Gear on the go

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Ten years ago, a one-day snowmobile trip starting in Columbine to Encampment, Wyo. and back to north Routt County may have been impossible.

Now, Routt County Sheriff John Warner explained that he and his snowmobile buddies can start at Columbine at 9 a.m. and make it back for supper.

"Technology has changed," Warner said, who has been riding snowmobiles most of his life.

Similarly, Warner said it used to be a challenge to ride a sled to the top of Sand Mountain, west of Steamboat Lake. Now on his RMK Polaris snowmobile with a 800 cc engine, "it's not really that challenging anymore," he said.

Toby Spikes, owner of Action Motorsports, said technology for snowmobiles has increased dramatically in the last five to 10 years and it's not only the horsepower of the engines that has gotten better. Today's sleds are lighter than their predecessors and more innovations have been added to help the machine plow through the powder better.

"You can now go further, faster, in more severe conditions," Spikes said.

Plus, explained Warner, more areas are being groomed by Snow Cat machines, allowing for more access into the woods.

For people who are veterans to exploring the backcountry in Colorado, whether by foot or sled, the increase in technology couples a changing atmosphere in the backcountry. Mainly, people are seeing more snowmobiles in places where they have never been before.

"We pretty much can go anywhere now," Warner said.

That's not exactly what nonmotorized users like to hear.

GiGi Walker has skied locally in the backcountry for more then 20 years. In the past, her goal was to go places where snowmobiles couldn't go so she could escape the noise and seek solitude. She said that is getting more and more difficult.

"I've seen snowmobiles in places this year that I've never seen snowmobilers before," Walker said.

In addition to technology of sleds changing the atmosphere of the backcountry, the number of people riding snowmobiles has increased.

"It's grown much more than backcountry skiing," Walker said.

Also, along with the hard-core riders, a newer group of motorized recreationalists are increasing in numbers known as the "hybrid" users. Hybrid is a term that labels people who use snowmobiles to summit mountains. Then they ski or snowboard down, using the sleds to taxi them back and forth.

"It's really a growing sport," Walker said. "And I don't blame them. If you want to get some good powder, that's a good way to do it."

A factor that has recently proved to have a huge impact on the number of people in the backcountry is the willingness of snowmobilers from the front range to come to Routt County.

Last winter, 88 percent of motorized users on the Routt National Forest surveyed were not from Routt County, according to a winter recreation survey conducted by the Routt Winter Task Force.

The survey was given to 247 backcountry users,159 of them were motorized users. Fifty-six percent of motorized users were from the Front Range. Almost all of the people were surveyed on Rabbit Ears Pass.

Warner said it hasn't always been like that. He can remember going up to Rabbit Ears to ride on the weekend and no one would be there. Now, the parking lots are full of trailers in campers from out of town, he said.

Plus, as Walker points out, the population of Steamboat Springs has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, from 5,098 to 9,815, according recently released U.S. Census data.

"There are just more people," Walker said.

Warner said the reason he believes snowmobiling is growing in popularity is the freedom it brings. Unlike skiing at a ski resort, where you are waiting in lines and only skiing on roped runs, on a snowmobile "you can go as long and far as you want," he said.

But with the growing trend comes some new issues.

For one, the Backcountry Winter Task Force, which is a group of nonmotorized and motorized user and Forest Service officials of the Routt National Forest, recently displayed its plan for a nonmotorized area on Buffalo Pass, similar to the nonmotorized area on Rabbit Ears.

Next year, Routt County locals can expect to hear more discussion about not allowing snowmobiles in potions of north Routt County.

Warner added that increased snowmobilers has meant some more safety issues to be aware of.

"We are seeing an increase in snowmobile accidents," he said. "There is a time and place to use that horsepower."

He also encouraged people new to snowmobiling to take an avalanche safety course.

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