Tips for Saving Our trails

A snowmobile expert offers a quarter century of insights into why trail riders have different traction needs than racers- and what it means for our snowmobile trails
RELATED TOPICS: TRAILS | TRAVEL | SNOWMOBILES
The heartbeat of snowmobiling is our fragile network of trails. How we protect them from abuse will determine how long we stay alive.

Logic and common sense can help us minimize the damage to the trails, while still maintaining a necessary margin for safety.

A number of factors determine the amount of damage done to our snowmobile trails. These include snow conditions on the trail, the type of sled we ride (with or without traction products) and how we work our throttle thumb.

Trail snow conditions can vary greatly from day to day. To minimize damage to the trails and possibly to yourself and your sled you must adjust your riding style and possibly your equipment.

Besides little or no snow, powder snow is the hardest snow to maintain a trail with. Even with 8 to 10 inches of powder there is very little flotation provided. This means your wear rods will be running in the dirt which, especially in the corners, will generate snirt (snow + dirt). This combination will melt the snow much faster because the darker dirt will soak up the heat from the sun.

Crusted snow on the trails will provide flotation, but you can easily churn down to the ground.

Hardpack with an ice base is ideal, but it is not indestructible if your thumb pushes heavy on the gas, especially on acceleration out of corners.

Ice covered trails create a different situation altogether. Even the most careful of snowmobilers is susceptible to a sudden loss of control.

This condition is the main reason traction products are recommended for safety.

Trail Damage
The type of sled you ride can affect trail damage for several reasons. The size of the sled, both in weight and power are two key considerations. When greater weight is combined with speed, there's more momentum to be overcome in order to turn. If your sled has a long track (over 121 inches) you would start with a 6 inch carbide just to overcome the push of even a bare track. Deep lug tracks have their place in deep powder, but on groomed trails they really churn up the snow, gripping into dirt on marginal snow-packed trails.

The new extra travel suspensions are great for your back, but in some cases they are a double-edged sword. The smoother ride allows those who want to cruise at higher speeds for longer periods of time to do so, without becoming fatigued. Because these long travel suspensions put more track area on the ground, the downside is apparent when you see how much more snow becomes airborne and drifts off the trail.

Different skis and ski products serve different purposes. Longer, wider and flatter skis provide more flotation whether steel or plastic. The drawback of steel skis is that in a certain temperature range, snow will stick to them.

Plastic ski skins prevent this accumulation and allow the steel ski to slide through the snow. A disadvantage is that as resistance is lowered, due to the slipperiness of the plastic, the sled will push straighter through the corners. To regain turning ability you need to move up to the next level of wear rod (i.e. Hard-surfaced to a 4 inch to 6 inch carbide).

Plastic Skis
The first plastic skis were tri-keeled and were introduced on the 1979-80 Chrysler - Snow Runner. The first plastic skis for full size sleds appeared around 1990.

They were as long as the longest steel skis and flexed, providing a cushioned ride over bumpy trails. Unlike the 1979 Twin-Trac ski, which had a wear rod on both outside edges and a deep tunnel down the middle, it used only one wear rod and shallow concave channels on each side of the center keel. This design trapped snow under the ski, keeping it there, thus providing excellent flotation on even marginal snow. The weight savings, when you include the mounting hardware, is around 3 to 3 1/2 pounds per ski, which is important if you are racing. Most of these ski designs focus the pressure on the wear rods.

Because plastic will not withstand direct pressure it is very important that you watch your wear rods closely. You should change them when any part of the wear rod is worn halfway through or you'll risk ski damage.

There are products available which provide additional protection for the ski at the point where the wear rods attach. This is an especially abusive area for the ski. An added benefit to these products is that their edges provide an additional bite in the snow for turning. Additionally, if their leading edges are tapered, they can help alleviate darting in the same manner as Ski-Doo's Proactive Control System ski keel without a drag resistance penalty.

The new rocker bottom plastic skis generate less friction in a straightaway, which makes them useful in drag racing. For trail riders, rocker skis decrease the turning effort on ice and pavement. When you apply the laws of physics to trail riding, these benefits become counter productive to cornering.

The arch of the rocker varies from brand to brand, so the amount of carbide making contact with the ice or pavement varies, based on the conditions. So regardless of how long the carbide insert is, there will only be a finite amount of the hardened material under the spindle (where the ski pressure is greatest)biting into the ice. However, the remainder of the carbide provides increased ruddering, if you will, in the hardpack snow. Both aspects of the carbide's functionality aid in turning, but on rockered skis, only a small portion of the carbide provides bite.

Traction Facts

The proper wear pattern of the wear rod should be 60% to the front and 40% to the rear. This will ensure maximum effectiveness of the turning carbide.

Wear rods, whether standard steel or hard-surfaced will not penetrate ice or pavement as much as a carbide runner will. A hard-surfaced rod will maintain its ability to turn in snow longer, because it stays thicker longer than a plain steel rod, but sacrifices the aggressive bite on ice in comparison to a carbide-enhanced wear bar.

Bombardier filed for its carbide wear rod patent # 3,732,939 in January of 1971. Such carbide wear rods were needed when the race tracks switched from snow banked to ice covered. The reason carbide was chosen was that it etches into ice for an extended length of time, providing the resistance needed to turn the sled. They were not widely used until the very late 1980s when the OEMs made carbides standard equipment on some trail sleds. Even though their patent had tapered carbide at all three locations, most other carbides had blunt ends. These blunt ends created resistance, causing the tracks to break loose on ice, generating a need for studs in the tracks. The added resistance tells you the carbide is digging a channel into the ice. Some manufacturers still use blunt-ended carbides in select models.

Degrees of Stud

The carbide stud patent #3,838,894 was filed in December of 1972 by Donald G. Greedy of Special Sports Products of Caro, Michigan. The original carbide point was 60 degrees and at that time was used basically for racing. The first commercially available push-through studs were sold by the makers of the Manta Twin Track snowmobile as far back as 1975.

Recently, trail stud points have gone from 80 degrees to 60 degrees in an effort to provide better traction. Racing studs have 45 degree tips and even 30 degrees for ice racers. These sharper points do give racers deeper and harder penetration, but if racing products are used on the trails it means more and more damage to paved surfaces in marginal snow conditions. Prudent traction manufacturers do not offer or recommend racing studs or carbides to trail riders, due to the fact that the maintenance would be as high as requiring replacement every 200 to 300 miles. And these sharp points would cause excessive damage to trail surfaces.

Another way to cut down damage is to follow the stud manufacturers' recommendations for proper stud penetration. Most manufacturers recommend between 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch for trail riding. Recent studies have shown that sleds with less than 3/8 inch of penetration are more effective at braking than those with greater lengths. This point can even be further evidenced by racing rules in snocross and cross country circuits that limit competitors' stud penetration to no more than 3/8 inch past the track lug. Again, only carbide will etch ice and hold up against rocks and pavement crossings for any length of time. Another traction device available is a hex-headed screw with carbide chips brazed to the head. They provide plenty of scratching throughout their life and do minimal damage to the trails.

Saving Trails

Like everything else, the cost of grooming trails is increasing. Volunteers are getting harder to find and land is changing hands at an increasing rate, making it difficult to keep existing trails open. As the manufacturers work to improve the environmental impact of their sleds, we need to take action to protect our trails both physically (i.e. stay off the trails until a good base has been established; close the trails at night for grooming so they can set up for four to six hours, which can increase their life ten-fold) and financially (i.e. pool money to buy as much land as possible in critical snowbelt areas through State Associations). We can enforce these changes by requiring large registration numbers on the sleds, to identify violators. Some areas have changed laws allowing deputized snowmobile club members to patrol on the trails.

But still, the biggest thing we can do to save our trails is use our own common sense. If the snow is thin in the corners or at a stop sign, don't get on the gas and chew up the ground or pavement. It only wrecks your equipment and damages the trail. Purchase sensible trail riding traction products and use them in a responsible way. Remember, when you're out on the hardpack trail with your friends, sharper, race-bred runners and studs won't give you much advantage and will deliver the same level of safety as trail products. It comes down to you, and you alone, to do what's right to preserve our trails.

About the Author:

Scott T. Bergstrom co-founded Bergstrom Skegs in 1973 and has been awarded a number of patents for his trail-friendly traction devices. For more information about Bergstrom products, check out - Save Our Sport - at www.bergstromskegs.com

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