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Nicole Matei
January 22nd, 2021
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It Might Surprise You How Much It Actually Costs To Groom Snowmobile Trails

Smiles Per Gallon—What Does It Cost To Maintain Smooth Trails?

To reverse engineer a great day of sledding, start by asking, what does it take to get there? For most riders, the answer begins and ends with a groomed trail—the quality of which can undoubtedly make or break your day. Grooming programs are the reputation snowmobile clubs are built upon and frequently the largest line item in their annual operating budget. So, what does it cost to roll out the big white carpet?


Rolling Out the White Carpet

To handle mountainous terrain and deep winter snowfalls, the grooming programs of clubs in British Columbia employ powerful, hydrostatic-drive snowcats to pull their grooming implements.

Always hotly debated, the towable device of choice is typically a tiller or drag, which repairs the trail using a process called sintering. The groomer mixes the layers of snow, aerating them to increase the density via churning friction. This motion creates a small but critical amount of moisture. This snow is then compacted into a uniform surface and allowed a period to refreeze or “set up” for durability. This is the reason why grooming is best done at night.

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 04
Alex Hanson

Investment in Grooming Equipment

Some clubs in BC choose to simplify their grooming operations by hiring a contractor to perform the actual trail grooming portion of the program. However, this comes at a greater expense, and so it is more common for clubs to run their grooming operations internally. This means the club must invest in its own snowcats.

Due to budget constraints in acquiring equipment, smaller snowmobile clubs often target older, second-hand snowcats in the 9000 hr range. These typically feature a $50-60K sticker price that falls within the reach of most organizations’ budgets.

However, at this vintage, these complex machines are typically overdue for the manufacturer’s recommended major service. Used equipment may not come with service logs that confirm what work has been done—or incomplete ones—meaning that your friendly local trail organization could be on the hook for another $60K of preventative maintenance in a hurry.

Robust clubs able to make the financial leap to newer machines are not without similar challenges. Operations like Revelstoke Snowmobile Club or Fernie Snowmobile Association maintain entire fleets of snowcats to manage multiple riding areas and visitor numbers.

A three-year-old off-lease model with 3,500 hours will cost a club about $275K. Put that machine to use on a typical 4-day a week grooming program, and expect to chew up 750 engine hours, $6K in basic maintenance and 70 hours of labour each season.

Repair and Maintenance

After diligently raising funds for the initial capital purchase of snowcats and grooming implements, snowmobile clubs then shoulder additional hefty expenses to keep their equipment running reliably.

Within five years, a snowcat will have racked up enough mileage for a major service and replacement of some critical parts, including hydrostatic drive pumps or injectors. While the cost of a major service seems pricey at around $60K, adhering to the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule leads to more predictable expenses overall. Gamble, and the club risks paying the ultimate price with a downed groomer on the trail during the busiest weekend of the year.

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 01
Nicole Matei
Mechanic's tip—a tarp over a warm engine compartment can make a repair job in the cold and snowy backcountry slightly less painful.
Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 09
Matt Dolbec
Outdoor repairs drive home the importance of preventative maintenance.

So, while the riders and marketing teams push for a few extra days of grooming each season, the Maintenance Director is likely having visions of hot summer days in the shop spending that potential extra revenue on parts and labour.

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 07
Matt Dolbec
This isn't your Grandpa's tractor. Snowcats are complex machines that required technical expertise to diagnose and repair.
Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 02
Matt Kuhn
Track maintenance is time consuming. Here, seized bolts securing the grouser bars are ground off.

Smooth Operator

Grooming programs are not just the sum of parts and fluid. At the heart of the machine is a skilled operator. It takes a special breed to do this job and every snowmobile club will tell you a good snowcat driver is worth their weight in gold…or between $18-30 per hour.

Groomer operators take an immense amount of pride in the quality of work laid out for the next day’s riders. Sadly, grooming trail is a thankless job and highly opinionated feedback can often take a toll on even the most seasoned veteran.

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 05
Matt Dolbec
Stucks happen! Early season road-building requires the hand of a skilled operator.

Which is unfortunate, because a skilled operator is a valued and important piece of the grooming program. Their ability to read the snow, terrain and equipment simultaneously—and know when to push and when to back off—can vastly affect how much additional maintenance is required, fuel efficiency, rider satisfaction and, ultimately, overall revenue the club earns.

The Cost of Infrastructure

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 08
Steve Kelly
All club infrastructure must meet health, safety and environmental regulations, which comes at a cost not often considered by riders.

There is a vast framework required to support grooming operations behind the scenes. Snowcat storage, the variable price of fuel and delivery, insurance, heavy load transportation and permits, operator training, worker safety device and technical oversight from an avalanche professional for those operating in avalanche terrain must all factor into the budget.

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails Chart

The annual bill looks a little something like $50-$70K a season per snowcat on top of the original purchase price.

 

Now let’s start talking about cabins, signage, staging area facilities…it paints a striking picture.


How Much It Actually Costs To Groom Snowmobile Trails

There are 68 snowmobile clubs in the province registered with the BC Snowmobile Federation. These 68 clubs maintain a total of 18,000 km of trails. Together, they have $6.6M invested in grooming equipment.

 

Snowmobile clubs across the province are serving up trail maintenance and infrastructure programs of increasing complexity to meet the growing numbers and expectations of users. In a world where very few grants and funding options are available for motorized trail groups, every dollar counts.

Imagine the sting of a rider flying by the kiosk without paying, when a club is saving to purchase a new snowcat or keep the one they have running reliably for its users. This selfishness not only robs the club of the revenue required to function effectively, it also ignores the value of organized snowmobiling in BC.

Snowmobile clubs work hard to provide the best experience possible for their members and day users alike. It’s important to remember that a rider’s trail fee doesn’t just cover that particular day’s pass of the tiller; it must be spread over the costs of the entire grooming program, year-round.

So, this winter as you head up the trail, take a minute to consider the overall investment behind the scenes. Then decide if the trail fee is a fair trade-off for the number of smiles per gallon.

 

– Nicole

Cost to Groom Snowmobile Trails 03
Nicole Matei