Riding in Silence in the Backcountry
If you stop in the forest or on a mountain after a fresh snowfall and shut your machine off, the silence can almost be overwhelming. It can help us grasp how small we are in this great big world.
Now imagine carving through a fresh blanket of snow, powder coming over the hood, bright blue sky above you on a perfect day and you hear…nothing. Nothing but the swish of your skis on the snow and the whirr of your track churning through the powder below you. Nothing but the soft “whump” of snow against the belly pan as you drop off a small natural roll. That sounds pretty good.
Silence in the Mountains
Back in 1999, the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge was started. Seven universities from Canada and the USA were challenged to modify a snowmobile to make it “cleaner”. The participant teams were then judged in the categories of emissions, noise, performance, design, fuel economy and cold start. Over the years, this challenge has produced many interesting modifications, including a diesel version which evolved into a class of its own. But electricity was always just on the horizon, the “holy grail” of clean running.
I remember reading the results back then and thinking that an electric snowmobile would never be feasible. The weight and the battery life would never work. Fast-forward 20 years, and technology has come a long way. Sure there are still some hurdles to overcome—especially for mountain use—but the fact is that design teams are a lot closer to a legitimate option than we dreamed of back in ‘99. That we have an all-electric snowmobile manufacturer in Taiga Motors is proof of that. Meanwhile, two-stroke snowmobile manufacturer BRP is putting a focus on electrification with the unveiling of six electric (non-snowmobile) prototype vehicles in September.
The recent surge in popularity of snow bikes adds another factor to the possibility of electric backcountry travel. Major manufacturers—with deep pockets—such as Honda for example, are working on making electric motocross bikes a reality, as in the case of the Honda Electric CR.
With their lighter weight and smaller size, it seems natural that snow bikes might be the first suitable option for electric mountain travel.
The Benefits of Riding in Silence
Is this what the future looks (and sounds) like? While electric snowmobiles are not completely silent, they are also certainly nothing like even the best muffled internal combustion engines we currently enjoy.
I will admit, I love the sound of an engine at peak rpm as much as the next gearhead, but the thought of a near silent machine is certainly intriguing, and it would bring some benefits as well. You could hear the chirp of your two-way radio as your buddy calls for help from the hole he is stuck in (again). You could possibly hear a shout from someone close by if a warning was needed. And how nice would it be to pull up beside your buddy, stop and decide which way you are going next, and then carry on without shutting off your sled or screaming over your buddy’s “mountain can”?
The quiet could also lead to further compatibility on the mountain. Is the day on the horizon when we can enjoy the same areas as skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers without sideways glances or sour looks as we pass by? It would certainly curb one of their most vocal gripes about snowmobiles anyway. All of us who love nature, co-existing in the backcountry together, happy for one another to be out there enjoying the snow—what an incredible thought.
A Silent Future
Change is inevitable, nothing lasts forever and any of a dozen other clichés aside, the concept of electric sleds and bikes in the backcountry is quickly becoming a reality and it may forever change how we, and the world, looks at snowmobiling.
The future might be silent, and I’m excited about the possibility.