The Evolution of a Snowbike Trail.


First of all, is it a Snowbike, Snow bike, Fatbike, Fat Bike or FatBike?? All of the above?  I guess in writing about the big bikes, I’ve used about every version. Now that it is actually winter here in Wisconsin, I tend to favor snowbike.  As J so famously said to R, a rose by any other name… They are the big bikes with fat tires that love to go places normal bikes fear to tread (pun intended).  So where are those places to ride, those trails and how do they get there?

In theory, the original were made to be ridden almost in the winter where there really were no trails.  Now that we have hand them around for a while though, riders are beginning to dial in our snowbike trails to maximize the grin factor of every ride. In my rookie year on my Salsa Mukluk, I rode pretty much anywhere that was legal – ATV trails, closed snowmobile routes, up frozen rivers, rutted logging roads and occasionally on my home singletrack at Levis Mound.  At the time, I hadn’t put much thought into grooming those trails, with the exception of a quick packing with snowshoes before our Sweaty Yeti race.

That’s changed to some degree now. With more and more riders drinking the snowbike Kool Aid, there has been greater interest in riding the now snow-covered trails that we inhabit during warmer months.  That’s understandable, since a trail like Levis Mound, with miles of singletrack, would be great to explore with the addition of snow. The snow just adds a different challenge and makes a ride on familiar trails feel like the first time. Every time we take a rest break, talk seems to center on all the tracks and sign from not-so common animals we see during these snowy rides. Wolves are a favorite big predator, but ounce per ounce, fishers, ermine and weasels are some of the toughest and most beautiful denizens of the woods. Porkies, deer and sometimes even an early out of slumber bear can cross our paths, things we may miss during summer rides.  These cold weather rides offer something new and different. I think that’s why we have had no let up in ridership this winter.

Even though snowbikes can forge through a lot, when snow depths reach more than several inches, the exponential effort of pedaling greatly reduces the fun factor.  The solution is to either ride somewhere else or groom the trail.  I have several close friends from Marshfield and the Black River Falls area who are all-in on the snowsbike specific trail scene. Unlike myself, they are mostly non-skiers, so being able to ride all year has been very attractive, and so they are more than willing to groom singletrack (I’m usually too busy grooming XC trails).  In a nutshell, a person has two choices when prepping fatbike trail, walk with snowshoe or ride a snowmobile.  At Levis, on the technical rocky and ledge clinging trails, snowshoeing is the only solution.  If we’re lucky, we can get on it when the temps are warmer, pack it down and let things cool down and harden.  These trails, even though minimal in length, are a hoot in winter, where snow and ice add in an extra challenge to bike handling skills.

For long distance riding, using a snowmobile with a menagerie of towed implements is the only way to go.  Of course, most of the singletrack was not designed to squeak a sled through, and frequent light-load bridges require some preliminary work brushing and finding alternate routes.  Depending on the snow type and freeze/thaw cycle we’ve endured, everything from the plain sno-mo track to tile and lawn rollers filled with hundreds of pounds of weight, to towed truck tires have been used to pack and smooth trails.  Besides which, we are always trying to thing of  what may work better next time.   Because many trails are off camber, we are left with a downside crease or narrow berm to stick fat tires into, so at times pedaling techniques resemble trials riding to complete sketchy sections-all in good fun and it’s what makes snow riding a different sport.

I don’t think any of us  realized how much work would go into maintaining these trails. Snow is our friend, but every new snowfall also means we need to get out all the equipment once again to maintain the surface.  The return on our investment of sweat equity, however are great trails. This past weekend greeted us with perfect buffed in riding conditions. The trails that took us twice as long to ride just a day or two earlier, now were flowy, fast-packed singletrack again. Not there is anything wrong with riding slow, it’s just that more grins appear on fast days!

Prepped trails will never take over for the staple, go anywhere, do anything fatbike ride. I’d hope not anyway, but much like comparing back country skiing to skiing groomed trails, they are different. Both are fun, adventurous and challenging  in their own way, and I’m glad we’re all getting more riding opportunities in the snowy months, anything for more Wisconsin outdoor fun!

About Steve Meurett, On-TheEdge

Photographer, skinny skier, fat tire rider, teacher, dirt digger, hunter and coach. Steve lives in the shadow of Chatty Belle and shares his thoughts on biking with us from time to time. To read more and see more of his great photography from central Wisconsin, check out Steve's blog On The Edge

4 thoughts on “The Evolution of a Snowbike Trail.

  1. We need snowmobiles and snowshoes. Perhaps our “pack of snowbikes” isn’t was big as in PA, but here it would take a very long time to pack deep snow on 10 miles of singletrack. Those first few bikes would have a miserable time just attempting to push thru the snowfall we’ve had. Could it be done? yeah, but there would be few volunteers. In low snowfalls, yes, we do just ride it in, but in order to get good conditions a bit sooner, and with limited riders, we need to use whatever means we have. (Our trail is very rural).

  2. I never thought about the challenges of grooming trails for fatbike riding. I always just see the gargantuan tires and equally large smiles and almost wish I could join in the fun. Then I remember how cold my feet would be and praise The Lord that I live in Texas.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to a whole other subculture. Do you think ski resorts will take a shot at grooming some trails in the winter just for fat biking? Many already groom trails in summer and I know their bread and butter is skiing, but it could be an easily added option.

  3. Ski resorts may try it-especially XC ski areas like ours. DH ski area may have a bigger challenge in that they also receive much more snow and that would require a ton of packing. We kept very busy in WC Wisconsin with all the snow we had. In a “normal” year, we could groom, and ride a lot before getting on it again. You’re right, those big tires work well, but in a couple inches of snow, it’s work.

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