The snowmobile industry has had long track mountain sleds for many years, at least 25 years by my best guess if we go by the introduction of the Ski-Doo Summit in 1994. Long track sleds are like a big snowshoe in that they provide greater flotation which is very beneficial when riding in deeper snow.
Everyone that promotes snowmobiles, from the manufacturers to the dealers to the media (myself included) has openly and freely promoted the virtues of such sleds as being superior for use in deeper snow conditions. That is our job, and it is only logical. Different tools work better for different jobs. Pretty basic.
For many years we had our traditional short track trail sleds and the longer track “mountain” sleds as they quickly became to be known. Also offered, but not nearly as visible or popular, were some long track utility sleds, also capable of superior flotation in deeper snow conditions but designed more for the needs of workers and those using a snowmobile for a job at hand, not just recreation.
As each segment of machines matured and evolved, the so-called “mountain” sleds become more advanced, more capable and more specific. What started out as 133.5” and 136” tracked sleds (seriously, the first RMK 800 we had was a 136” track sled, before that we had 133.5” SKS models) slowly stretched out to 141”, 144”, 155”, 163”, and finally 174” track lengths. Front end widths became narrower and narrower. The mountain sleds used to be great all-around deep snow sleds but slowly became highly specialized machines, designed to traverse deeper and steeper terrain. To ride one down a trail for much of any distance was just plain difficult.
With the evolution of deep snow specific mountain sleds, something curious happened. Riders who had been buying the shorter-tracked mountain sleds were now left out in the cold. Their riding conditions were not as extreme, not as deep, so they didn’t need all of the track length or deep snow lug height. They really despised the super narrow front ends, great for sidehilling but terrible for all-around stability. They were perfectly fine with the slightly longer tracks and slightly taller lug tracks, something that would work well across a wider range of conditions.
This emerging void in the market created a new opportunity for the sled manufacturers. There was a gap in the sled offerings to be filled by demand. This is how the “crossover” sled market was born. I clearly remember the very first Ski-Doo Renegade model. Ski-Doo jokingly said they were going to call it the “SnowTech Special” as we had been so vocal in the need for such a machine. In fact, the very first Renegade was called a Summit Renegade, not an MX Z Renegade, as Ski-Doo believed it better identified with the mountain riders than it did the trail riders. From those humble beginnings the Renegade quickly became a popular crossover sled, and is today considered a premier trail sled as the crossover market has slowly migrated to longer and narrower models. Funny how history repeats itself.
Today’s crossover sleds are now very close to what a mountain sled used to be years ago. Consider track length, lug height and front end width of a crossover sled and we pretty much have what used to be called a mountain sled. The manufactures simply built what the consumers were willing to purchase.
Notice that nowhere in this did anyone ever suggest that these machines were to be used for illegal riding. Nowhere has anyone EVER suggested that a long track sled be used to enter areas off-limits to snowmobiles. Never has it been suggested that a rider purchase one of these machines to trespass onto private land.
The popularity of longer tracked sleds is growing, which in itself is not a problem, but what is a problem is where riders plan on using them. An alarming number think they can use them pretty much wherever they please. Public, private, who cares. Down the trail, across the trail, off the trail, across this yard, across this field, maybe even across this golf course or cemetery. Wherever there is deep snow, away they go. They have little to no regard for what is legal or illegal, public or private, open or closed.
We see this first-hand in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There is a lot of public land open to ride, but each and every groomed trail section that crosses private land is constantly abused by those who insist on going off trail where it is illegal. Riding in the state or national forest is one thing, but cutting across private land is another. Signs, fences, banners, all are ignored. The riders under the helmet believe they are invincible, albeit totally irresponsible.
On many groomed trail systems off-trail riding is illegal. Period. With today’s crossover sleds we study maps and find legal riding areas to take them. Anytime a rider leaves the legal trail system they MUST know who owns the land they are entering. If you don’t know, don’t go! Much like a hunter must know where the public land ends and private lands begins, snowmobilers are obligated to know where it is legal to ride and where it is illegal to ride. Not only in their local areas, but everywhere and anywhere that they might take their sled to ride. Different areas have different laws, different areas have different customs. What is legal and acceptable behavior in one state might not be legal or acceptable in another state. It is the obligation of the snowmobiler to know the laws and regulations wherever they plan to ride.
Those who cry they have nowhere to ride should be reminded that buying a snowmobile with a deep lug track was a voluntary purchase. You don’t go buy a high powered rifle to go deer hunting if they only allow slug hunting in your local area. Nor do you use the rifle to go duck hunting. If you want to use that new rifle you’d better find where it is legal to do so.
The notion that it is an obligation of the club volunteers to accommodate riders who want to go off trail and break laws is absurd. If these riders want a different experience and opportunity, they can take their machines to locations where that kind of riding is legal and acceptable, or they can roll up their sleeves and do the work to create such opportunities – just like everyone else has. Not all riding areas will be able to have legal off-trail opportunities. Just like your rifle, you can’t use it everywhere hunting is legal.
Some trail riding areas are starting to recognize this as a “tourism” opportunity and promote their availability of lands open to off trail riding – of course this is only possible in areas that have such opportunities, be it public land or private land with permission. The further north and/or west you go the more likely you are to find this. Many areas in the east are VERY strict about ONLY operating sleds on the designated groomed trail system. Off trail riding is an even bigger problem in these areas that have no legal off-trail access. Locally here in central Minnesota there is no public land, there is no state forest, there is no national forest. If we want to go boon docking we load the sleds on a trailer and go where that kind of riding is legal. And we sure don’t blame somebody else that we can’t do it right here.
The suggestion that the explosion of illegal trespassing and off trail riding is caused by the manufacturers (and the entire snowmobile industry) promoting off trail sleds is misguided. We promote different machines for different applications. We show machines being used in their legal operating environment. To suggest this is justification for illegal operation is insane. The obligation to use and operate your machine legally is the solely burden of the rider! Again, just because a hunter sees pictures or video of somebody elk hunting in Wyoming, do they step outside and try to do the same in their local neighborhood? Of course not! They know when and where they need to go to do the same.
Trails get closed each year because of selfish riders. We just lost another one here in Minnesota at the end of November because someone went down a trail on private land before it was even open for the season. Some snowmobilers ignore signs all day long like they don’t read or understand the language. They know full well they are trespassing. They don’t care. Yet we blame the “industry” for encouraging such behavior? I blame social degeneration. The lack of respect. The loss of morals and personal responsibility. Yes, these habits of society are creeping into our beloved sport of snowmobiling. How sad.
Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. If we break the law, we have no excuse. We cannot blame the devil. We cannot blame our circumstances. We can only blame ourselves. And, until we recognize that the problem resides within us we will never arrive at the solution.
Kevin Beilke – Editor, SnowTech Magazine