Know Before You Go

Safety, useful tips on riding Forest Service land in the West

January 2008 Feature William Shoutis Viewed 838 time(s)

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 high country.

Here is a series of things to check off your list before you ride in the Mountain West:    


Weather-Check 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

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. 

Clothing-In 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.

Avalanche Awareness

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 awareness?

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 preparedness:


·        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 location.

·        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 trail marking.

·        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 elk.

·        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:

National Avalanche Forecast website:

Weather forecast websites:,


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 Bozeman, MT.)

  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!