BY: CHAD DE ALVA
Converting your dirt bike into a snow bike is a great way to turn your dirt bike into something that you can enjoy even when the world is covered in snow. Yet snow and winter conditions are very different than dirt bike riding conditions, so there are a number of things that you need to do to your bike to ensure that it works at its best whether it’s turning a track in the snow or a wheel in the dirt.
THE BIG IDEA
Snow bike riding cannot be approached with the same mindset as dirt bike riding, because snow is so different than any other riding surface. Case in point, the snow pack you’re riding on can be too deep to walk through, so if your bike breaks down don’t assume you can just walk back to the truck. Likewise, camping in the woods in the middle of summer may be cold and miserable, but spending the night outside in the middle of winter can mean game over without the right gear. Then there is the whole avalanche thing to consider when you’re riding in the mountains. The point here isn’t to scare you off, but to make it abundantly clear that this is a different game than dirt biking. Yet when the conditions are choice, snow bikes can be even more fun than dirt bikes.
“Snow bike riders need to be good mechanics,” said snow bike legend Brock Buttars. “You need to check over and care for
everything on your bike. Failing to do this is a recipe for disaster.” Good mechanical practices at home will give you the best chance at having an issue-free ride. If you’re the rider who is constantly trail-fixing their bike – now might be a good time to adopt a high standard of preventative maintenance. When you are installing your snow bike system, take the time to carefully check over your bike and address any issues you may find. Replace any worn parts or do what is required to fix any potential issues you may identify. It’s much better to pay a few hundred bucks to fix any problems in the comfort of your garage as opposed to having to spend a few thousand bucks to heli a broken snow bike out of the back country.
Water is commonly stated to be 1000 times more effective at transferring heat than air, so riding your dirt bike around in frozen water (snow) is essentially like using it in an environment where the cooling system cools 1000 times better. In many cases, this surplus of cooling power will keep your snow bike’s motor from ever getting up to operating temperature, which is not good.
Thankfully, there are a number of things that can be done to help keep your bike at operating temperature. The first thing is to use an engine jacket, which keeps snow off of your bike’s motor. Next up is a thermostat which will only send warm coolant to your radiators if additional cooling capacity is needed. The last thing is to have some way to monitor engine temperature in real time. Ideally, you want to measure coolant temperature as it comes out of the motor, so a radiator fin sensor or a radiator cap with a temperature gauge isn’t the best option. It is possible to overheat a motor on a snow bike if you’re working the motor hard at slower speeds and not getting a lot of snow on the bike, so keeping an eye on your temperature and adjusting the engine jacket as needed is key. Keeping your motor up to temperature is critical to a reliable snow bike engine.
The other key part to a long lived snow bike motor is to keep good, clean oil in your bike. Snow bike use is harder on a motor, so you need to change your oil more frequently than you would during dirt riding. Use a quality motorcycle specific brand of oil, and pay attention to what’s coming out of your bike at each oil change. If your bike isn’t able to stay at operating temperature while riding, you may see water in your oil or smell fuel, again, not a good thing.
Snow bikes require a completely different suspension setup than dirt bikes as the forces created by a ski and track are significantly different than a pair of wheels. Forks set up for dirt riding are significantly under damped for snow bike use, and since the ski spindle mounts to the bottom of the fork stanchions, bottoming out hard is not something you want to have happen. There are two paths to proper snow bike suspension: The first option is to re-valve and re-spring a set of forks for snow bike use. Many snow bike riders will do this by picking up a set of used forks, allowing them to keep a set of forks for snow, and a set for dirt. Timbersled/Klim snow bike athlete Brock Buttars is also a suspension tuner and he has some outstanding solutions for snow bike forks. If you’re looking to go with a dedicated set of snow bike forks, Brock is a great resource for what to buy and how to set it up, in addition to being a great snow bike resource.
The other option is to add a shock to your bike’s front end, like a Timbersled TRIO. This pneumatic shock is added between the bottom triple clamp and ski spindle to provide the additional damping required. Riders can adjust the air pressure in the TRIO to configure damping performance to their liking, making a TRIO configurable for big hits or more mellow trail riding.
OTHER BIKE SETUP WISDOM
The name of the game with snow bikes is to keep things simple and reliable. A good snow bike is one that is in great mechanical shape, starts easily, and runs well. Pre and post ride checks are essential, as is keeping an eye on your bike throughout the day. A couple of examples of key mid-ride checks are making sure your chain is properly tensioned and that your air box isn’t packing full of snow. After a ride, you need to make sure your bike is de-iced, and give the bike a good once over for damage, loose fasteners, chain tension and lubrication, and any other items that may have caused a problem.
Oil and parts are cheap compared to the cost of rebuilding a motor, so keep on top of those service intervals, and replace parts before they have a chance to fail. Ensure bolts are properly torqued and chains are properly slacked. Snow bikes require more love than a dirt bike, so no, you can’t simply put gas in, ride it hard and put it away wet and expect it to work without issue. However, with good maintenance practices, riders can enjoy years of trouble-free performance out of one dirt bike – meaning off-season is officially a state of mind.
To enjoy snow biking whether it’s a warm sunny blue bird day or dumping snow, you as a rider need a different set of riding gear. Here are some key gear considerations:
If you’re going to snow bike in avalanche terrain, you need to get properly trained and kitted up. At a bare minimum, you should have and know how to use a beacon, probe, shovel, and go take an AIRIE Level 1 avalanche course or equivalent. Air Bag back packs may seem expensive, but they have been proven to reduce the chances of burial in an avalanche, giving you one more edge should things start sliding on you.
Aside from avalanche supplies, good gear matters when it comes to snow biking. Just like with adventure riding, you gear is your armor from the elements, only we’re dealing with more extreme temperatures than what is typically encountered when ADV riding. Klim was founded to create snowmobiling gear, which, combined with their motorcycle garment experience, gives them the ideal background to make gear for a sport that’s a cross between moto and snow. Again, this is another area where I would encourage spending the money to get a good kit that will last you a long time and provide years of trouble-free performance.
Starting at your feet and working up, the first thing you need is a good pair of boots. Klim’s Havoc boots are specifically made for snow bike use and they have proven to be warm, comfortable, and their shin armor is great for dealing with footpegs or other hazards that may get in contact with your shins.
When it comes to pants and a jacket, riders can opt for separate pieces, or a one-piece riding suit, like Klim’s Scout one piece suit. Each system has its pros and cons, so it’s a matter of choosing what will work best for both the snow and weather conditions you regularly encounter.
Klim also has a complete line of gloves and goggles, which are best chosen by matching the kit to the conditions. Klim has a complete line of gloves ranging for waterproof liners to battery powered heated gloves which are great for changing conditions and temperatures. Likewise, with goggles, use a pair of snow specific goggles that have a lens tint for the lighting conditions. You need a different lens tint for snowy overcast days than you do for bluebird days. Your moto helmet works great for snow biking, and if you happen to have a Klim helmet, you’ll be able to use the breath box and windstopper liner that came with your helmet as needed for those really cold days.
Nothing can ruin a snow bike ride like being cold and wet, so do it right the first time and get a quality kit that’s going to enable you to be comfortable no matter the prevailing conditions. Good riding gear combined with good snow bike setup and maintenance practices make for one incredibly unique and enjoyable riding experience.