17 Tips to be a better snowmobiler

November 2010 Feature Steve Janes

(ED-This is part two of two in a series on how to ride in the West. The first part-Nos. 1-8-appeared in the October issue of SnoWest Magazine.)

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.

(9) Sidehilling. The art to sidehilling can be both very simple and yet very complicated. In a nutshell, sidehilling is simply the ability of keeping your snowmobile level while traveling across a very unlevel slope.

What makes this so challenging is usually the terrain itself. You have to make a commitment that has basically two options: either you cut the sidehill and get to where you want to go or you wash the sidehill and end up somewhere you probably didn't want to go. Washing the sidehill means that your sled started to head down and you didn't have the strength or ability to pull it back up. And once a sled starts down, only the very best of snowmobilers can pull it back out. For the rest of us, we just try to recoup our losses and figure the best route down.

A key to sidehilling is to set your track. This means combining throttle control with body position to get the track pointed in the right direction and getting the machine as level as possible. Too much throttle can do two things: dig down too deep or pack too much sled speed. Too little throttle will do the opposite: If your track isn't level, it's more apt to wash; and if you're going too slow, it's harder to maintain the right balance (sort of like trying to ride a bicycle too slowly . it's just too easy to tip from side to side).

Your body position plays an equal part in setting your track. If your weight is over the middle of the sled, it will automatically be transferred to the downhill slope by the laws of gravity. You need to keep the weight centered on the uphill side of the snowmobile. For example, if the sidehill is such that left is uphill and right is downhill, you need to have your center of weight somewhere on the left slide of the sled, depending on the degree of slope. The steeper the slope, the farther to the left. Some skilled riders will literally have all but their hands and right foot hanging out on the left side (their right foot is positioned on the left side running boards).

With your weight into the hillside, you pop the throttle, which spins the track into the snow, thus setting the track at level, with the left side being several inches deeper in the snow that the downhill side. Your right ski is likely dangling in the air while your left ski is dug down. You may even have a degree of counter-steering working for you (see counter-steering).

Now you are in position to cut across the hillside. Again, it is important to keep your momentum moving in the direction you want to go and your speed controllable. By standing on the uphill side of the running board, you're in great position to hold the sidehill. The steeper the slope, the more you need to hang off your sled. Again, this is where good riders will stand off the sled with a leg dragging in the snow for balance. (Stay with me here . an example would be if the uphill side of the sled is the right side, you place your left foot on the right side running board, which frees up the right leg to dangle out into the snow, putting more of your weight into the sidehill.)

(10) Hillclimbing. Many western riders like to do what's known as "highmarking" to see who can climb higher on a steep mountain slope. Two things should happen-you go up, and you come down. Anything else is probably not a good thing.

There are several unwritten rules of highmarking. The first is that if you get stuck, your mark doesn't count. The critical part about hillclimbing is to not get stuck on the slope . this is when all the bad things can happen, such as the mountain coming down on top of you. So when you highmark, it is important for the rider to decide when it is the proper time to turn back down. Too soon and you didn't reach your full potential. Too late and you don't have enough momentum to make the turn and you get stuck.

This "knowing when to turnout" is not necessarily an easy thing to grasp. You have to have a good feel for how your clutches are working and how your sled will react to downshifting. You need to be positioned on the uphill side of the turn in order to pull the uphill side into the sidehill and cut the snow enough to allow the sled to level out before turning down. All of this is performed in a matter of feet and seconds.

Another unwritten rule is against "poaching" . this is using the tracks of another highmark attempt to allow you more initial speed up the hill. In other words, if someone places an impressive mark on a side slope in fresh snow, you must make your mark outside of his tracks. (Now if everyone poaches due to the condition of the hill, that's legitimate.)

Then there's the safety rule-only one sled on the slope at a time. You need to wait your turn. Any hill steep enough to invite highmarking is also steep enough to slide. Many avalanche fatalities are caused when multiple riders are on the mountain and one rider sets off the slide that catches the other riders unprepared. And never highmark when another rider is stuck on the slope. He's in a compromised position and has zero protection from a slide.

When someone is stuck on the slope, you sit, watch and wait. Unless it is absolutely necessary, you don't go up to help. Just the added weight of a second person on the slope moving around can touch off a slide. Let's just say it's the penalty of an unsuccessful highmark. The rider stuck on the hill is on his own. It may be a little more work for him, but it's a lot safer. And most of us would prefer working a little harder to get out on our own to being buried by a mountain of snow from an avalanche.

(11) Descending Hills. We all know that what goes up must come down. What we sometimes fail to take in to account is that when you're coming down on a 500-pound chunk of metal on hardpack snow, the power of gravity takes over. Basically, you are going down. You are going straight down. And you are not going to stop until you either reach the bottom or hit an unmovable object . like a tree. Steep slopes (or objects that are on them) are the No. 1 one cause of snowmobile damage.

Ironically, on some descents, the only control over your snowmobile is with the throttle, not the brake. When a track is locked (not rotating . a condition caused when you have a fistful of brake), the lugs in the pattern fill with snow. Once the pattern is full, you're basically sliding on snow with no traction. Also, if the track isn't turning, you have no control of the sled . gravity is in charge.

If the track is turning, it will push the sled in the direction it's pointing. Now if you're going down hill, you may be able to get the front to point from one side to the other. Then, by grabbing the throttle, you can at least alter your downward direction by going even faster downhill, but at an angle. (This can come in handy when you have to hit a gap in the trees somewhere along the descent.) But this does require quite a bit of conversation between the brain, the thumb and the eyes.

Brain: "What are you doing? You are already going too fast."

Thumb: "But I have to power to the left to hit that gap in the trees."

Brain: "But if you don't hit that gap, you're definitely going to hit something."

Eyes: "That gap ain't that big. And those trees are."

Brain: "Shouldn't we be grabbing for that left-hand lever thing?"

Thumb: Trust me on this one. Speed is a good thing right now."

Eyes: "I can't take this anymore. I'm closing."

Brain: "Hey, everything went dark. Are we dead?"

Butt: "I don't know about you guys, but I just sucked up a seat."

Once you understand your limitations on a descent, it's easier to accept what you can and can't do and keep your head about yourself when you realize you have little control over your sled.

The first thing you should understand is that the decisions you make on the top of the descent will have the greatest impact at the point of descent where speed and gravity take over. So here are a few things to know.

First, knowledge of where you want/need to end up is useful. If there's a run-out, it's just a matter of picking the line to your run-out. If not, you need to know how you're going to slow your sled down before the bottom.

Let's say you're dropping off a hill where you're not quite certain what's below or there's an obstacle like trees, rocks or a creek that you must avoid. The first thing is to start your descent as controlled as possible. 1) Look for fresh snow. Hardpack becomes a slide on a steep descent. Powder lets the sled sink in a little deeper and slows you down. 2) Turn so your sled has a wider profile. This also takes some of the severity out of the slope. Just like downhill skiers, by going side-to-side you can work your way down slowly. 3) Look for flat spots in the terrain where you can literally stop on your descent and assess your status. 4) Look for small trees. That's right, hitting a small tree that bends does a lot less damage than hitting a big tree that doesn't. 5) Ski brakes. This is a lost art that has been much forgotten since the advent of deep lug tracks. By putting loop chains or belts on your skis, the drag will greatly reduce the rate of descent. The only problem is ski brakes also reduce your ability to steer your sled. 6) Reverse. No, we're not saying you need to go down a hill backward. But on some models, if you put your sled in reverse just as you start your descent, you can use the throttle to dig the track into the snow in the opposite direction that can allow you to literally stop on severe slopes. (Keep in mind you don't just grab throttle while your track is rolling in one direction and spin it in the opposite. This can strip gears. You need to stop the movement of your track with your brake before spinning the track back up the hill.)

Now all of these suggestions can help you out of a lot of tight spots . but they are all types of maneuvers that do require a little practice to master. They're not necessarily hard; they are just different. You need to know under what circumstance to use each.

When all else fails, there's always that old adage, "every man for himself." In other words, if your descent is out of control and you're likely going to hit something hard in the process, you're better off bailing. Both your body and your sled will fare much better without the other. And sled parts are a lot easier to replace than body parts.

(12) Plan B. The greatest asset any snowmobiler has is the ability to think, act and react. Whatever you do, you need to be prepared to make sudden calculated adjustments.

For example, when you are highmarking, before you put yourself in a compromising position on the slope, you should think through the "worst possible scenario" first. What if I can't make it over the top . do I have a clean return run-out. What if I lose traction on wind-crusted snow, will I have enough momentum to make my turn-out . and will I have a clean run-out. Is there any element I have to beat (rock ledge, group of trees, etc.) that creates a point of no return? Do I have different options of turn-outs depending on how high I make it up the mountain? What do I do if the top portion of the mountain decides to become the bottom portion of the mountain?

If you have attractive alternatives, you're likely not going to experience unattractive results. But most importantly, be committed to your plan. The difference between excitement and tragedy is only a split second hesitation or indecision.

(13) Adjustable Thumbs. An old experienced racer once told a rookie: "I can adjust your clutching, your jetting and your suspension . but it's up to you to adjust your throttle."

The point here is that regardless of how much power you have, if all you know how to do is grab a fistful of throttle, you're probably going to have issues with mountain riding.

Too many riders don't understand the difference between horsepower and powerband. Too many snowmobilers ride 800cc or larger/modified snowmobiles with no concept of how to adjust the thumb. Although the most experienced riders can feather the throttle to get just the right amount of response, most other riders go from full throttle to full brake throughout the ride. Big horsepower sleds are difficult to control because once you crack the throttle, they explode out from under you. They go from nothing to way too much, putting you out of position and in a stage of just trying to hold on.

Snowmobiles with less horsepower feature a powerband that tends to wind up. Although they still seem quick and snappy, they are predictable and manageable. In other words, it is a lot easier to control your sled.

While big horsepower sleds tend to have so much power that it causes the track to engage with such force that it breaks from the snow (resulting in trenching), smaller sleds engage much softer, maintaining grip in the snow and climbing on top.

So first, if you struggle keeping control of your sled, in other words, you feel like a rodeo cowboy riding a bull, you would likely be better served riding a smaller sled. (And I promise you that you will actually become a better rider and have less problems keeping up with the bigger sleds.) As a side benefit, you will find that your sled doesn't trench nearly as much . and when you do get stuck, it's a lot easier to get out a 600 than an 800.

The simple test to see if your riding style would be better served on a smaller sled is this: If you're using your brake to maintain control rather than your throttle, you're on too big of a snowmobile.

But if you're determined to ride big hardware, learn to feather your throttle so your track is always turning . but avoid grabbing a fistful which causes you to break traction. You have to think quickly, because things will happen a lot faster on a big sled.

(14) Up, down, on your knees. To most snowmobilers, if the manufacturers design a seat for the sled, then it seems to make sense that you're expected to put your butt on that seat when you ride. Well that doesn't hold true in the mountains.

There's a time to sit. But there's also a time to stand. And there are multiple times to get on your knees if you ride in extreme areas.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that the more on top of the sled you are, the more control you have over it. That's why all new mountain snowmobiles are designed with a taller riding platform.

The younger generations have embraced the concept of upright riding and are always standing. Aggressive riders recognize they have more leverage and can absorb the big bumps better with their legs if they are standing. So that just leaves the rest of us who are old, timid, new to the sport or just plain lazy who spend the bulk of our time on our derriere.

For some, spending a lot of time standing is hard on the knees and legs. That's understandable. You get tired. You need to rest. Sitting is a good way to take the load off the legs. But you need to recognize when you're in terrain you can afford to rest and when you really need to be on top of your sled. Rule of thumb is that if you're moving uphill, you need to be in position to react quickly. You need to be standing, or at the very least, kneeling on your sled. If you're going downhill, you can be resting on your butt. If you are moving across a sidehill, you need to be standing on the uphill running boards.

So what if you are descending on a sidehill? Do you stand? Do you sit? Do you kneel? It all depends on the terrain and how much change of direction is going to occur. But know this: If the control of your sled is even slightly unpredictable, you better have your butt off the seat. The time it takes to get on top of your sled could be the difference between making a turn and washing a corner, especially on a downhill sidehill.

Balance is the key to controlling your snowmobile. You have to be able to adjust your weight position while maintaining balance. Your balance represents your leverage. You are trying to distribute your weight and strength onto a specific location of your sled that will keep it level while traveling over not-so-level terrain. As your snowmobile darts through the snow, you must be able to stay perfectly balanced and in control of your weight distribution. All it takes is to be caught "high-sided" (where your weight is actually on the downhill side of the snowmobile) for your sled to either roll over or lurch down the hill. And once it starts going down, you're pretty much committed to the descent.

You must anticipate and act. That's why you stand. If your buns are planted on the fabric, you will most likely be in a position to react or over-react.

(15) Way to go. A group of friends go on the same ride about a half dozen times each winter. We start at the same parking lot. We take the same trail. And we travel back to the same mountain. We've done this ride more than 50 times in the past 10 years. And yet, there's not a time when we don't end up a bit confused on where we are or when someone comes up missing sometime during the ride.

Although we do the same ride, we usually peel off the trail at various locations where we take not-so-short cuts through the trees and over the mountains. We constantly explore different drainages and canyons. Yet we're seldom more than a mile away from our basic course.

So how can a group of riders get confused or separated in country they travel dozens of times?

Well, for one thing, snow changes things. Even from day to day, new snow can erase old tracks and cover trails and landmarks. Things look different. Then when you add to the mix the common winter conditions of flat light or low visibility due to falling snow, it's easy to see how people can get turned around or lost.

Another factor that occurs with riding groups is people getting separated from the pack. When you try to retrace your tracks, you see tracks going in every direction. It's hard to tell which ones are new or what direction they're traveling. You may even hear other sleds passing through and think that it's your group. By the time you realize they're not, you may be two more drainages removed.

How can you prevent these types of situations from happening?

Well, you can't. That is, unless you decide to sit in the truck while everyone else goes riding.

So the next best thing is how are you going to be prepared to deal with such situations when they happen?

The first rule is to know your riding group and establish some common guidelines that allow everyone to be on the same page. Such as, if you ever get separated, go back to the last place where everyone was together and wait. The idea is that once the group realizes someone is missing, the most logical thing is to backtrack to the last point where the group was at.

Problems tend to arise when someone separated from the group assumes nobody will be looking for him and heads back on his own. What normally happens then is that the group spends the rest of the day looking for someone on the mountain. In western riding, we're usually calculating our planned route by the amount of fuel we carry. If we spend a lot of extra fuel running back and forth looking for someone separated from the group, we may not have enough to make it back off the mountain. A good day's riding can be ruined by the frustration of searching for someone who has actually bailed on the group.

Often, it's not a situation of someone getting lost from the group, but rather the entire group getting lost. Let's face it, many times when we ride we don't know exactly where we are at all times. And perhaps that's not really that important. All you need to know is where you are trying to go and what direction you need to be traveling to get there. That's where a good GPS or compass can be very important.

Some people just have the ability to know their bearings. But you have to have some confidence in yourself and not be afraid to make a commitment. The important thing to be good at is using common sense.

Don't drop into a canyon if you don't know whether you can make it out the bottom. Snowmobilers who tend to spend the night on the mountain are those who drop down into an area where they can't come back out. The farther down they go, the more problems they have. Sometimes it is a situation where most of the group are capable of making the climb back out. But there's one or two that either have incapable sleds or inadequate skills to make it out. So before you drop down into trouble, take a moment to assess the skills of your group. Often we have a couple of the more capable riders drop into problem areas to see if there is another way out. It's easier to get the best two out of a jam than to get the worst two out of the jam, especially when the other sleds may have trenched out the best lines, making it even more difficult.

(16) Biorhythms. Just like any other athletic activity where you can have good days and bad days, snowmobilers can also experience off days in riding. You know, when you tend to be slow to react and always on the wrong side of your sled.

And just like in other activities, once you start making mistakes, it's hard to stop. Face it, there are days when you're not in sync with your sled. You do something stupid and you start to lose confidence in your riding abilities. This happens often when you are riding in unfamiliar terrain or with unfamiliar riders. (For the staff at SnoWest where we ride in both situations often, we're constantly fighting to maintain our confidence.)

In these situations, it is important to take just a little more time, try to ride with a bit more control. Let others do the showing off. It you're having a rough day, the more you press, the harder you work, the more tired you become and the more you increase your odds of making mistakes.

Yet when you slow things down a bit, you give yourself a chance to get back in control of your biorhythms. You gain confidence as you become more comfortable with the terrain and the people you're riding with. And you experience a much better day on the snow.

(17) Avalanche. If you ride the mountains, you have to be aware of the inherent risk of mountains falling on top of you. Basically, when the snow starts to stack up on steep slopes, it will reach a point that there's more vertical weight than horizontal strength. In other words, something's got to fall.

Due to the technology of new snowmobiles, we are able to access areas where the snow is deeper and the slopes are steeper. We are becoming more exposed to avalanche terrain.

Now, many snowmobilers can go their entire life without encountering an avalanche. Other riders tend to find several avalanches each winter. It's obvious that those who encounter avalanches more frequently probably put themselves into those kinds of situations while those who never encounter avalanches try to keep themselves out of those situations.

Regardless of where you may fit into the mix, if you ride the mountains, you will still be at risk. So this is what you need to know.

First, there are three important items that should be part of your riding gear-a beacon, shovel and probe. The beacon can save your life. The shovel and probe can save your friend's life. Yet many riders will only carry one or two of these items. So let me ask: whose life isn't worth saving?

The beacon is the most expensive of the three and can cost $300-$500, depending on how fancy you want to go. It serves just two main purposes: it sends a signal out so if you are buried, others can locate your position; or it is switched to receive a signal, so you can locate the position of another buried person.

The shovel can come in handy in a number of situations . so it's a very common tool carried by snowmobilers. But if someone gets buried, the shovel can mean the difference between life and death. The probe has only one purpose . and that is to probe. It is invaluable to you when finding someone buried because it will literally tell you if the person is two feet under the snow or eight feet under. Without it, you could literally quit digging after four or five feet thinking you're looking in the wrong place when your friend is only another foot or two down and dependent on you finding him immediately.

So again, which these three tools are you willing to do without?

Before every ride into the mountains, check with all in the riding group to see who's wearing beacons and if they are turned on. You might be surprised to find one or two in the group who have returned from a day of riding and didn't have their beacons turned on.

Second, the most important thing you can do when riding in the mountains is to be aware of avalanche conditions and try not to put yourself in harm's way. Remember, when a mountain falls on top of you, there are several ways you can die . and suffocation is probably the cleanest. Many avalanche victims die from trauma, which means while they're being tossed about in a tumble cycle, they are smashing into rocks, trees and other dense objects. Not the best way to go.

You should always be looking out for death traps-areas where the terrain offers no escape or run-out. A big bowl with plenty of run-out at the bottom tends to allow the slide to disperse its debris. Usually anyone caught in an avalanche here has a fighting chance of staying on top of the snow, or at the very least, only being partially buried.

But areas with little or no run-out tend to allow the snow to stack up on top of the victim or slam the victim into the trees or rocks at the bottom. These areas are death traps.

Usually, any slope with trees tends to indicate that historically the snow is stable through these areas. That's why there are trees. Open slopes with few or no trees usually indicate that the a slope slides often . that's why the trees aren't there. As long as you can recognize the risks, you're likely to be a little more prepared.

Third, if you or someone in your group is caught in an avalanche, somebody needs to take charge. You first need to assess the situation and if there's an existing danger (has only part of the slope come down or does it look like more can come down). Next you need to find out where everyone is . and where anyone who's missing was last spotted.

Then, you need to make certain all beacons are turned to receive or turned off if you are not involved in the immediate search. And make sure any other electrical devices (like cell phones) that may interfere in picking up the signal are turned off.

Organize your search patterns. Keep your group focused on each individual task. Staying organized may be the best hope of things turning out well. The greatest chance for survival is with the group at the scene. If you leave the scene to get help, you're changing the situation from rescue to body recovery.

There are books, videos and seminars available to teach avalanche awareness. Anyone who rides the mountains should take some time to become educated to the signs, risks and what-to-do's.

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