Brappp, Brappp, Brapppp.
With each quick twist of the throttle, our pack of four snowmobiles roared through the powdery forest beneath Hahn’s Peak. While I had been on a snowmobile one other time, this was the first time I was in the backcountry looking for fresh tracks.
As I would soon learn, there are several different types of terrain on which one can go powder hunting – and our guide had plans to show us the offerings of each.
We were touring the Steamboat Springs backcountry with Colorado Sled Rentals, a company known for offering customized tours complete with guides that are willing to show off the wild side of the sport – something I’ve found to be rare when you’re renting something with a motor. It’s also worth mentioning that Colorado Sled Rentals is a Polaris Adventures partner, which means they get the newest sleds every year. This is definitely something that helps ease concerns of mechanical issues when you’re headed to such extreme and remote terrain.
While all three of us were in the novice category when it came to snowmobiling, our guide was confident that we could handle the wide range of related experiences he was throwing at us. Compared to other tour-style experiences I had been on, this one was undoubtedly far more adventurous.
Our experience started with a quick ride on an established trail, though the hard-packed snow would very soon become a less common sighting.
What’s snowmobiling like?
If you’ve never been on a snowmobile (AKA a “sled”) before, a few things will likely surprise you the first time you gun the throttle.
For starters, merely steering a snowmobile is a physical activity in itself – you’re not just turning a wheel for the sled to predictably follow. If you want to make a turn, there’s a good chance you’ll have to put your whole body into it. You might even have to literally stand up and move to one side of the sled. After all, the sled is roughly the size and weight of a refrigerator. Plan to be sore the next couple of days.
Second, snowmobiles are extremely powerful. Each twist of the throttle has the power to send the front of the sled into the air. Instead of merely stepping on the gas and maintain a speed, it’s more about smaller precision twists that give the perfect amount of power to the sled. It’s something that can really only be learned through experience.
Third, there is some risk in snowmobiling…especially when you’re off trail. These machines are fast, hard to control at times, and they weigh a ton. Our guide was great when it came to helping us analyze risk and prevent injury. However, it’s easy to see how these machines can be dangerous. Flipping a snowmobile is relatively easy and it can obviously be a dangerous situation when you’re rolling with something that weighs hundreds of pounds.
What types of terrain did we hit?
The Hill Climb – As we got off of the hard-packed trail, the first true backcountry terrain we found was an alpine bowl hill climb. Basically, this means blasting up a steep slope by carefully managing your weight and speed. It was stunning to see how fast the machine could cruise up typically inaccessible terrain. While it may be instinctive to assume that more power means more success when you’re headed up a steep slope, we found that this type of terrain required the most precision. Several times, one wrong twist of the throttle flipped the machine, burying it and the driver in deep powder.
Ditch Banging – After the alpine bowl, we moved onto a style of riding called ditch banging. Basically, this means that you’re riding your sled through a powder-filled ditch. There are big banks and giant pillows of snow that you can use to flow through the terrain in a way that feels remarkably smooth and natural. As you’re hopping across deep snow and over terrain features, it can feel as if you’re a dolphin launching from wave to wave.
Meadows – Our next terrain stop put us in a massive, untouched meadow of powder. This is when we could really push the snowmobiles to their limits of speed and acceleration. With no obstacles in the way, meadow riding lets you punch the throttle with much less risk, capable of bringing the snowmobile to the speed of a highway-bound automobile. If you’re planning a backcountry snowmobiling trip and looking for speed, make sure you’ll hit a meadow at some point.
Tree Sledding – After the meadows with no obstacles came the many hazards you’d imagine in a tree glade. During this portion of the trip, we managed our speed along a carefully plotted, but rewarding route. Now more familiar with the mechanics behind steering the machines, we were able to guide our sleds through narrow powder-filled gaps in the trees. Tree sledding was rewarding in a way that’s comparable to solving a puzzle, though that’s not meant to downplay the rush and the risk. It challenges the driver to get from point A to point B when there’s a bunch of stuff in the way, opening the door for creative lines similar to what can be found while tree skiing.
Cornices – As our tour came to a close, our guide was sure that we could handle a few small jumps and wheelies. One of the easiest ways to go airborne on a sled is off of a cornice. After finding a wall of snow that was approximately 5 to 10 feet high, we started to send the sleds up and over it – which they handled with ease. The process was simple. Carefully line up your approach to the wall and then, once you’re close, give the machine some extra throttle. Like a bucking bronco, the sled’s front end rises in the air as the machine launches over the snow. If you’ve got enough speed, there’s a chance your back tracks will leave the ground, too. Be warned – this obviously poses a risk. If you’re going to partake, you should be comfortable with the fact that you may get hurt.
Is backcountry snowmobiling for you?
A few things surprised me about backcountry snowmobiling that definitely impact the way I’d recommend trying it out. Snowmobiling in powder does carry a level of risk and it also requires a surprisingly high level of physical fitness, even just to steer. For instance, I sport climb two to three days a week and my hands were still burning at the conclusion of our three-hour guided tour. If you’re not comfortable with either of those factors, trail riding might be a better bet, though the company we were with is able to tailor a backcountry experience to the skill set of each group of drivers.
Going with a guide company can help you mitigate several of the pain points associated with backcountry snowmobiling. For one, a guide will be able to make sure you’re in safer spots of the mountain. A guide will also be able to help you dig out the sled when it gets flipped or stuck, something that we quickly found out was far from uncommon (shoutout to Michael for all of the help).
If you’re someone that likes an adrenaline rush and someone that is somewhat athletic, backcountry snowmobiling is something you have to try. If you don’t think you meet these first two characteristics, a guiding company like Colorado Sled Rentals will be able to customize the experience to better fit what you’re looking for.
Overall, I loved this experience for a number of reasons. The small-group guided aspect allowed me to explore the sport in an authentic way that can be impossible for most first-timers, helping me to become more comfortable maneuvering a sled in a number of environments while also learning quite a bit about how to do so properly. If you’re interested in backcountry snowmobiling, give it a try, but I’d recommend going with a tour group like Colorado Sled Rentals if it’s your first time. Had we simply rented the sleds and set out to explore by ourselves, we probably would have spent most of our time digging the machines out of powder or simply avoiding anything off-trail. If you’re looking for a way to try backcountry snowmobiling as a beginner, this is the way to do it.
Not in the Steamboat area?
If you’re not in the Steamboat area and still looking for a backcountry snowmobiling experience, there are a number of other Polaris Adventures locations around the West. Admittedly, I haven’t gone on guided tours many times in Colorado, but I can recommend Polaris Adventures outfitters based on my own personal experiences with their tours and rentals. Their focus on providing top-of-the-line gear helps to ensure that you’ll have the best experience possible from start to finish.
They don’t just stop at snowmobiling either, as several of their partner outfitters offer a wider selection of Polaris vehicles, including off-roading in places like Silverton and Woodland Park, as well as more unique motorized options like taking a Polaris Slingshot down the Million Dollar Highway. If you’re new to activities like this and looking for a great place to start, the list of experiences offered by Polaris Adventures is that.