Thinking about grooming your own trails?

There are a lot of challenges when grooming your own trails, but there are also many benefits, and it can be very satisfying.  The following is what I've learn after many years of grooming.

Because there is so little daylight during the winter, you'll do a lot of grooming at night.  You have to really enjoy being outside on cold, dark winter nights.  But you also get to enjoy beautiful star lit skies, a full moon rising through the trees, and the northern lights shimmering on the horizon!

General Grooming Tips

There are lots of little things that can make grooming more successful:

  • The slower you drive while grooming, the nicer your trails will turn out.  As your speed increases, the drag starts to bounce and fishtail on the trail, leaving a mess.  This problem compounds itself - the next time you groom, the drag will bounce and fishtail even more when it hits the bumps from the previous grooming.  Think of it this way - you've spent a lot of money on equipment and gas, and you're going to spend a lot of time grooming, even if you go fast.  You might as well slow down, spend a little more time grooming, and have it turn out much nicer!  If you're constantly rushing to finish grooming, you probably don't really have time to groom.
  • You need to groom EVERYTIME it snows.  Otherwise, the snow gets too deep and it won't pack tight enough.
  • Map out a grooming pattern for your trails so you don't have to go over some sections four or five times to get all sections groomed.
  • Do the easy parts of the trail first, so if you have problems on the tough parts, at least some of the trail is done and ski-able.
  • Groom the entire width of your trails right from the start and every time you groom.  If you try to widen the trail after you've groomed it several times, the edge of the trail will remain soft, causing problems for both skiing and future grooming.
  • It's best if you groom right from your house.  If you have to load a trailer and drive to the trails, unload, groom, load, go home, and then come back to ski, it will take too much time, and you won't groom the trails often enough.  At the very least, keep your grooming equipment at the trails to make things easier.  Also, if you have problems, you'll have to load up, go home and fix things, and then come back and finish grooming.
  • Think about the location of your trails.  If something goes wrong, you may have to walk home (or to a road, neighbors house, etc), and then get back to the machine or drag to fix it.
  • If you have to stop and do some hard work (dig out a stuck machine, push the machine up a hill, pull the drag up a hill), take off your heavy jacket and hat, so you don't work up a sweat.  If you do work up a sweat, you'll freeze once you get back on the machine and start moving through the cold air again.
  • If you can share the trails and the work of grooming with someone else, it makes it much easier.  But you have to be sure their motivation and expectations are the same as yours.  If it snows today, and it's their turn to groom, but they're busy with something else, you either do it yourself or wait.

Grooming Machines

The machine you use for grooming is the biggest single factor in determining the success of your grooming.  If it won't start, run, turn consistently, pull a drag, and climb a hill, grooming becomes a chore.

  • Buy the best machine you can afford.  Reliability is a must to make grooming successful.
  • Learn how the machine works, how to perform basic maintenance and repairs, and how to change the drive belt.
  • Perform general maintenance each summer to avoid problems during the winter.
  • Liquid Cooled Engine vs Fan / Air Cooled.  The ATV I used was liquid cooled, and it worked fine because it had a radiator that was designed to use the air to dissipate heat.  But never use a liquid cooled snowmobile for grooming, no matter what the dealer or your snowmobiling friends tell you.  Liquid cooled snowmobiles rely on the snow "spray" from the skis and track to cool the heat exchanger.  This works fine for normal snowmobiling, but when grooming you are moving too slow to create the necessary snow "spray".  A liquid cooled snowmobile will overheat when grooming.
  • Electric Start (and keep a battery charger or jumper cables handy).  Machines start hard when it's below zero, and if you were using the lights, thumb warmer, and hot grips the last time you groomed, the battery may run down.
  • Hi and Low gears - you'll use Low most of the time.
  • Reverse - to unload from a trailer, help maneuver corners and turn around (don't use reverse with a drag connected - just asking for something to break).
  • Hot Grips and Thumb Warmer - your hands are the most exposed part of your body.
  • A light on the back so you can see the drag behind you at night.
  • Hitch on the back to pull the drag.
  • When pulling a drag, the machines don't always turn good.  But it's important to groom straight, consistent trails with smooth corners, so you may have to get off and help the machine on sharp curves.

Carry an 'emergency pack'.  The more prepared you are, the less things will go wrong, and the easier they'll be to fix!

  • A flashlight (or headlight - you'll need both hands to fix things).
  • Extra work gloves.
  • Hand warmers (even with Hot Grips and a Thumb Warmer, your hands will get cold if you have to take off your gloves to fix something).
  • All the tools and parts you need to fix things.
  • Loppers, Hand Saw, Chain Saw to clean up the trails after high winds or wet, heavy snow.
  • A cell phone if you have one.

Trail Layout

For the most part, you'll probably be grooming existing hiking or logging trails, but if you're laying out new trails, or thinking about improving your trails, keep these things in mind:

  • Try to make the trails twelve feet wide from tree to tree.  This gives you extra working room so you don't have to worry about hitting trees and damaging the trees and your equipment.  This allows you to groom faster with fewer problems.
  • Avoid steep hills and sharp turns.
  • Try to create trails with lots of loops and connecting points.  This gives you more options when skiing, and by looping around the trails in different patterns, you get a different ski experience.
  • Avoid fields - wind causes drifting, sunlight melts snow.
  • Stay in the woods - more scenic, holds the snow, and protects you from the elements.
  • Trim low branches so you don't get a face full of snow when grooming.  And remember branches that seem high enough in the summer will hang lower when loaded with snow!  This is especially true with evergreens - they really hold the snow!
  • Pick rocks and sticks off the trails in the fall, and smooth and improve the trails in the off season.  This will make the trails ski-able with a thinner snow cover, and save skis and drags from unnecessary damage.
  • Mow the grass on the trails. 
    • Short grass helps hold the snow and can be skied on earlier and later in the season.
    • Long grass holds too much air, and causes the snow to melt faster both early and late in the season.
  • Avoid going under or close to hemlock, white pine, and other evergreens. 
    • Their branches catch a lot of snow, which means less on the trail.
    • The snow on the branches melts because it's exposed to the sun, dripping on the trail and creating an icy surface.
    • They drop a lot of needles and pine cones creating a 'dirty' trail.
    • The branches hang low, right in your face when grooming and skiing.

Challenges when Grooming Your Own Trails

  • It can be expensive, especially if you have to buy a snowmobile or ATV.  Gas, oil, and maintenance add to the expense.
  • It's time consuming.  You'll spend twice as much time grooming as you do skiing.
  • High maintenance - it's hard on the equipment.
  • It can get overwhelming during those weeks when it snows everyday!

Benefits when Grooming Your Own Trails

  • I ski from the first few inches of snow in November until it's gone in April.  No waiting for ski trails to open and then close in early Spring.
  • I like to build things, and I've built all kinds of drags and attachments for grooming.  Most work, but I'm always making improvements.  After many years I have a pretty good understanding of what works in what snow conditions, and I enjoy that challenge.
  • When things go right, it's satisfying to ski on trails you've groomed.
  • It's great to ski right from your front door!  I'll go right after work, or wait for the moon to come up later in the evening.

KISSS - Keep It Simple and go Slow Stupid!

This is the most important lesson I've learned. 

Keep It Simple! 

  • Don't make your drags over complicated or heavy.
  • If you get alot of snow, use just the snowmobile to pack it down, and then do the final grooming.

Go Slow Stupid! 

  • It's much easier to spend three hours grooming slowly and having everything go right, than to spend two hours going fast, and then several more hours cleaning up the mess you made, or fixing things that broke.



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