Off trail riding

The off-trail dimension of snowmobiling is nothing new. In fact, one can even state that this particular aspect of the activity is in fact more faithful to its origins. If modern snowmobiling in Quebec is largely associated with our incredible trail network, off-trail riding preceded the establishment of our trail system by many years. What we are witnessing today, then, is essentially a re-birth of off-trail riding, an evolution led by the tremendous technological advancements in snowmobiles designed for this purpose.

From utility to trail

In the first half of the 20th century, snowmobiling`s pioneers were looking for a way to facilitate getting around in the winter. In the period prior to widespread snow removal on our roadways, mobility in the winter was extremely challenging, if not impossible. The arrival of the first snowmobile met that need and, unsurprisingly, the popularity of the snowmobile grew by leaps and bounds in a period where society was much more rural than today. The countryside was soon covered with snowmobile tracks as new enthusiasts took full advantage of the new-found mobility provided by their vehicles.

Soon thereafter, snowmobile`s evolution in Quebec took a tangent as work began on development of a formal trail network. While some snowmobilers remained true to the activity`s utilitarian roots, most got on board the trail riding bandwagon as clubs began to form and a new social scene began to develop around snowmobiling. This evolution continued through the years and the result is the creation of an important recreational industry whose economic impact is in excess of $2 billion annually.

The re-birth of off-trail riding

The numerous technological advances, notably since the 1990s, laid the foundation for another revolution in the industry, that is, the return of off-trail riding. The introduction of the 1994 Ski-Doo Summit 583, the first production snowmobile designed specifically for mountain and deep snow use, was quickly followed by similar models from the other major manufacturers, each raising the bar and opening up new possibilities for this type of riding.

The proliferation of off-trail riding is hardly surprising, notwithstanding the evolution in hardware, in light of current socio-demographic trends. In essence, the increasing urbanisation of our society, together with the ever-increasing regulatory framework encompassing our lives and hobbies, has led to an expansion in so-called “adventure” activities, as the growth in SUV and adventure-sport motorcycle sales have clearly demonstrated. The snowmobiling community has not resisted this trend and off-trail riding in Quebec is growing rapidly, with sales of crossover and deep snow models occupying an increasingly important place in new unit sales. Every year, thousands on new enthusiasts are discovering this activity, attracted by the freedom and adrenaline rush it provides.

Mastering the art

Accident statistics collected over the years clearly demonstrate that trails are the safest place in which to ride snowmobiles. The underlying reason for this is that trails benefit from focused and on-going attention from an army of volunteers, thereby ensuring a safe and consistent environment. This being said, few will dispute the fact that off-trail can offer an experience that is unique, exciting and liberating. However, it is important to note that although both on-trail and off-trail riding take place on snowmobiles, the similarities end there as the two activities are unique and require altogether different riding techniques.

In the off-trail environment, dangers (including ice, rocks, stumps,…) are hidden below the snow’s surface, waiting to be discovered at the most inopportune time and in often dramatic fashion. Also, while speeds are generally low, certain manoeuvres that are considered normal in this setting can become dangerous. It is precisely for these reasons that a specialized riding course is recommended for neophyte riders or those not accustomed to riding off-trail, the knowledge gained making it possible to improve the riding experience while also enhancing safety.

Impacts

Another important point to consider is the impact on the environment. While trail riding takes place on a very confined area (albeit in a more intensive manner), the opposite is true in the off-trail setting. The possible negative impacts of backcountry snowmobiling are:

  • Inconveniences caused to other users: Damage caused to trap lines and cottage properties, to snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, etc.
  • Damage caused to vegetation: breaking young tree shoots, snow compaction that may reduce vegetation survival.
  • Wildlife disturbance: flight and exhaustion of animals (caribou, moose and deer) that may potentially lead to death; displacement to habitats of lesser quality; increased vulnerability to predators travelling in snowmobile tracks.

To help mitigate these negative impacts, it is recommended that the following behaviours be adopted:

  • Avoid riding in areas where you may cause damage to trees or forest regeneration, especially when snow cover is minimal.
  • Slow down or stop completely when meeting wild animals to avoid frightening them.
  • Slow down as much as possible when meeting other land users.

In addition, some actions are strictly prohibited at all times and punishable by fine:

  • Pursuit or harassment wildlife.
  • Damage trees or hinder forest regeneration.

To learn more about snowmobiling best practices, please refer to the following leaflets:

Where to ride

One of the main challenges linked to off-trail riding is the matter of selecting a place to ride. First of all, it`s important to avoid areas that could pose a safety risk, such as waterways or areas which could contain obstacles hidden below the surface of the snow. One must also be mindful of the legal aspect, that is, being aware if riding in a particular area is permitted by law. The Act respecting off-highway vehicles provides for severe penalties for snowmobilers travelling on land without authorization therefore it is every snowmobiler`s responsibility to ensure that riding is permitted and to obtain the necessary consent prior to venturing out onto unknown territory. One must also be aware that snowmobiling is strictly forbidden at all times in certain areas (eg. National parks and ecological reserves). Finally, unauthorized access may also be putting a club`s land-use permission in jeopardy, resulting in the loss of this important privilege that is essential to the existence of our trail system.

The FCMQ and off-trail riding

Answering a need

The off-trail component of snowmobiling is growing in importance in Québec at the end of the first decade of the new millennium. Motivated by the desire to improve the safety of the activity, to reduce the negative impact on private landowners who provide land-use permission, and to increase membership numbers, authorities at the FCMQ decided to get involved in the matter. Via its clubs, the FCMQ will provide snow parks that will be located exclusively in areas where off-trail riding is permitted.

Pilot project

Efforts began with the launching of a pilot project in the Gaspésie region. Guided by the objectives of framing the activity and ensuring sustainable practices, the FCMQ joins regional stakeholders to identify problem areas and generate solutions related to the development of off-trail snowmobile in the Chic-Chocs. Through its participation, the FCMQ hopes to develop a framework that will be exportable to other regions in the province. The project was launched in November, 2013.

In initial phase of the project, the FCMQ elected to put the emphasis on education and awareness. To do so, a leaflet is produced and distributed, serving to identify those areas where riding was permitted and not. In addition, a basic code of conduct was provided. The other main thrust is signage, that is, the design and installation of signs whose purpose was to inform riders in the field. The end of season results were extremely favourable, with very few instances of delinquency reported. Perhaps more importantly, landowners and municipalities were pleased with the outcome and encouraged to pursue it further.

Following through on the success of the Gaspésie project, the Québec region becomes the second to be targeted due to its numerous problem areas, as well as its strategic location within the provincial trail network. Working in close collaboration with various governmental bodies, the FCMQ produced a map which enables users to identify FCMQ trails which are located in zones where off-trail riding is permitted (and more importantly, where it is not). This map also helps to raise awareness about wildlife challenges (mainly the woodland caribou).

The future

The information gathered as a result of the pilot projects made it possible to establish guidelines for the development of off-trail riding in other parts of Quebec. The FCMQ will provide clubs with territorial maps that indicate land tenure and affectation (private/public: parks, reserves, ZEC, outfitter,…) Based on said maps, and using GPS coordinates related to club territories, clubs will be able to quickly and easily determine suitable areas for the creation of snow parks.

Furthermore, recommendations are provided for clubs wishing to establish such parks on their territory. Among other things, it is recommended to provide parking spaces in close proximity to trails, to have appropriate signage and to have required services nearby.

It is important to note that while FCMQ has given itself the mandate of providing member clubs with the necessary tools, the final decision regarding the establishment of snow parks will fall to the clubs themselves. Given that the project is significant in its breadth, the FCMQ will be undertaking consultations with members clubs, thereby allowing the clubs to elaborate plans, if applicable.

In the long term, it will be possible to increase membership numbers by offering a special trail permit, thereby providing access via FCMQ trails, to the said snow parks.