What Is Snowbiking? (Winter Sport Guide)
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It has barely been a couple of decades, yet snowbiking is steadily gaining more attention from action sports followers and professionals. This wild motorsport is dangerous and exacting as it is beginner-friendly and fun.
Haven’t heard of it before? Well, you are in for a treat — as this guide focuses on this insane and increasingly popular winter sport.
So, what is snowbiking?
Snowbiking is a winter sport popularized by former FMX and dirt bike racers. The machine used in this recreational activity, a snowbike, combines the capabilities of a dirt bike and a snowmobile. The intentional design of the snowbike gives snowbiking limitless potential.
Folks who have been into motocross, mountain bike racing, or snowmobiling are guaranteed to find some pleasant similarities between the said activities and snowbiking (more so if they have participated in all three). But this is not to say that previous experience in motorsports is a must when taking an interest in snowbikes.
Let’s dive into the fundamentals of snowbiking.
What Is Snowbiking?
Non-enthusiasts would often ask this alongside “Is snowbiking a sport?” If you have watched the webisode series Powder Hounds, you will know the answers to these questions. Otherwise, let me do the honors — snowbiking is a sport and an extreme one at that!
This latest addition to the medley of winter powersports is fairly new. Snowbiking became mainstream only in the early 2000s, with its first-ever series of backcountry competitions held in the Idaho mountains. However, its concept dates back much further, with the present-day snowbike design taking shape in a garage in Boise in 1993.
Seventy years before former HP engineer Vernal Forbes came up with his homemade snowbike, several minds had already developed prototype layouts of the machine.
The earliest of these attempts was in the 1920s (amid WWI — when tracks, instead of wheels, were first thought of). A decade later, American firm J.E. Love replaced the front end with a ski.
Despite these developments, earlier versions of the snowbike were quite difficult to steer, quick to tip over, and did not feel as comfortable slaloming in the alps.
These challenges prompted Forbes to pioneer the design of the modern-day snowbike, which Timbersled owners Allen and Natasha Mangum further improved with a more-capable rear suspension in 2002.
The Amalgamation of Winter Sports?
Since then, snowbiking has dramatically increased in popularity, enticing pro racers from other powersports and spawning various disciplines — from moto-style racing to wild freestyle tournaments — in the process.
Even star athletes like Ronnie Renner, Reigan Seig, Jackson Strong, and Brock Hoyer (to name a few) have been drawn to the potential of the sport and are now making waves in its arena.
For FMXers, snowbiking (for the most part) hinges on the same principle as riding dirt bikes in the dunes. Pro MTB racers would probably say the same thing, and I could not agree more.
Think about it. Hand-eye coordination, body reaction, positioning, powerful straight-line starts, cornering, steering adeptness, and timing are as necessary for snowbiking as in other motorsport disciplines.
Understandably, a few definitions here and there will not be enough for everyone to grasp the sport. So to better make sense of snowbiking, let us compare it with other winter sports that it is commonly confused with in the succeeding sections:
Snowbiking vs. Fat Biking
Many resources (including Wikipedia) have misconstrued snowbiking as fat biking, and it is easy to see why. If you take the word at face value, it does seem like ‘biking in the snow’ (hence, the term snowbiking would make perfect sense). But this could not be farther from the truth since snowbikes, and fat bikes have different structures.
Fat bikes like Mongoose Dolomite Mens Fat Tire Mountain Bike (view on Amazon) are bicycles with fat tires (you will see them occasionally in parks and the city). The wider-than-normal knobbies are believed to allow one to travel more easily through the snow.
Meanwhile, snowbikes are dirt or MX-style bikes whose factory tires are replaced with a front ski and a track system. Instead of rubber tires, the latter components are responsible for the two-wheeler’s floatation.
Snowbiking vs. Ski Biking (Skibobbing)
Snowbiking is not ski biking either (although the latter may have been similar to earlier snowbike designs). While both sports use skis, ski biking (a.k.a. skibobbing) utilizes a ski set for its front and rear end. Moreover, it traces its origins to 1892, when snowbiking was not even a concept.
Ski bikes (or skibobs) have a longer fixed rear ski and a shorter front ski that aids in steering control.
Before becoming a winter sport, ski biking was intended for people with weaker knees to enjoy alpine skiing. It was in the early 1900s that it gained a wider audience of winter sports enthusiasts.
Snowbiking vs. Ice Track Cycling
Ice track cycling is the farthest in concept from snowbiking. But since we are on the topic, it would do you good to know about this racing sport.
Structurally, there is no similarity between an ice track cycle and a snowbike, except that they both ride on ice and are modified.
But there is a huge disparity even in that aspect. While snowbiking entails conquering rough (sometimes tricky) terrain, ice track cycling is done in less-aggressive riding conditions. The latter is typically held on 400-meter speed skating ice ovals, ice hockey rinks, or frozen lakes.
Concerning the bike layout, an ice track cycle employs “one wheel drive at the back and a steering skate in the front with another cornering skate out to the right.” It makes no use of a front ski or a rear track system, unlike a snowbike.
What Is a Snowbike?
Extreme sports sponsor Redbull not only defines the snowbike but also sheds light on the main difference between a snowbike and a snowmobile:
A snowbike is a combination of a snowmobile and a motocross bike. It has a regular dirt bike frame, engine, and suspension. Snowbikes use a single ski at the front and a snowmobile-style rear track.
Other than structure, snowbikes offer better cornering and overall control, are more lightweight, and are easier to maneuver than snowmobiles.
Riders will find these machines more convenient for managing tight trails and technical jumps. Best of all, snowbikes do better in landings (although the possibility of an unforeseen crash is not completely eliminated).
On the downside, snowbikes have yet to appear in the showroom of your nearest motorsport store — unlike mainstream motorcycles. Because of their extreme and unusually hybrid nature, these snow-devourers are custom-built by enthusiasts and professional outfitters.
Building one requires considerable technical skill. But for the mechanically savvy, they need to start with a dirt bike or Enduro frame, snowmobile tracks for the rear, and a ski replacing the front wheel.
Everything else that goes into the bike would depend on the type of terrain they intend to conquer, among other factors.
For competitive riders, it is a different story altogether. While they can freely choose between a 2-stroke and 4-stroke two-wheeler as their baseline, they will have to strictly adhere to the below requisites to qualify for a tournament:
- Rear tracks must be made of rubber only, at least 120 inches long, without studs, bolts, screws, or plates.
- Outer paddles on the track should not have picks.
- Track length is category specific — meaning a long track system may be banned in certain trophy classes (and vice-versa).
- Multi-cylinder engines that go beyond a given trophy class are prohibited.
- Your snowbike may have dead-man tether cut-off switches (although they are not necessarily required — a normal kill switch would do).
- Fuel blends containing methanol or nitro are disallowed in all classes, including open categories.
- Trophy classes (except open categories) require snowbikes built with commercially available kits. Homemade snowbikes are prohibited.
- NOS (Nitrous Oxide) and turbochargers are generally forbidden outside trophy class competitions.
- Competitive riders 15 years old or younger cannot ride a snowbike with an engine displacement beyond 150cc for 4-strokes or 85cc for 2-strokes.
These rules are true for NASBA National but may not entirely apply to all other tournament bodies advocating the sport. If you are new to snowbiking but interested in riding competitively, it is best to check within your state or local community for guidelines for building a tournament-compliant snowbike.
Ideally, bring all the items in this checklist before you ride (especially if you are accessing far-off trails and playgrounds). But more than being equipped with all these knick-knacks, the first safety measure you need to do is avalanche training.
Training centers in your area are available to set you up for success — not to mention ensure that you get back to base in one piece after enjoying a thrilling ride.
- Tool kit
- 3/8″ drive ratchet, socket, socket bits, and extension
- adjustable wrench (or wrenches in these sizes: 8mm, 10mm, and 12mm)
- good-quality (locking) pliers
- spare quick link and belt
- any other socket size required for your dirt bike
- Torx bits (T15, T20, T45)
- flathead screwdriver
- 8″ zip ties
- repair tape
- mechanical wire
- First-aid kit
- Overnight emergency kit
- Water bottles
- Food and utensils
- Portable stove (view on Amazon)
- Avalanche shovel
- Transceiver or beacon
- Avalanche probes
- Reflective blanket
- Flare pen launcher
- Headlamp (view on Amazon)
- Additional fuel
- Spare bike parts
Items here may be non-exhaustive, but this entire list pretty much sums up your snowbiking survival kit.
Clothing & Protective Gear
In case you are wondering, “How should I dress for snowbiking?” there are three elements you need to satisfy.
You will need to have a base, mid, and outer layers (otherwise known as the layering method) to fight the cold. But more importantly, you will need protective gear when carving through trails and riding down icy slopes.
Your base layers must be constructed from moisture-wicking, dry-fit fabric. You can augment this layer with Merino wool or a synthetic fabric like rayon or polypropylene.
Mid layers can be anything from synthetic-fleece blends to Spandex, so long as they provide good heat insulation. The important thing is that they are not too heavy and are breathable at the same time.
As for outer layers, this is where most of your protective gear falls under. They should safeguard you from precipitation, winds, and the elements. Moreover, this last layer of clothing should be highly visible to bypassers (in case of an engine breakdown or emergency).
PPE (Protective Equipment)
- Snowboard/ski helmet like Giro Avance MIPS Helmet for Adults (view on Amazon)
- Balaclava ski mask
- Waterproof ski gloves
- Winter sport goggles
- Snowmobile outerwear
- Chest protector
- Insulated snow pants
- Moisture-wicking wool socks
- Snowboarding or waterproof moto boots
Reputable Dealers & Conversion Kits
Off the top of my head, Timbersled and MotoTrax are among the few trusted companies producing high-quality snowbike conversion kits. The good news is that with these kits, you can always ditch the track and ski and revert to your dirt bike’s original layout (with knobbies) once spring has arrived.
But your options are not limited to these two. If you are looking for top conversion kits, here is a more comprehensive list of brands to consider:
Currently owned by Polaris, this brand is the most popular of the lot for a number of reasons.
One, it practically led the snowbike renaissance (it was the first to lay the groundwork for the modern snowbike and come up with a successful design).
Two, its conversion kits fit a wide variety of off-road and motocross dirt bikes — including production models in the early 90s.
The Timbersled system is exactly how I described the snowbike in an earlier section. It consists of a front ski and a rear track replacing your dirt bike’s factory knobbies. This system is universal, with an install kit specific to dirt bikes like the Yamaha DT400.
If Timbersled is the most popular, this brand is the most ambitious of the lot. Why? Because despite being in its formative years, MotoTrax is already credited with producing the most advanced snowbike conversion kit.
What makes the kit special are its unrivaled lateral articulation and monoshock, progressive-rate suspension that stays true to dirt bike mannerisms. This design concept is unsurprising for a company founded by dirt bikers turned winter sport enthusiasts.
Another brand hailing from Canada, Camso offers easy-to-install dirt-to-snow conversion systems consisting of a chain-driven rear track and four-keel ski components. Not only are these kits made for hard-pack trails and deep snow, but they are also affordable.
Crazy Mountain Motorsports (CMX)
This brand capitalizes on its extensive snowmobiling background in coming up with its CMX Snowbike Kit. The kit features a forward-mounted rear suspension, a custom belt-drive system, and CNC-machined parts.
As if that were not enough, the conversion kit works well with Yeti’s ski-and-spindle design described above.
Unlike the rest of the companies detailed in this section, this brand specializes in bolt-on snowbike conversion kits for low-elevation conditions and terrain. This focus makes these MX-style kits the most lightweight in the market while ensuring minimal power loss.
Savage Snowbikes conversion kits are narrow, and tailored-fit to different dirt bike makes. They also make for improved agility and handling.
The only Russian company of the lot, this brand produces snowbike conversion kits that can fit any Enduro or MX bike with a piston displacement of at least 125cc. Track lengths start at 121 inches and can go up to 137 inches.
Its most popular kit, the SR120″ PRO-SE, has a 120-inch track system and 65-mm lugs (perfectly meeting tournament requirements). This conversion kit supports aggressive jumps and turns and lends to superb manageability.
SnowTech MX Adrenaline
Based in West Haven, Utah, this company is known for its conversion kits featuring aerospace-grade aluminum (you read that right, aerospace technology in your snowbike!), lightweight belt-drive system, Yeti front ski, and brand-exclusive track system.
The Snowbike kits are available in different track lengths — all of which have a multi-position 3rd shock and dual-rate spindle.
Another baby company, this Canadian brand, was only established in 2013 (a year before MotoTrax) but is already widely recognized for its snowbike kits that scream handling and durability.
The conversion kits feature a carbon-fiber chassis, a wide MaxKeel front ski, and a proven belt-drive system. The Yeti 120 SS is one such example.
Top Spots for Snowbiking
Generally, ski resorts in Canada (British Columbia), Japan, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are great venues for snowbiking. In the U.S., popular locations include Montana, Vermont, Alaska, Wyoming, Wisconsin, and (of course) Idaho.
There is still lots of untouched wilderness waiting to be explored on your snowbike. But if you are not Hoyer or Dal Farra, you have to earn your passage in these locations.
Conclusion — What Is Snowbiking?
All in all, what you truly need to prepare for this new pursuit is a good understanding of the sport, the kind of machine it requires, and the skills to make it all worthwhile.
This article is to help enlighten you on this emerging extreme winter sport. But when it comes to having the makings of racing icons like Brock Hoyer, you will have to develop those skills on your own while weaving through trenches of pillowy snow!