Its early morning. You unload your sled from the trailer and head out of the parking lot. You turn onto the trail and there it is- an untouched perfectly flat pan of freshly groomed trail without a track anywhere to be seen. You glance over at your buddy and you can tell he is grinning from ear to ear under his helmet. It’s going to be a perfect day.
If you have ridden a snowmobile for any period of time then this scenario has happened to you at least once and if you are lucky it has happened several times, but how can you make this scenario occur more often? Believe it or not there are several things you can do to ensure yourself of better riding conditions more often, the problem is that there are far too many people that don’t do these things and it makes riding worse for everyone.
There is nothing quite like being the first sled to lay down a track on a freshly groomed trail. But that trail doesn’t get that way by accident or dumb luck. Unfortunately there are still a lot of snowmobilers out there that don’t quite know what goes into getting their local trail groomed on a regular basis. There is an underlying assumption that your states DNR is responsible for the state trails and that they handle grooming and maintenance of those trails, but, for the most part, very little of that is true. In Minnesota for example 90% of all of the trails in the Minnesota trail system are Grant-in-Aid trails, which means that those trails are built, maintained and groomed by local snowmobile clubs with the cooperation of the land owners that the trail runs on. That means only 10% of the trails in Minnesota are actually maintained by the DNR, but even in those cases local clubs are still charged with the grooming duties for the state run trails. So how do the local clubs get money to build these trails and maintain them and how do they get money to buy and maintain the groomers? Once again many people assume this money comes from the state but they are only partially correct in that assumption. First off, nearly all trail work including building and maintaining the trails is done by volunteers at the local snowmobile clubs. These are people that give up their weekends to cut brush, fix bridges, cut up downed trees and essentially maintain the trails. They also give up time in the wee hours of the morning to go out in subzero weather and run the groomer so you have a perfect trail in the morning, and when that groomer breaks down it is the club members that grab a box of tools and go fix it or bust out the torches to repair broken cleats on the track. Much of the money they spend on equipment comes from fundraising activities by the club. It is these same people that go door to door to secure easements for trails in order for you to have a place to ride- and they all do this for only one reason: They love snowmobilng. So the first answer to the question on how to get perfectly groomed trails more often is to join your local club- because they are always looking for new members to help with the trail work that needs to be done as well as groomer operators to drive the groomer in the middle of the night.
It is true, however, that the lion’s share of a snowmobile clubs money to do all of these things comes from the state. Every year clubs are awarded what are called benchmarks, which is money given to the clubs to maintain and groom the trail system based on the number of miles of trail that the club maintains. This money comes from the dedicated snowmobile fund which gets part of its money through gas taxes (based on the estimated percentage of gas taxes that are paid by snowmobile users) and all the rest comes from snowmobile registrations. If snowmobile registrations are down then there is less money in the fund, which means less money available in the benchmarks, which means less money for gas for the groomer, which means less grooming, which means a trail that isn’t in as good of shape as you would like as often as you like. Quite simply the clubs can’t run the groomer if they don’t have enough money to run it. Back in the 90’s there were high numbers of registered sleds and the groomers went out almost every day. Now with less sleds registered the groomers may go out only once or twice a week in some places. The truth is that club members would love to have the trail groomed as often as possible to keep the trails in the best possible shape but there just isn’t enough money to do it. The single most important thing snowmobilers can do is to make sure that all of their snowmobile registrations are up to date. If every snowmobiler out there was a member of a snowmobile club and had their sleds registered, the perfect trail would be easy to find nearly every time you went out to ride.