Most of the people I know pack it in during the winter months and stop riding their four-wheeler when the temperature gets lower than Congress’ approval rating. Besides being cold outside, snow begins to pile up on the trails making it hard to get traction unless you have ATV snow tires. Even then, the white stuff can get deeper than Lindsay Lohan’s legal troubles, and nobody wants to deal with it. The sun goes down earlier each night, and we all suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) until next riding season.
In many locations around the country, and especially here in Utah, we turn them into snowmobile trails. After all, they have all the important characteristics needed to convert them for winter recreation.
- Most trails that have ATV all-terrain tires tearing them up in the summertime are well mapped and have good signage. This is important since the landscape changes so much when blanketed with snow.
- ATV trails tend to be clear of obstacles or debris such as tree stumps, power transformers or jagged rocks. This is kind of important, ok, really important, no matter what the season. Sometimes the snow is deep enough to safely bury obstructions, while other times is only hides them beneath the surface.
- Trails that ATVers frequent are generally known to be safe for riding.
This combination of factors makes off-highway vehicle routes ideal for snowmobiling in the backcountry.
How Snow Trails are Made
The process begins in the fall when workers bound up the trails, their quad tires burdened with the weight of long orange poles, t-posts, and rolls of reflective tape. They spend days or even weeks marking the routes so they can be seen and followed after the snow piles up. This makes it possible for the snow cat operator to find his way.
There are a couple of kinds of machines used to do the job; the most common is a snow cat. Some areas with short trails and limited snow drag an implement behind a snowmobile. Snow cats are the workhorses of the trail grooming process and you might have even seen them at work in ski resorts.
A typical snow cat is a tracked vehicle with a plow on the front and a tiller on the back. The purpose of the plow is to make the trail level. This is done by knocking down drifts or by angling the blade to transfer snow from the high side of the trail to the low side. Grooming is NOT plowing. The tiller, dragged behind the cat, spins at varying speeds to smooth out icy surfaces or break up frozen chunks of snow. The weight of the cat itself, usually several tons, merely compacts the snow beneath it so that lesser skilled riders won’t sink and get stuck.
Snow cats operate at slow speeds, generally under seven miles per hour and often require up to one gallon of gas per mile groomed. Most groomers work at night because snow is easier to work when it is cold, really really cold. Frequently, daytime temperatures cause melting and create a layer of slush that doesn’t groom well at all.
The more time you spend playing outside during the winter, the more kinds of snow you realize there are. Groomers and snowmobilers alike need to be aware of them for both safety and pleasure.
Powder - Sometimes described as sugary, this snow is soft, light, and doesn’t contain a lot of water. It’s fun to blast through at high speeds, however inexperienced riders often sink to the bottom and get stuck. This is why ATV tires aren’t suited for the deep stuff.
Wet Snow - It’s like riding over a super slushy. This snow is heavy and allows for too much traction, often causing you to dig a hole. You sink. Your ATV tires/snowmobile tracks spin. You get stuck.
Frozen Snow - It seems strange to think of snow as anything but frozen, but we’ve all trudged across icy, crusty snow where the surface breaks and crunches with each step. It’s difficult to operate in, even for a powerful snow cat.
Layered Snow - This is the dangerous stuff. Bottom layers of snow are often settled and compressed and contain a great deal of water. However, softer, lighter layers build up on top of them and, when on a slope or hillside, easily slide off. This is one way avalanches occur.
Pay attention and recognize the type of snow you’re in regardless of the vehicle you are driving.
Maybe you are a really skilled rider and have no problem pushing your ATV snow tires through a couple feet of the white stuff, maybe you even have ATV snow tracks; no matter how you get on wintertime trails, beware of the dangers.
- Weather - Go prepared.
- Ledges - Depth perception is often impaired in snow and fog.
- Cornices - Overhanging ledges.
- Avalanches - Take a beacon, shovel, and probe with you.
- Getting Lost - Without roads or terrain features, you can get lost easily. Take a GPS.
Enjoy the Trails Year-Round
Although winter just ended, it’ll be back before you know it. The next time you ride your ATV, imagine what those trails are going to look like covered with snow. Take some time and prepare some warm gear and find out if there are groomed trails in your area. If you can ride them, do it!