It’s time for my annual responsible use harp. In an effort to maintain your attention I will attempt to make this report moderately entertaining.
I’m saying moderately entertaining because I believe the issue of responsible use is the most important challenge organized snowmobiling has faced in its storied history. I’m not joking. The reality we are a well organized, safety conscious and committed-to-good-behavior group of sanctioning bodies, makes it seem pretty crazy we’ve gotten ourselves so far down this troublesome road.
Yes, we are in a serious pickle. It is the undisputed truth that the OEMs (AC, Pol, SD, Yamaha and Lynx) have had to build what their customers want or they will not be viable businesses. However, it does seem strange a serious response to off-trail “Free Riding” (the bane of every hard-working snowmobile club volunteer) has taken so long.
It’s not like the first off-trail excursion generating a trail closure happened two or three years ago. The original Ski-Doo Summit (at that time targeted at vertical riding) and the Polaris SKS came to market in the early 90’s. Trail riders bought them because they offered expanded use beyond the realm of groomed trails. Not much was said about this in the snowmobile media. Now it’s the start of the 2024 season and it might be time for a serious and sobering response from the industry.
When things got really out of control, in the late two-thousands and early twenty teens – the backlash to “Free Riding” pivoted 180 degrees. All of a sudden, riders thought of trails as nothing more than a route to get to a never-before-seen world of untouched powder in the flatlands.
We all know what happened next. Landowners lost their minds and vented on the volunteers who run our snowmobile trail systems across North America. The landowners had every right to be ticked. Acting on nothing but landowners good graces, clubs and their members (that’s you and I) have established a mostly interconnected groomed trail system across most of North America. Suddenly we saw trails being closed wholesale. Make no mistake about this – trails are closing and the number one reason is off-trail free riding.
Let’s make this clear: We need our landowners way more than they need us. Having the rules set out for 30 to 40 years about staying on the trail, torn up and shredded by snowmobilers who actually believe they can go “anywhere there’s snow” is the best description of the problem. It’s actually way too simple.
The images promoted by everyone in this business from the OEMs to the clothing manufacturers to the, dare I say it, the media and many more stakeholders perpetuate the falsehood you can go anywhere with an X-Over snowmobile. Let me counter this with a bizarre thought. Reality is this: If we don’t fix this problem we’re going to be able to go nowhere with any kind of snowmobile – as far as groomed trails on private land are concerned.
Friends, here’s the truth: Private landowners from the east coast of North America through the central snow belt states and provinces to the midwest and further west are supremely agitated and – read this twice – are closing trails on their property every day.
They’re doing this because a number of snowmobilers think wearing a backpack, having three tattoos and carrying a foldable snow shovel makes them a freerider. It might, in their minds. However, when we all end up sitting around the smoking hole that was dug by irresponsible use, these freeriding pilots will be in the same situation as all trail riders – no place to ride.
So where will we ride if we don’t stop riding off-trail on private property? Oh, we’ll still ride! You can be sure of this. The trespassing won’t stop until every entry point on landowner’s properties are gated. Many snowmobilers will ride lakes. Many will go through the ice or drive into rivers. Then there’s roads. You know those conveyances built for wheeled vehicles that grind our carbides off in a few miles? Yep, there’s our destiny if we don’t wake up and do something.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
- Stay on the marked and groomed trail at all times.
- Refuse to ride with anyone who doesn’t agree to do the same. Seriously.
- Never ride without a Trail Permit on sanctioned trails.
- If you want to freeride, research places in your jurisdiction where you can do it legally. These locales do exist.
That’s a good start. Let’s get serious about this and preserve our trails in an effort to keep our landowners happy.