Don’t despair, your buddies are simply sled heads who are relishing their latest jaunt into a winter playground. These are the same fellows who are too tired to carry out the garbage, but think nothing of wrestling a 500-pound machine out of a snowdrift. We’ve compiled this primer to introduce you to the sport of snowmobiling and better comprehend the Monday morning chatter around the water-cooler.
Sometimes considered a means of going very fast in order to get nowhere in particular while taking the hardest route possible, snowmobiling attracts people of all ages and aptitudes. They refer to their machines as “sleds,” hence the term “sled head.”
There’s a lot of debate about who/when/where the first over-the-snow machine came into being. Some point to a pair of Minnesota brothers who converted a motorcycle in 1914. Others honor a modified sleigh up Quebec way in 1922. There were steam engines on skis and runners, skis attached to automobile frames, even one contraption that used propellers. By the 1960s, about 100 companies were building and selling snowmobiles. That number has dwindled to four major manufacturers—Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha—with a few dozen specialty shops putting together very trick (and very expensive) models.
On the front end of every sled is a pair of skis, which look amazingly like a short pair of snow skis. On the bottom of the skis are hard metal wear bars, a.k.a. wear rods or runners, which aid in steering on hardpack or icy surfaces. Underneath the chassis, bogie wheels run on slide rails, pressing down on a rubber track to keep the track’s lugs in contact with the snow. A centrifugal clutch transmits power from the engine to the track via a series of wheels, chains and belts.
Engines may be twins or triples, two- or four-stroke, and fan- or liquid-cooled. The most exciting recent development is the quiet, fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly four-stroke machine with heaps of power. The hood shields the engine and all its accouterments, and serves as the holder for headlight, windshield and instrumentation.
Although made of non-metallic material, snowmobiles often develop a magnetic attraction for trees. Front and rear bumpers provide a means to jostle the sled around, and hopefully keep those trees a respectable distance from the hood. Under the rear bumper a rubber snow flap deflects snow and objects hurled by the track, especially important when your riding buddy decides to roost out ahead of you.
Steering is accomplished via handlebars, and most include heated grips. The throttle lever is positioned under your right thumb, with a nearby kill switch to instantly shut down the engine. (Number one cause of a sled refusing to start: forgetting to disable the kill switch.) On the left handlebar, the brake lever is reminiscent of a motorcycle.
Running boards are the footrests that run along the bottom on both sides of the chassis. Unless you are riding in the kneeling position (one foot on the running board and one knee on the seat), it is highly advisable to keep both feet on the running boards. Track lugs make a nice pattern on the snow, a not-so-nice impression on your toes.
Snowmobilers love the challenge of boondocking—heading off-trail and tackling whatever terrain and conditions nature throws their way. Hill climbing is a passion for many folks, with the goal to high-mark everyone else’s track. Formal competition includes drag races on snow, ice, grass and asphalt, oval sprints, ice racing, watercross and snocross. The lack of snow or even winter weather doesn’t stop a serious sled head.
As with all things that involve the outdoors and machinery, safety and common sense should be foremost. Always wear a helmet and eye protection, and dress for inclement winter weather—unless you’re water-crossing, in which case you’ll probably trade the Gortex for a life vest. Learn the symptoms and treatment for avalanches, dehydration, frostbite, hypothermia and altitude sickness.
Faithfully carrying a few necessities might make the difference between an enjoyable jaunt and a bad situation. Basic items should include spare gloves, a tool kit, a spare belt and spark plugs for your machine, first-aid kit, water, space blanket, lighter or waterproof matches, trail map, compass, rope, whistle, knife, duct tape, flares, and flashlight or glow-light sticks.
Never ride alone, and watch your fuel supply. Be cautious and considerate in and around snow-parks and lodges, and when crossing highways. Keep to the right side on trails, don’t stop in the middle of them, and when you do stop, make sure you’re visible to other riders. Uphill riders have the right-of-way, and remember that any bump under the snow may be a hazard: tree, log, rock, hibernating bear, even the roof of some backcountry cabin.
To avoid testing the front bumper of the sled following you, use hand signals for slowing (left arm out and angled toward the ground), stopping (left arm raised straight up), or turning (same motions as used on the road). To elude testing your own bumper—and your insurance coverage—stay a few sled lengths behind anyone in front of you. If you overtake and wish to pass someone, cautiously pull abreast and be sure they see you before you move on by.
Become familiar with the handling, acceleration and braking of your machine. Don’t go down anything you can’t climb back up, and don’t go up anything you’re not prepared to ride down. Most importantly, ride within your ability level and recognize your limitations. The biggest causes of snowmobile accidents are drinking, riding at night, and excessive speed.
Now that we’ve covered safety and playground etiquette, here are a few tips to enhance your over-the-snow experience. It is much easier to turn a sled while it’s moving, and body English enhances its handling. In a corner, slide your tushie toward the inside of the turn. On an incline, scoot toward the uphill side—the more you lean, the more pressure on the inside of the track, which provides better control. Descending a hill, maintain slight throttle pressure to keep the clutch engaged, and gently pump the brake to avoid your snow flap trying to beat your headlight down the hill.
Think about where you park your sled. Facing downhill tends to flood carburetors, aiming uphill may present a traction problem, and nestling up to the machine in front of you can be frustrating when that machine decides it is stuck or won’t start and you have no room to maneuver around it. In fresh snow, make a loop or two to pack it down and park in your own trail so you don’t have a workout getting it unburied.
And speaking of buried, with a snowmobile, getting stuck is a fact of life. Sometimes just standing on the running boards and wiggling it from side to side while increasing the throttle will provide the traction you need. If this doesn’t work, pack a path in front the skis and have someone stand off to the side and tug on one ski at the same time you hit the throttle. Just be sure your buddy isn’t in your path. Next option is to pack an area next to the side and rear of the sled, and lift the back end onto this area. Final choice is… well, that’s why you never ride alone. If you’re stuck facing uphill, turn the machine around by pulling on both skis at the same time until it faces downhill. We never implied sled heads were woosies!
But getting stuck isn’t a given, and the magnificent exhilaration snowmobiling provides might turn you into a sled head. Then you, too, can be a part of the Monday morning colloquy.
Vicki Andersen, a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon, is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Snowsports Journalists Assn. She can be reached at email@example.comResearch Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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