Snowmobiles: The New Rage?

By Rod Woten

I am amazed how far snowmobiles and the sport of snowmobiling have come in the 40-ish years since I first threw a leg over one. I remember our old Ski-Doo and Rupp sleds fondly. At the time they seemed powerful, comfortable and agile. Fast forward 40 years and the performance improvements made to snowmobiles in the areas of power, comfort and handling are mind-boggling. Those old sleds may as well have been Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered car.

There’s Just Something About a Snowmobile
Some people just don’t get the allure of a snowmobile. They just can’t seem to understand why anyone would spend their hard-earned money to buy a “toy” that can only be used a few months of each year. While there may be some truth in that, it’s also very obvious that they have never experienced the thrill of gliding effortlessly across snow that would bottom-out wheeled vehicles. They have never experienced how warm and comfortable it is behind that windshield with hand, thumb and seat-warmers on “HIGH”, as the suspension soaks up every bump and jolt, making it feel like the next-best thing to riding a cloud. I can guarantee that once they feel the rush of zipping across snow-covered cornfield stubble at 60 mph, they would probably become snowmobile-converts very quickly. Most people are also not aware of the snowmobile-specific infrastructure that magically appears every winter. In some of Iowa’s northern reaches you can actually ride your sled to your favorite supper spot, grab some groceries along the way, and fill up your tanks before leaving town. These are all things that we take for granted when our cars are the mode of transport, but being able to do all this this (and more!) via snowmobile is truly something special. The very number of snowmobile clubs across the state and the miles of trails that they groom and maintain should serve as testimony enough to the joy that snowmobiling can bring.

Different Strokes For Different Folks
The days when a single snowmobile would do everything are long gone. Snowmobiles are highly specialized now and each type of snowmobile is specifically designed for a different purpose. The sleds of old would satisfy many different roles but didn’t do any of them exceptionally well. Of course, we didn’t realize this at the time because it was all we had, and the things they did were as good as they got for that period of time. Driving one of today’s snowmobile, and experiencing how well it does that ONE specific thing it was designed to do makes us realize very quickly how basic those old sleds were. Because of the highly specialized nature of today’s sleds, you really need to understand exactly what you want your sled to do before you lay down the money for a new ride. Generally speaking, most snowmobile manufacturers divide their sleds up into 4 or 5 categories. Knowing what you want your sled to do, will determine which category you want to start shopping in.

Recreational – This is probably the most common type of sled purchased. Rec sleds are the closest thing we have today to a one-size-fits-all snowmobile. These sleds are typically fairly quick and fairly comfortable to ride but lack many of the bells and whistles of a crossover touring snowmobile. Many do not even have a windshield, requiring you to invest in a good helmet and set of goggles. Often times these are the sleds designed for speed and/or maneuverability, so they often have shorter, narrower tracks and super-responsive steering. Rec sleds are also the ones preferred by the folks that like to ride ditches, carve up the drifts along the trail and is exactly the type of sled you want if you like to catch lots of air over every hump or drift you can find. Recreational sleds come with a wide range of motor sizes, in both 2-stroke and 4-stroke, so you can pick the sled that goes exactly as fast as you want to go. They are often somewhat smaller in stature, so when paired with a very large powerful motor they can be dangerously fast. Often these sleds also have no reverse gearing, so if you get into a tight spot, your only option for “backing out” is to dismount the sled and drag it backwards or sideways via the bumpers. Recreational sleds do as well off-trail in moderate snow conditions as they do on groomed trails

Touring/Trail – Touring sleds are what recreational sleds want to be when they grow up. There is less emphasis (slightly less, in some cases) on speed and maneuverability and more emphasis on comfort and quality of ride. Touring sleds often have the most comfortable suspensions and many are adjustable to allow you to match the trail conditions perfectly. Touring sleds also come with a wider variety of engine sizes, in either 2 or 4-stroke, but the motors tend to be slightly bigger, generally speaking, than a recreational sled because they usually weigh more than your typical rec sled. Most if not all touring sleds are 2-seaters, (sometimes called “2-up”) to accommodate a driver and a passenger. Because touring sleds typically have to carry more weight than most rec sleds, they will also be geared somewhat lower. This means that most touring rigs won’t go as fast as a rec sled, but don’t be fooled, some touring sleds can flat-out boogie! It also means that most touring sleds will have slightly wider and longer tracks to maintain float under the additional loads. Touring rigs also typically have more storage, in the form of saddle bags, windshield bags, tank bags, fender bags, etc., so they are often the choice for multi-day trips. If you’re looking for luxury, then the touring sled arena is where you want to look. Heated seats and heated grips for driver AND passenger, digital compasses, auto-start, heated goggle bags, outlets for heated helmet shields, 12 volt outlets, rearview mirrors, security systems and much more are all very common “options” that you can find on a touring sled. Because touring sleds are usually heavier than rec sleds and harder to move by lifting, reverse is a VERY common standard feature in this category. Touring sleds excel on groomed trails and can get bogged down or even stuck when taken off-trail, especially in moderate to deep powder conditions.

Utility – Utility sleds are the work horses of the snowmobile kingdom and are designed to carry and tow large loads in a variety of conditions. At first glance some utility sleds might be mistaken for touring machines, but a closer look proves otherwise. These sleds often have large and powerful motors because they are so heavily built that they weigh enough that a big powerful power plant is required to get them moving. They can often come with many of the creature comforts that touring sleds are equipped with, and they do an adequate job as a touring sled when needed. They won’t be quite as nimble or quick as a touring sled in many cases, but they will very comfortably carry two passengers and their luggage along any groomed trail. Because of the massive weight that many utility sleds are expected to handle, they will often come equipped with the longest & widest tracks of most machines as well as some of the widest skis in order to provide maximum float.

Mountain – These sleds are designed specifically for off-trail, steep terrain with lots of deep powder that you often find in the mountain ranges of the Western United States. They are fairly easy to identify due to their super-long tracks with extra-long paddles on the track. Some even refer to them as “paddle-tracks”. Those long tracks give these sleds plenty of float across the quicksand-like powder and the long paddles grip the loose powder to give you plenty of forward propulsion. If you’ve ever watched any videos of snowmobiling in the mountains you may have noticed that it’s not at all uncommon for the sled to be moving forward with the skis in the air and the track partially submerged in the powder. This allows the person riding the sled to very easily steer the sled through the deep snow by shifting body weight rather than steering with the skis. This is necessary because in that soft powder, the skis would simply push or plow the snow and not steer the sled at all. The combination of these things also makes these sleds less that desirable for anything other than mountainous terrain. Will they work on a groomed trail? Yes, they will work, but the ride can be pretty uncomfortable, and steering can be a workout to say the least. In order to provide enough power to keep the track moving through the powder and stay on top, mountain sleds often carry some of the biggest motors in the industry.

Crossover – Much like the crossover category in the auto industry, a crossover sled is one that mixes features from two other categories. In the case of snowmobiles, a crossover is a nice mix between a recreational sled and a mountain sled. Crossovers can often have a more aggressive track and suspension of a mountain sled but toned down a bit for on-trail rides as well. Indeed, a true crossover sled is at home both off trail in ungroomed moderate powder and on groomed trails. They often retain the more powerful power plants of the mountain machine making them very powerful in off trail conditions and deeper snow and super-fast on groomed trails. Depending on the specific model, crossover sleds can retain a higher or lower ratio of mountain to recreational features, so shoppers will want to weigh the specs of each specific model before pulling the trigger on the one that exactly fits their riding situation, whether it be predominantly off-trail or on-trail.

Other than that, you should think about other options you may want your sled to have. There are many OEM options that you can add at the dealer and after-market upgrade that can be added once you get the machine home. Heated seats can be a nice option, for both driver and passenger. Heated handgrips and a heated throttle are must-haves in my book.

If you haven’t given snowmobiling a try, I highly encourage you to do so this winter. With a little internet searching you should be able to find your local snowmobile club. Almost every community in the rust-belt has at least one, and they can be a great resource for finding trails to ride, determining what kind of riding you want to do and even allowing you to try out different models of sleds from different manufacturers. It may be cold outside, but that doesn’t mean you have to hibernate inside until spring. Get a sled and get out there to discover that winter ain’t that bad after all. BRAAAAAP!!!!