By Steve Janes
Update--Here are some updated photos from our ride on April 1. We rode a circle around Two Top in fresh snow and didn't see another snowmobiler or another track all day. Now who's the fool?
Many parts of the country are stuck in a “stay at home” stage as North America enters the critical stage of its battle with Covid-19—social distancing and isolation.
Although this is a serious matter and there certainly will be critics (and rightfully so) saying that we are insensitive to even consider snowmobiling during these most interesting times in our world history, life does go on. And there’s a fine line between definitions of “staying at home” in our homes of brick and mortar, and staying at home in nature.
It’s your call. But if you choose to go the nature route, here are a few tips for spring riding.
1) Your riding window is not determined by daylight, but rather by snow conditions. If nighttime temperatures are well below freezing and daytime temperatures are in the 40s, then the snow will be ice-hard first thing in the morning. You will actually want to start your ride after the sun gets a chance to loosen the top half-inch of snow. Even your ice scratchers are ineffective if your carbides struggle to leave a mark.
This doesn’t mean you should wait until the afternoon to ride. There will be a point in the day when the bottom starts dropping out and your sled collapse under the top crust. By this time the quality riding experience is over. So your window of good snow will likely be about four hours long; we find usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Make the most of it.
2) In the spring, many of the trailheads are on the lower part of the mountain and naturally that’s where the snow disappears first. If you’re pulling a big trailers, your options for parking are much more restricted than if you have a sled deck or lightweight trailer that can be moved by hand. But you do what you have to get as close to snow as possible. If you do have to pick your way through marginal snow, the tighter the canyon or taller the trees, the better the snow. Just be patient and careful … there is better snow up high.
3) The main challenge will be keeping the engine heat at respectable levels. Until the snow softens, and if you have to travel at lower speeds, it’s going to be a challenge for your track and scratchers to throw up enough snow for adequate cooling. This is one time you may want to pack a little snow on your tunnel to cool things down.
Also, you will want to pack a little snow in your suspension to protect your hyfax from getting too hot. Turn your gauge to the engine temp setting and pay attention. Most sleds normally run between 110-125 degrees. Once you start hitting 160 degrees, you’re pretty hot. It might be time to take a break and pack some more snow on the tunnel and pipes to cool things down.
4) Spring snow is way different than powder snow. For the most part, the base is solid and you can only sink your edges in about a foot or less on sidehills. It takes a little more effort to hold a sled on its edge in steep terrain. Make sure you take the time to understand how the snow is going to react.
This will also change according to the direction of the slope and whether you’re riding in trees. So even though you may be able to cut a descent sidehill across a north-facing slope in a timbered area, the snow base will change once you wrap around the mountain or the slope opens up to where the sun exposure is greater.
5) Pay attention to your drive belt. Spring snow is heavier with greater moisture content. That means your belt is going to be under a lot more stress than during the normal riding season. It’s still capable of handling this added work … but it does have certain limitations. If you find yourself getting bogged down in wet sticky snow, don’t assume full throttle will power your sled out of this mess. If your track is binding in sticky snow due to slush packing your suspension, you will want to do anything you can to alleviate this added stress.
Get your sled on its side so only a portion of the track is being bound by snow. This will allow you to clear out your suspension and perhaps save your belt. And when you do stop, open up the clutch side panel to allow things to cool down.
6) The best snow is in the trees. There’s two reasons: First, you have shade that keeps the snow protected from the sun and cold wind so it’s not as hot during the day and not as cold during the night. Second, the best trees are usually on north-facing slopes … which also tend to collect the most snow due to southerly winds. So the snow will be deeper … and usually feature a more consistent density throughout.
7) Always remember what goes up must come down. In the spring, you can climb about anything. But when you turn to come back down, you are basically riding on a 500-pound chunk of metal and plastic that’s 90 percent controlled by gravity. There is a reason why spring riding mishaps are far more expensive than regular season mishaps. So pay attention when you climb and be picking your runout areas for possible descent.
8) As the snow starts to change on the top of the mountain, remember that the bottom of the mountain is likely changing at a much greater rate of acceleration. The redeeming part is that your sled won’t be impacting the snow quite as much and you will be able to stay a little higher in the snow since you’re heading downhill. But be prepared to have a ski randomly break through the snow and dive toward any oncoming tree.
9) The nice part about mountain trails that were groomed during the season is that they usually hold their shape pretty well during the spring. So as the snow starts to turn to slush, these trails actually become easier to ride. If you’re looking for a good ride with the wife and family, established and maintained trails usually last a month after the general riding season ends and still have some quality time left on them.
10) Even though you may feel like the snow base is stable, avalanche conditions are still prevalent during the spring. Things will still slide, so pay attention to terrain. Look for recent slides and recognize which facing slopes tend to have more snow movement.