It's mid-August and I am starting to think about the sleds I'll be preparing for my personal use in the months ahead.
I like the Arctic Cat M8 for its ability to perform in the steep and deep backcountry. The thing is, Arctic Cat builds it for the masses-to be affordable and dependable. I like to personalize my ride to work with my ride style. My sled needs to be an extension of my mind and body. I need to be able to predict how the sled is going to react to the terrain.
I spend enough time on a sled that I can notice its subtle intricacies. Every aspect of the machine has to function properly and without question. If I think it, my sled should do it. If a shock has failed or if an A-arm is tweaked because of an incident with some obstacle, the sled will feel different to me and an adjustment in balance or aggression will be needed in technique to make up for the lack of ability of the sled.
Style is secondary to a good backcountry sled. Functionality should be first. So does function drive style? In the world of motorsports, styling is primarily achieved from a functional characteristic of the design of the vehicle. In fact, many times the characteristic will be exaggerated in a street vehicle to make it look more like a competition vehicle. In the `70s we jacked up the rear of the cars to make them look more like drag cars. Now we see lift kits and big tires on four wheel drive trucks to imitate monster trucks.
So how does this relate to mountain sleds? First of all, mountain sleds don't have to imitate anything. They are purely derived from their own evolution. Mountain sleds are driven by their ability to get on top of the snow (snowmobility) and how they react to rider input. Believe me when I say this, there are many misconceptions out there and I will try to clear some of this up.
A nimble sled responds quickly to rider input, even subtle input. It moves well with the rider. This is a key characteristic. So your reflexes are slow and you get behind your sled-is it forgiving enough to let you catch up? I go to great lengths to lighten my sleds any way I can. This is what makes a sled nimble-an ounce here and an ounce there add up to pounds eventually. A mountain sled can't be too light, but not at the sacrifice of durability. Exotic metals can be expensive, but also can substantially reduce weight without any structural sacrifice. Black Diamond Extreme provides most of my lightweight parts. From A-arms to vent kits Black Diamond has well thought out and durability-tested components.
However, just because a sled is light doesn't mean it will be the ultimate. There are other characteristics that come into play.
Good sled balance comes from centralized mass and low center of gravity. It is determined by how the sled responds to rider input. So this is relatively fixed by the manufacturer. Balance can be adjusted with suspension upgrades and shock and spring changes. I use an EZ Ryde rear skid to enhance balance and with the shock and spring packages that I use from Renton Coil Spring, the front of the sled will stay down in a climb, yet allow me to easily tip it up on one ski and balance for as long as is needed.
Predictability is a quality derived from a well-balanced chassis and creates a condition of trust between rider and sled. If you can trust your sled and know what to expect from it in any given situation, you will be able to carry out insane maneuvers. Predictability comes from an engine package, even with a turbo, which is always the same. It never misses, no matter if the snow is over the hood and chest deep or if it's spring snow conditions. Predictability is a suspension package that never kicks, bucks or bottoms out. Predictability comes from properly used vent kits and skis that actually turn.
With the application of more aggressive tracks we have had to go to more aggressive skis. A lot of technology has gone into ski development. I use the SLP Powder Pros. These skis can actually be too aggressive at times and a good compromise is the HCR Ski from Arctic Cat. A predictable sled allows the rider to anticipate his next move, however gnarly the situation may be.
The industry trend is going with higher and higher seats, based on the fact that the less you bend your knees the easier it is to move up and down. I can buy into this for a trail application. Oh yea, I don't ride trails-I almost forgot. So for backcountry riding I want to be able to be all over my sled instantly. Therefore I prefer a shorter seat design, which allows quicker transfer from one side of the sled to the other. I rarely sit anyway. Boss Industries builds my seats for me and we market a backcountry edition seat based on my preferences. The seat is also a part of the suspension package and I'll get more into that subject in another column.
Of course, one of the key elements to my ride is the engine package. In the technical situations that I find myself in I have to have a lot of power and I need it instantly and without hesitation. I have worked with Boondocker Performance for a number of years to enhance the turbocharger system for backcountry riding. Among other things, with the electronics that have been developed and the tunnel dump exhaust outlet, we have completely changed the way we look at turbocharged engines. They work all the time. They make more power and are more dependable than the big bores I used years ago with never a hiccup, never a hesitation-just put in gas and ride.
There are the little things that make my sled mine, like small diameter handlebar grips. This allows me to hang on with less grip and I don't fatigue as soon. My running board treads are composite so that snow and ice are less likely to build up.
Now I better stop before I give out all my secrets.
The functionality of my sled has evolved to the point that I look at terrain completely different than I did just a few years ago. Stuff that was never even considered before is attacked without hesitation. I marvel at the places my ride will take me. Often I pause to look at a line and just shake my head. How is it that a sled and rider just drove through there, seemingly without effort?.