Essential tips for the motorized approach
INTRO & INTERVIEW BY SPENCER HARKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN HOWLAND
I’m 11-years-old, on a ski vacation in Colorado and I’m wearing my favorite hat, an army green knitted headband with a visor that I got at the snowboard shop back at home. Super core, super cool. I walk into a gas station to use the bathroom while my dad fills up the tank and who walks in behind me? None other than Steele Spence and the Level 1 crew. Watching them fuel up—trailers, sleds and all—it clicked in my mind: That’s how ski movies are made. My heroes use snowmobiles.
I’ve always wanted a sled. Okay, that’s not entirely true: they scare the shit out of me. I didn’t always want to own a snowmobile, but I sure as hell always wanted to ski with one. So, this year, I finally bit the bullet and bought a 2007 Ski Doo Summit. Within the first couple days of owning my new toy, as I was pulled over on the side of the interstate with a shredded trailer tire, I realized I had a lot to learn. So, I called up my friend, athlete and general badass, McKenna Peterson, to get some advice. Here are some highlights from that conversation which will hopefully help the next novice sled skier avoid making any dangerous or costly mistakes.
How long have you owned sleds and would you recommend buying one?
I‘ve owned snowmobiles for 10 years now and I 100-percent recommend getting your own. They open up a lot of skiing opportunities, but riding a sled in itself is also just so much fun.
How has your appreciation for skiing grown since owning a sled?
Sledding has really taught me to appreciate the simplicity of skiing. I mostly use my sled to get out deep into the backcountry, then I park it and tour for the day. It’s usually just easier to hike [from there] and if my sled gets stuck or broken down, I can always just ski out. The mess you can get in with a sled has shown me how simple of a tool skis are.
In three words, describe the feeling you get when you ride your sled.
Vroom. Ahh. Frustration. Although, I think “throttle” is also great word and it can be used for everything. You can answer every question with it: Throttle. Throttle. Throttle.
Snowmobiles are loud and they can be pretty invasive. How do I minimize my negative impact on the people around me?
It’s all about communication and respect. Although unlikely to happen when sledding, if you come across a party of people ski touring, stop, turn off your engine and check in with them. Find out where they’re going. Make sure you’re not going to do something like “high-mark” their objective. It’s just like what you’d do if you came across people while you’re ski touring.
I’m a reasonably experienced backcountry skier, but there are going to be some different risks and challenges on a snowmobile. What do I need to know?
First up, your pace. When you’re snowmobiling, everything comes at you really fast, much faster than when you are ski touring. So, by the time you notice you’re in a terrain trap, or under a steep slope, it may be too late. Next, line choice. When we ski tour, we make pretty complex tracks. We switchback up the hill and try to stick to the trees. When we snowmobile, we mostly end up looking for the easiest way up the hill. Usually, that means center-punching the slope. That isn’t always the safest route, though. So you need to be super conscious of how you get up there. It’s easy to become anxious about getting your sled up there without messing up, but you need to think about your safety as much as you think about just making it up the hill. Another big one is keeping your group together. It’s really easy to get separated on a snowmobile: One of your buddies might see a cool powder patch they want to go play in while another might bust a belt. People can get spread out very quickly. And I never go sledding without radios. BCA makes a great one. Snow safety is the same sledding as it is skiing, you just have to remember everything you learned ski touring. And that it is all coming at you quicker.
I never go skiing without extra ski straps, a headlamp and extra Pit Vipers in case I run into trouble. What are a few things you won’t sled without?
You have to bring an extra belt…
Like the Arcade belt on my pants?
Wow. No. Drive belt. It’s what lets your motor do its job. They often break and you need to have an extra one on you—always. I bring a hatchet, too, or a pocket chainsaw. I use those to get my sled out of trees and then to clear things out of my way. We tend to crash into trees. User error. I also carry extra spark plugs—that’s another thing that seems to give out pretty often. There’s a good spot to store those and a belt in beside your engine. Lastly, a first-aid kit is not optional. Bring one.
Any other lesser-known tips?
Throttle position is important, but my hands are so tiny. My original throttle stuck out so far that when my thumb was resting on it that my hand was fully extended. I moved it into a position to where it was easy to push with tiny hands and lowered my handlebars, which has helped a lot with riding. You can adjust your suspension based on your size as well. It just takes a lot of messing with things to dial it in.
What are three of the best tips you can give to a first-time sled owner?
Throttle. Gravity is your friend. And then throttle, again.
A woman of words.
Don’t be intimidated.
Do you need to get a truck to tow a sled?
No. People make it work with any snow-capable vehicle and a single-place sled trailer. Amie Engerbretson drives a Subaru with a trailer and she rocks it.
I have no upper body strength. How do I wrestle this thing into a truck or trailer, around trees and out of snow holes?
Gravity. Gravity is your friend.
You mean I should park my truck at the bottom of a hill?
No, I mean, when you are stuck in a tree, you’re usually on a hill. Use gravity to your advantage. It’s okay to roll your sled over. It’s like when you crash skiing and your head is under the snow; you roll downhill to get your feet back under you.
You sledders always get stuck in holes. What shovel do I bring for that?
You always have your avalanche shovel in your pack. Always. But, as you end up getting stuck a lot, it’s nice to have a burlier shovel fully assembled and ready to go. I strap a big shovel right to my tunnel with just one ski strap. Getting stuck in holes is a lot like when you spin your tires on your car and get stuck. The tread spins around, melts the snow and it becomes a traction-less surface. So, you end up needing to dig yourself out and get your tread onto some fresh snow where you can get traction. Again, gravity is your friend, ask for help and… throttle.
It’s gonna be cold and my heart won’t be pumping the same as it is ski touring. What do I need to stay warm?
If you’re on a groomed road, layers, lots and lots of layers. That said, if you’re riding something with lots of whoops, or in fresh snow, sledding is really quite physical. You warm up rather quickly.
Alright, enough about safety and responsibility. How do I look cool?
I just wear my ski gear but I see the slednecks wearing outfits where the color accents on their kits match the color accents on their sled. All the cool kid skiers seem to just be wearing all black. These are just my observations.
So I don’t need some sort of cool sledding one-piece from a brand with “motor” in the name?
I mean, that would be extra style points for sure. But I just wear my ski gear and pack multiple layers.
How do I strap my skis onto my sled? A-Frame?
They make ski racks.
I hear ski boots aren’t great on sleds. What’s the alternative?
Ski boots are terrible on sleds. You have no control, and you beat them up pretty badly, too. That said, you should try them out, maybe even learn in your ski boots. That way, when you wear some soft boots (think: Sorels, snowboard boots or actual sled boots) you’ll be a much better snowmobiler and feel really good about yourself.
What is an easy trick that will make me look like I know what I’m doing? How do I jump the sled out of the back of my truck without a ramp?
How about… do they call it a wheelie?
I’ve seen people cooking hot dogs on their engines for lunch. Is that realistic?
Yeah, it is. I’ve got one of those “muff pots” and I know a lot of people who use them every day but I don’t take the time to use it—it makes a mess. I just bring a Thermos.
There is a lot of toxic masculinity in snowmobile culture. I don’t learn well in that space. How do you get through that?
Everybody had to learn how to sled at some point. Especially, as sled skiers, most of us learned how to sled later in life.
And there are a lot of tricks to get your sled to move in certain ways that aren’t obvious. I find that people are excited to share their advice. You can boost their egos by making them feel like they are the expert. But people love to share.
Assuming I have a lot of fun sledding this year, how quickly am I going to upgrade? How fast does this become an addiction that I can’t afford?
Oh man. You’re in trouble here. What year is your sled?
Oh yeah. If you make any money this winter you’re going to buy a new sled next year. The way the new body styles handle is pretty amazing.
So I shouldn’t ride one of my buddies’ new ones?
Oh no, you should. They are amazing. They are really fun. It really helps explain why so many skiers have sleds that are twice as expensive as their cars.
Final words to somebody considering sled skiing?
It will be difficult, but still go. There are things that make it easier, but even when it’s hard, you have a homemade ski rack, you’re wearing your ski boots, doubling two people on a sled, you’ll still have fun. Don’t be intimidated, just go.