PLANNING YOUR SNOWMOBILE TOUR
I've been a touring rider for a long time, typically racking up more than 6,000 miles a season visiting a multitude of destinations. By trial and error, I've learned a lot about planning a trip and here are some of my best tips…
Snowmobile touring is not the same as spending time on your local trails with family and friends or even going on a long day ride with your buds. Snowmobile touring typically involves visiting a distant and unfamiliar destination, saddlebagging it from location to location over multiple days. At its best, snowmobile touring can be an incredible experience. At its worst, it can be a living hell. And good planning can be the difference.
I've found two approaches to planning. One, is to pick a destination and then make whatever plans are necessary to do a successful tour there. This works best for experienced touring riders. Two, is to determine first how many days you are able to ride and when, and then pick a destination that fits your availability. Frankly, number two is a better choice for most snowmobilers because you control your planning according to what best suits your schedule. Whereas a locked-in destination tends to control your planning and may limit your scheduling flexibility.
GET THE TIMING RIGHT
So I'm going with approach number two for this article. I advise getting started early with your planning, preferably well before Christmas. The first question to answer is: How much time do you have and when do you have it? Your destination choices are very different for a four-day weekend or a ten-day vacation.
The "when" is also important, because many destinations deliver their most reliable riding conditions in February (also tends to be the most crowded), while others are at their prime in March. Meanwhile, January tends to be more of a crapshoot for early conditions and definitely can be the coldest riding month.
Whichever time I choose, my preference is to build in an extra day if possible. This allows for an unexpected layover due to a winter storm, sled breakdown or simply to do some extra exploring of a particularly appealing place.
COMPANIONS MAKE IT OR BREAK IT
The second question to answer is: Who is going? The planning for your snowmobile tour varies considerably depending on whether it's a family, couples' or a guys' ride. Also, what everyone's expectations are and how experienced each rider is with touring. Remember, what your ride group is able to do will be determined to a large extent by the limited capability of any snowmobiler with less experience or ability.
So the "who is going" answer plays a major role in deciding how far to trailer to a destination, daily ride distances, number of pit stops each day, style of accommodations and the overall compatibility of participants. Deciding the "who" before Christmas makes it easier to complete all of your other planning.
Whatever your choice of riding companions, I recommend an absolute maximum of eight sleds. Four to six is more ideal, with an even number of riders for room sharing. Anything more than eight sleds presents extra logistical issues, such as longer to gas up every time, to get served at restaurants, and to get everyone started in the morning and after every stop.
If you have too many participants or riders with varying riding abilities, don’t count on riding as far each day. This may affect your destination decision and certainly your daily routing.
INSIST ON RELIABLE MACHINERY
There's another huge determinant in deciding who’s going: Is each rider's sled capable of doing the tour? As much as every sled may be able to complete local rides at home, a snowmobile on tour has to be in good enough condition to make the entire trip without incident.
Certainly there's no guarantee even with new sleds, but why take the chance of all your best laid plans going down the dumper because someone's sled is too old, always requires tinkering after each day's ride, or is simply not well enough maintained? Another consideration is that even if a sled is in great shape, is it capable of keeping up with the others?
Along the same lines, you also want to ensure that towing and trailering won’t be a problem for any participants. So before confirming riders, verify there's enough equipment in good working order for everyone to share the driving there and back safely and on time. Also, make sure each rider has the legalities in order well in advance, such as any necessary trail permits, sled and vehicle registration or insurance papers, and passports if required.
PICK A SUITABLE DESTINATION
Note that up until this point, you've decided how long, when and who, but not where. So why not make your destination a group choice? But don't be lured into choosing one just because a rider really pushes to go there or everyone’s heard how popular it is. Instead, pick one that takes as little time as possible to drive to, offers a good staging location, has enough different trails and towns for the number of days you want to ride, and that has sufficient amenities and services available on route to satisfy everyone in your riding group.
So for example, a hardcore riding crew might choose a more remote region with greater distances between occasional towns. They might also be more willing to trailer many more hours to get there.
Meanwhile, a couples' group might lean toward a more populated area that's closer with numerous trailside towns and more choices for eating, accommodations and nightlife. Both are great choices if they fit your schedule and group expectations.
In either case, it's important to select a destination that is more likely to have good snow and trail conditions during the time you've chosen to visit. But given the variable winters we've had recently, the destination decision may not be able to get finalized until early January. By this time, it's more likely you'll have better information available about how the winter’s shaping up in various regions to assist you with deciding where to go.
HEDGE YOUR DESTINATION BETS
Today, my inclination is to narrow the destinations down to three possibilities prior to Christmas, and then choose one and a back-up in early January. With my primary choice, I’d plan my staging location, tour route and book snowmobile friendly places to stay from those who advertise on trail maps and in snowmobile magazines.
I always reserve my lodgings ahead. This not only ensures I have a place for all of my group to stay, but also that it's my first choice, with safe sled parking, on-site restaurant, fuel nearby and direct trail access.
For my back up location, I'd do all of the above except book the lodgings, so it's ready to go if I need to make a switch closer to the planned start date. If you do have to make changes, please have the courtesy to cancel any previously booked accommodations right away.
Hopefully, the tips and advice in this article will help you plan a successful tour. But I've only been able to skim the surface with the space available, and so haven't said enough about such considerations as actual route planning, choosing a staging location and nightly lodging, what to bring on tour or how to handle emergencies. But I guess that's good fodder for future articles!
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