Mountain Track Lengths 101

What's the right sled and track combo for your snow conditions?
2017 Polaris 800 Pro-RMK 174 mountain snowmobile
What is the best? It depends on the conditions and your preference. A long 174-inch track with 3-inch lugs (like on the new Polaris Pro-RMK) can give you some options that shorter tracks can’t … and vice versa!
Ryan Thompson - RLT Photos
It has been almost seven years since we had a “normal” winter in Utah. Looking back, an ordinary sledding season meant we could ride in select areas until the Fourth of July. Spending America’s Independence Day in the “purple mountain majesties” was a good way to celebrate.

This past year was about as close to our standard as we have had recently, and while riding from November to June was not too shabby, riding over the course of eight months always means dealing with a variety of different snow conditions. The AmSnow Western Crew explored the process of choosing an ideal track to work with each of those conditions.

Basically, there are two classes of tracks that mountain riders prefer in the West: 153–163 inches long with 2.5 to 3-inch lugs, or a 174-inch track with 3-inch lugs. Each different set-up shines in certain conditions and can make you look like a mountain-climbing rock star! Deciding which track to use is largely contingent on the weather and your style. As we work through “Mountain Tracks 101,” hopefully you will have a better idea about what sled length is right for you.
2017 Ski-Doo Freeride 800 154 snowmobile
Ski-Doo Freeride 800 154"
Ryan Thompson - RLT Photos
2017 Ski-Doo Summit X 165 snowmobile
Ski-Doo Summit X 165"

Freeride vs. Summit: These two sleds basically sum up the decision facing many mountain consumers. Do you buy a slightly shorter sled, or a longer one with bigger lugs?
Ryan Thompson - RLT Photos
Early Winter: Bending A-Arms
The anticipation of finally being able to break our snowmobiles out of their summer hibernation has many of us riding in the mountain backcountry when conditions are still less than stellar. As the packed base-level snow has yet to be established, early winter has riders ripping in landmine conditions. Bending A-arms, busting spindles, and totaling rides tend to be the orders of the day as this baseless snow leaves logs, stumps and rocks lurking just under the surface like hungry sharks.  

During summer, most of us ride motorbikes and side-by-sides extensively in areas we snowmobile in the winter, to get familiar with the terrain. This summer familiarity helps to know where the grassy meadows and boulder fields are located, but there isn’t a rider among us that doesn’t get off trail without some uneasiness in early winter conditions. If there is one rock in a 50-acre meadow, you can rest assured that your new sled will find it in November.

When comparing mountain track lengths in these conditions, you first need to consider the type of riding that will be expected: maneuvering around rocks and stumps, limited access to a lot of terrain, and longer than normal trail time. Our test-riding group discussed this at length (pun intended) and determined that the longer track length is good in early winter. You can go slower through the trees without trenching, and the larger footprint helps you stay on top of the snow.  

My personal opinion? It doesn’t matter what track you’re riding in November since you’re going to be on the trail more than you’d like. And, if your marital bliss (like mine) is dependent on bringing back the sled intact, but your testosterone won’t allow you to ride a more treacherous line, then an investment in some extra sturdy aftermarket parts is what should concern you most. Failing to invest in a front bumper and A-arms from a company like Zbroz Racing and possibly some ZRP spindles before the season starts is warranted, as it will likely be a forced investment once the riding embarks.

Mid-Winter: Unicorn Snow
Usually by December, there is more of a base and riders have a little more room to rip. The ability to go off trail without the impending fear of hitting something is enjoyed in December and January. The multiple layers of snowfall insulate the rider from the nuggets of doom that threatened sleds earlier. And while the added terrain is a lovely gift from mid-winter, the real present can only be found three or four days a year: Unicorn Snow.
2017 Arctic Cat M 8000 Sno Pro mountain snowmobile
Often in spring, a hard crust forms on mountain snow as it sets up. The snow is often “rotten” underneath and requires more riding finesse, but stiffer is better.
Ryan Thompson - RLT Photos
Unicorn snow is defined as 4-5 feet of new snow. Basically, it’s why mountain riders own sleds. It’s what we dream about when we mow our lawns in August, and it’s what we wish for when we blow out the candles on our birthday. Unicorn snow has roused me from sleep at 3 a.m. so I could look out the window and watch the snow fall with the porch lights on. In those early hours, my wife has found me looking out the window at the white magic with the wide-eyed intensity of a child waiting for Santa.  

When I asked the test-riding posse what some of the problems were with this type of snow, they unanimously said, “Nothing.” I’m sure this is because any problems you may encounter with these conditions are overshadowed and erased by your free-flowing endorphins.

The best track length for these conditions depends on a few factors, including your riding style and ability. The longer 174-inch track offers alpha male domination in these conditions; however, you will not realize your supremacy until you look back and see everyone else in your party digging. The longer track is also more tolerant of user error, and as such, it will be a buffer for the average rider. Up until this year, the Ski-Doo 174 T3 was the only stock option in this track length. With Polaris’ introduction of a 174, the Polaris diehards can breathe a sigh of relief; this sled does not disappoint.

With Unicorn Snow, riders whose vanity is dependent on navigating to locations that no one else can get to will want the long 174-inch track with the 3-inch lugs. This setup allows even old fellas the traction and footprint necessary to get to locations on the mountain that are well above most of their pay grades.

However, those who tend to ride with a wide-open throttle and are always looking for an opportunity to increase their sky miles will prefer the shorter 153- to 165-inch tracks. For Lonnie Thompson (the member of our posse that has the benefit of youth and a much smaller ibuprofen budget), his sled of choice in Unicorn Snow is a Ski-Doo with a 154-inch track and 3-inch lugs. He prefers this length for what he calls, “the fun factor.” Admittedly, though, he cannot get to as many locations as easily as his father, Curt Thompson, does on a longer track.
2017 Yamaha Sidewinder B-TX snowmobile
Track speed has been a hot topic lately, especially with the introduction of a true OEM factory turbo motor in the new Yamaha Sidewinder and Arctic Cat 9000s.
Ryan Thompson - RLT Photos
Spring: Seasons Are A-Changing
The obstacle to overcome in spring sledding is the changing conditions. The snow varies from ride to ride and from hour to hour, even while holding a line. Snow can change every five feet you sidehill.

In early spring you can enjoy good grip and soft landings, while in late spring you may have to tolerate slick and stiff conditions. Morning hours can be spent ice-skating, but by afternoon the snow may be slipping out from underneath your skis. In this season, you must stay focused. Failure to be attentive will have you skidding down the mountain with all the grace of a 4-year-old who recently had his training wheels removed. Many times, the snow will alternate from stiff to soft, and riders must adapt to slipping snow.

This spring snow is not without its perks, however. The snow coverage in early spring is at its maximum for the year. If you happen to be like the two members of our test-riding posse who suffer from sled-induced stupidity, then you will find yourself plotting courses to places you wouldn’t have dared (and probably shouldn’t ever attempt) earlier in the season. In addition, the fantastic traction makes it is easy to go vertical. We often call this ‘Hero-Snow Syndrome’.

In these changing snow conditions, riders need sleds that are easy to throw around. Reacting to the mountain’s offerings is key when riding in spring. Shorter track lengths are ideal – less track equals less weight and faster reaction time to change course. The Polaris 155 and Ski-Doo 154 sleds will allow riders to alternate between hard pack and wet and heavy snow.  

A shorter, stiffer lug is ideal for spring snow. The objective is to amplify traction to permit the rider to modify the course when needed. The benefit of a 2.5-inch lug is that it will not lie down when descending a hill. This allows for maximum traction and maneuverability as you work your way downward. What goes up must come down, and keeping that downward momentum in check should be your goal in spring.

Any Snow: Better Than Summer!
When deciding what sled length is the most advantageous to purchase, first consider your riding style and try to anticipate which type of snow you will spend the most time on this season. Ideally, it would be nice to have both a 153- to 165-inch track with 2.5–3-inch lugs and a 174-inch track with 3-inch lugs in your fleet. However, many of us also like to feed our kids and put gas in our cars, and we still appreciate you having enough money to purchase an AmSnow subscription! So, if you don’t have the cash for two sleds, take comfort in the fact that sitting on any length sled, in any snow conditions, beats sitting on a lawn mower.
POLARIS 174 vs. SKI-DOO 174 ▶
Trenching Test

The AmSnow Western Crew had a 2017 Polaris AXYS Pro-RMK 174 in our family of sleds for three months of this last winter season, and we put it up against the 2016 Ski-Doo Summit 174” T3. We didn’t waste any time trying to get them stuck. The first test had them on a very steep hill, side-by-side, in about 14 inches of fresh powder.

Our goal: trench them both. To our surprise, both sleds surfaced. The Polaris came up first, quickly leveling out on the snow and holding a tight line. The Ski-Doo swayed back and forth, taking a little longer to level out. However, as the race continued up the hill, the Ski-Doo caught and passed the Polaris about a quarter of the way up.

We performed the test three times and got the same results. This was surprising considering the Ski-Doo T3 has a 16-inch-wide track with a lower profile compared to the 15-inch-wide AXYS track.

Ultimately, we concluded that the Series 7 track on the new Polaris AXYS Pro-RMK 174 was stiffer, and that played a role in the way it jumped right on top and leveled out without swaying side-to-side. Additionally, the added clearance meant less snow to push, and the great stock skis no doubt played a role in keeping it on top of the snow.
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