sled a person is riding as well as snow conditions, as thicker or dryer snow affects 
how much effort is needed to lean the sled. Usually I will be in position over the front of the sled 
and give a combined effort of counter-steering, throttle and leaning my body in the direction that I 
want to go. It is a practice-makes-perfect kind of thing.

-Rob Alford


When a rider looks down, their 
skills go down. Some of the 
negative effects are that a 
rider will back off or hesitate 
while giving throttle input. This 
action results in the loss of 
forward momentum that can 
cause a rider to lose control 
of a sled while in a sidehill attitude 
or get stuck. If a rider is 
looking down it compromises 
that rider’s balance and confidence 
along with their mental 
preparedness to ride the terrain 
in front of them.

-Amber Holt

Photo: Geoff Dyer 

Get off the beaten path.

-Dan Gardiner

Turbos help. The turbo allows you to 
make a mistake and recover at the 
push of the throttle. With a stocker 
the rider will pretty much have to 
have the sled pinned to the wall and 
if you make a mistake you’re stuck or 
finding a way out the bottom.

-Tony Jenkins


Transition when crossing a 
gully. I use the weight of 
the sled and gravity to help 
me pull the sled over before 
I cross a gully. Notice the 
right side ski never touches 
down in the gully. Slight 
counter-steer to help maintain 
balance. I have my body 
weight forward, with some 
wrong-foot-forward technique 
to help counter balance 
weight of engine as I 
cross the ravine.

Photos: Ryan Harris

Once across the gully I move back on 
the running board slightly to maintain 
an upward line. Notice that I am 
focused on the terrain in front and not 
on my skis. I’m using a more aggressive 
counter steer pulling the sled into 
the hill. There is good traction so I 
don’t need a lot of throttle, just good 
momentum.


Here I am into the apex of the turn, still 
looking at my destination, body position 
is coming back towards the center of 
the sled. Anticipation is important at this 
point of the maneuver. If I wasn’t thinking 
ahead of my sled I would probably 
continue in a left hand turn and come 
right back down the mountain.

Even this late in the maneuver I am 
pushing off with my free leg for sled 
balance. I have full control because I 
didn’t let it tip out of the turn.

As I come out of the turn I steer into 
the circle to lean the sled outward, thus 
straightening my line. My bent elbows 
show that I am starting to climb forward 
on the sled to help to keep the front end 
down and controllable. 


Here I have entered the turn, stepped 
far back on the running board to help 
push the rear of the sled downward, 
bringing the front around. Steering is 
straighter. It is simply an adjustment to 
maintain proper sled balance. Notice 
again where my eyes are focused.

Notice that I use my free leg to push 
off and keep the sled balanced. I 
always over-balance the sled into the 
hill because it is easy to push it away. 
If it goes over-center down-hill then I 
have lost it. Still counter-steering with 
a little more throttle as I prepare to 
turn up the hill, notice that I am looking 
up at a possible line.

As I get closer to the turn I am at full counter-
steer and aggressively pulling the sled 
into the turn.


As I advance into the maneuver I am 
always looking further forward to 
calculate my next move.

As I come out of the turn I 
bring my free leg into the 
running board and can then 
easily step over the seat to 
a more neutral position, still 
under full power and continuing 
to move my body 
position forward, controlling 
transfer.

-Bret Rasmussen


This picture was taken at the Beaver 
Mountain Hillclimb held near Logan, 
UT. There were a few different scenarios 
going on and the first was the front end 
lifting due to the grade of the hill and also 
hitting a large mogul. In order to keep 
my momentum up I kept on the throttle 
as much as possible while staying in control. 
In order to control this I put both of 
my feet at the back of the foot rest on the 
black bar and used it as a pivot point. 
This allowed me to carry momentum and 
speed up while shooting for a win in the 
class. Another reason the sled was pulling 
such a big wheelie was because the BD 
turbo was working phenomenally. At the 
point I was pulling a wheelie there was 
also a sidehill and I was pulling my sled to 
the right by doing a few things, including 
pulling my handlebars to the right hand 
side, using my body weight to balance the 
sled, and pushing down on the running 
board with my feet. When I reached the 
next gate my front end was ready to come 
down so my skis could make contact with 
the ground. When I planted the front end 
in the ground I was then able to make 
the right hand corner.

-Keith Curtis

When riding trees 
look ahead and stay 
focused. Anticipate 
your next move. 
Counter-steering, 
weight transfer and 
throttle control are 
the only way you 
can maneuver a 600-
pound snowmachine 
through tighter than 
sled width areas.

-Justin Cowett

Photo: Heidi Henke

A rider who understands and implements 
correctly the three elements of 
The Pivotal Pyramid Concept will be 
able to execute a maneuver or cross terrain 
fluidly within their rider skill level. 
These three elements are the rider’s body 
English, the sled attitude and throttle 
control. 

-Amber Holt

Like skiing, keeping your shoulders straight 
and even with the horizon helps you keep your 
balance and center of gravity. If you “chase” 
the sled you will be uneven in your riding 
and you will fatigue faster. Keeping the body 
square and allowing the sled to move under 
you like a gyro will mean less tension as you 
ride. Even on aggressive turns you can center 
your body and keep square even if the sled is 
on quite an angle. Standing on the very edge 
of your running boards to do this is needed.

-Brad Ball


Ryan Thompson photo, RLT Photography


Be prepared out there. You don’t want to be that guy who is always 
asking for someone’s spare belt or extra sandwich. When filling your 
pack in the morning think about what you may need: food, water, spare 
belt, plugs, emergency overnight kit, tow strap, etc. Also be selective 
about who you ride with. If you are heading out on an epic big mountain 
adventure, don’t take the novice who doesn’t know how to use his 
transceiver. Make sure everyone is on the same page and is avy savvy. 
I can’t stress it enough. Learn how to route find your way through avalanche 
terrain. And make sure everyone can use their beacons efficiently. 
Practice. So many folks know how to turn their beacons on but have 
they practiced searching with them? Get your friends to practice. Make 
sure they can search out a beacon in two minutes or less. If one of your 
buddies has an old beacon that he struggles with, find a friend who has 
a good spare and teach your buddy how to use it. You never know, he 
might be searching for you one day. Always remember, a great day can 
turn bad in an instant. So be prepared.

-Rob Hoff

Now it’s no secret that I like to jump. 
That’s clearly my favorite part of sledding. 
Even as a kid, it’s all I wanted to 
do. The one tip I would give anyone 
who wants to start sending it is start 
small. There is a learning curve with 
jumping just like there is with any part 
of riding. Don’t think that you have to 
find the biggest cliff or hip and hit it as 
fast as you can and hope for the best. 
Start on something that you are comfortable 
with and work your way up. Before 
you know it you will be hucking just like 
the boys in the sled films and will limit 
the broken bones along the way.

-Paul Thacker


When I’m scoping a drop I’m 
looking for the transition. 
Is it steep? Are there rocks? 
How is the run out? Could 
it slide? What am I going to 
do if it does? Where is the 
sweet spot on the landing? 
Up top I’m looking to see if 
the approach is flat, what 
angle I want to take and 
how much speed I’ll need. 
Speed is very important. 
Too fast could put you in 
the flats and too slow 
could put you in the rocks. 
It’s all about the sweet 
spot 

-Jeremy Simmons

Photo: Ryan Harris


Ryan Thompson photo, RLT Photography

This picture was taken at the Lost Trail 
Hillclimb held near Salmon, ID, on Chief 
Joseph Pass. What I was doing was getting 
my track to make contact with the 
snow faster so I could gain some time 
on the course. While my feet were up in 
the front of the footrest I had my body 
pulling back on the sled. I was pulling 
on the handlebars and throwing my body 
weight to the back of the sled so I could 
make contact with the snow. I eased into 
the throttle as the track hit the snow and 
then pinned it to the next corner.

-Keith Curtis

Failure to keep the center 
of gravity square and 
the chasing of the sled 
in the turns will lead to a 
Top Gun movie moment. 
The sled will control you 
and will have you saying 
“Eject, Goose,” throwing 
you over the side.

-Brad Ball

Take a level 1 avalanche class. Now.

-Dan Gardiner


Where you look is where you go. When a rider’s 
head position is up and looking forward 
in the direction of the line they wish to travel, it 
ensures that a rider maintains stability, balance 
and confidence. Correct placement of the head 
carries through a rider’s stance and optimizes 
the six rider positions, body mechanics and 
allows lead time for the rider’s brain to process 
the terrain in front of them.

-Amber Holt


Heidi Henke photo


Use your big muscle groups like your legs to share 
most of the burden to keep your small muscle groups 
like your arms from wearing out prematurely. I try to use 
my legs as much as possible in steering the sled, especially 
in initiating a powder turn or a sidehill. I usually 
keep my feet close to the foot well of the running board 
and close to the edge of the running board. When I 
start my sidehill I press down firmly on the uphill side 
of the running board and start my counter steer at the 
same time so that it is my leg that is starting the sidehill 
and not my arms. A powder turn works the same way. If 
you want to turn to the left then you use your left foot 
to start making the sled come over rather than using 
your arm muscles. Another thing I find myself doing 
during powder turns and sidehilling is straightening out 
my arms all the way so that my arms are not flexed. By 
doing this you are not using your arm muscles as much 
and can keep your arms from getting tired faster. With 
that said there are a lot of times when you do want your 
arms bent so they can act like a shock absorber.

-John Summers

Photo by Todd Williams, www.polarisfreeride.com

In certain situations, riding the brake can be a helpful technique when 
trying to initiate downhill turns. Understanding what your sled needs 
to lay into a left or right hand turn is where you need to start. As you 
counter-steer, get your body in the right position and if needed, apply 
the brake. This will help you hold your line as your sled starts to move 
towards the fall line. You may need to continue riding the brake as your 
sled picks up momentum. Basically, you are allowing the slope to give 
you the speed necessary to direct the sled. Once you have decided your 
line and are ready to continue your turn on the gas, try applying throttle 
in short bursts. This type of “on and off “ throttle will still give the sled 
momentum, but keep you in control. 

Since most of the time applying the brake to help control your turn happens 
when you are in the trees, try to practice riding the brake in areas 
where your exit to the slope is wide open. As you get more comfortable 
with this technique, move to a more difficult spot and continue the challenge. 
Over time, this tip will get you heading in the right direction and 
hopefully out of trouble, which most of us “wood riders,” tend to get into. 

-Dan Adams


Look ahead and flow with your machine, try not to hurry your movements.

When tree riding looking very far ahead is hard so be ready to act fast and smooth when you see a line. Try and keep forward motion 
and good throttle control. If you get in a spot where you know you probably are going to get stuck don’t bury it; save yourself time 
and energy by getting off your sled. Find a good route that will allow you to get going and walk a path about 10-15 feet long. Take 
your time and walk it a couple of times, making sure that it is as wide as your sled skis. This will allow you to get going without even 
lifting or even breaking a sweat. Hopefully you made a path that goes somewhere and you can get back to having fun.

-Troy Johnson


Sled prep: always 
check your sled out. Just 
because it was running 
fine last ride out doesn’t 
mean your suspension 
bolts didn’t loosen up or 
your belt isn’t worn out. 
Clutches will be dirty and 
nothing kills clutching like 
belt dust and oily residue 
from when you flipped 
it over and that oil you 
spilled filling up your oil 
that last morning ran and 
dripped onto your clutches 
and belt. Grease your 
suspension every 300-500 
miles. That will also allow 
you to look for cracks 
or broken bolts. Clean 
your sled, pull it into your 
heated garage every 
now and then and wash 
it, degrease it and check 
it out. Not one of your 
friends likes to ride your 
butt out double because 
of stupid. Accidents aren’t 
so bad but stupid just 
ruins a lot of fun. I know I 
do speak from experience 
on both sides.

-Troy Johnson

Photo: Ryan Harris

When picking a line through trees most would think to pick from tree to tree. My personal 
best advice would be to keep your head up and look ahead a good 30 to 40 feet. That way you 
can keep consistent lines that your buddies won’t be able to follow. Also, you won’t see yourself 
center-punching a tree when looking ahead. 

-Tony Jenkins

When breaking in new hifax, 
ride up the trail for a mile or 
two and then stop and cool it 
down rapidly by kicking snow 
on it, then continue this process 
four or five times (even 
if ice scratchers are installed). 
This radical temperature 
change hardens the composition 
of the material and 
increases long-term durability.

-Amber Holt

Hanging a leg: “Why are you always hanging your 
leg off of your sled?” I get this question a lot 
and this technique has really become a standard 
rider position for me. First of all, it allows me to 
have more weight/leverage on the uphill side of 
the sled. This allows me to be able to hold my sidehill 
on steeper slopes. It also puts me in the proper 
position to “pedal” my sled (basically pushing with 
my foot) when I start to lose momentum and still 
want to continue my sidehill.

-Chris Burandt


My experience over the years sledding in the trees has been 
several bent bulkheads, broken A-arms, sleds upside down in 
tree wells or head-on collisions with trees or better yet, mid-air 
collisions. Having said all this, I have to say tree riding is my 
favorite part of sledding. The trick to riding in the trees is not 
to be timid and ride aggressively, scouting out smart routes 
that you think your sled can make. It takes years to get really 
good. The best tree riders look ahead of where they are as if 
they have already ridden over all the pow that is in front of 
them. You have to not be afraid to commit even if the consequences 
are a two-hour dig fest.

-Rob Alford

Deciding on your best handlebar position can take time. For 
me, I have explored a ton of different options only to find benefits 
to just a few. I am only about 5-foot-8 and have often wanted 
my bars to meet me where my arms are fully extended in a 
stand-up position, although having a taller bar setup can in many 
cases put you in a bad position. What happens to your position 
is you end up reaching for your bars and putting too much 
of your body on the wrong side of the sled. You will feel this 
happening when sidehilling and having to make quick direction 
changes on a slope. On the other hand, a bar and riser set up 
that makes you reach down to them as you are standing on the 
sled can lead to shoulder and back pain throughout the day. My 
advice is to meet in the middle and find a set-up that creates a 
happy medium, one that gives you a fair amount of extension to 
your arms in a stand-up position but is also close enough to your 
sled to stay in control when the terrain changes. Determining bar 
width is another personal preference that will ultimately make 
your riding better. I have found that a slightly shorter distance 
between my arms has given me a greater advantage in all types 
of terrain. Remember, much like a driver seat in a vehicle, putting 
your body in a good position will help you stay in control and will 
lead to less rider fatigue. 

The easy answer to handlebar position would be to stand 
on your sled on the shop floor and figure it out. Unfortunately, 
these decisions are a bit more involved than that. It’s almost like 
determining the type of riding you do the most that solves this 
issue. Having a riser setup that allows you to go up and down 
given the terrain is your best option. Otherwise, be prepared to 
make changes as you discover what works best for your height 
and rider type.

-Dan Adams

I like my feet forward—about eight inches back from the 
front of the foot rest. I also like putting my chest over 
the bars with my eyes over the front of sled looking. I’m 
always in this position looking for the sweet spot on the 
big jumps and drops. 

-Jeremy Simmons


Having options: When riding in very technical 
terrain, you have to be able to make 
split-second decisions to avoid getting 
stuck or even worst wrecking your sled. In 
this particular shot I ended up continuing 
my sidehill but as you can see I was scanning 
the terrain below establishing my 
plan B and C in case plan A didn’t work 
out.

-Chris Burandt

Start small and work 
your way up. Get 
comfortable with 
what your sled does 
in the air. You will be 
going big before 
you know it.

-Jeremy Simmons


photo courtesy SCHOOLED Again

www.deviantsled.com 


I think that breathing 
is very important, I 
know when I start to 
get tired I make myself 
exhale deeply and 
inhale deeply and hold 
it in for a split second 
to give my lungs 
time to work before I 
exhale. That seems to 
get my breathing back 
to normal. 

-Lyle Dahlgren

Counter-steer. Always initiate your maneuvers with counter-steering, not pulling, tugging, 
jumping, reefing, etc. If you don’t get this, start off by riding across a flat field 
with some powder in it, stay centered on the sled with your feet on each running 
board, then turn the bars … the sled will roll the opposite way and you will most likely 
fall off—but you will start to see how counter-steering will work for you and with 
some practice you’ll learn to control it. This is the basis for most maneuvers.

-Marty Sampson


Downhill turn in June snow while overcoming gravity: As most know, spring 
snow can weed out the riders in a group, finding that its the hardest time 
to ride and the snow is as fast as ice on a roadway. For most of us professionals 
we find spring snow to be some of the most exciting riding. Doing 
a downhill turn in June snow is really not hard when following some 
simple steps. The main step would be commitment. Second of all you want 
to make sure before the rider turns to counter-steer to the opposite direction 
the rider wants the sled to go. Third, jump to the side you’re going to 
turn on and use your wrong foot forward motion while using your heal side 
of your foot as a rudder and pulling the sled on its side with the brake on. 
Once you feel the sled start turning on its side, let off the brake and use 
throttle control. Once you’ve done all these tips you’ll find that the sled will 
be going on the side of the hill instead of straight down.

-Tony Jenkins


Being physically fit can help the 
rider out a lot. How many times 
have you had arm pump? You 
know exactly what I mean when 
you can’t even take your hands 
off the bars to give your buddy a 
high five. Problem solved when I 
work out in the gym. I grab on to 
a pull up bar and just hang while 
focusing on the bar. Try this for 60 
seconds for three different sets; 
after a few of these step it up to 
120 seconds. Keep in mind that 
each time you try these you need 
to keep beating your time as the 
conditioning moves on. Another 
thing that I do to keep me from 
fogging up my goggles is to run 
a few miles a week and ride the 
bicycle, to keep a good stamina.

-Tony Jenkins


When picking tree lines I try to paint a 
line around the trees. Pretend you’re 
John Madden with his magic pen and 
draw a line through those trees. Once 
you drop in follow that line. Don’t freak 
out, just be confident and solid. Make 
smooth, deliberate turns and shred 
your way through. Make sure the snow is 
plenty deep so you can carve your way 
through without catching a ski. If you 
screw up, you’re going to t-bone a big 
pine tree. If you need to go left, jump 
to the left side. Pull hard, burp the gas 
and kick that outside leg out the way you 
want to go. By doing that you will kick 
the sled up on edge and hopefully out of 
harm’s way. Worst case you will slide into 
the tree sideways, hopefully with the track 
hitting the tree. There is nothing worse 
than sliding down and smashing the 
whole front end of your sled into a tree.

-Rob Hoff


Photo by Todd Williams,

www.polarisfreeride.com


Be physically ready to ride. Backcountry riding demands some upper 
body strength, a good grip, fast feet and some endurance/cardio. If 
I had to pick one quick workout that hits all these areas I would set 
aside 15-20 minutes a day and grab a jump rope which is killer cardio for 
good forearm, shoulders, arms, legs and calves. Change it up, speed 
jump, both feet, alternate feet, also changing arm positions will work 
different muscles as well. This will up coordination and help eliminate 
arm pump. Most mishaps happen later in the day due to being flat out of 
shape and worn out. Start early, get in shape and be ready to rip it up all 

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