Snowbike camping in the Idaho wilderness
Written by Lukas Eddy
Photos by Lukas Eddy
The VHF radio crackles from Jesse's tent, “... winter weather advisory in effect for the – *kkkrrhhghhh* – until 2pm Sunday – *kkkrrhhghhh* – hazardous travel conditions are –” … I’m wondering how he’s getting a signal here at 10,000 feet. We’re surrounded by towering cliffs on all sides. I wonder if the snowbikes will start, perhaps my brain isn’t fully awake yet. Snow impacts the side of my tent, driven by the blizzard that’s been brewing all night, and piles up around my tent, steadily covering up the doors…
The weekend of snowbike camping in the Idaho mountains started weeks before actually riding. It’s one thing to go winter camping with a truck. It’s another to go winter camping on foot. And it’s a whole ‘nother thing to go winter camping on snowbikes in conditions that warrant NOAA weather warnings.
It starts with who. Jesse Felker had the idea to go snowbike camping, and would be writing a story on the experience for Upshift Online
I’d join along, bringing the loaner snowbikes and assorted riding gear from our HQ. We needed some Idaho mountain brainpower, someone who was familiar with the rugged terrain. Galen Jarvis, a local who guides fishing trips all summer and snowbikes, skis and speed-flies all winter, would be the perfect fit.
Where. That’s easy. Idaho offers some of the most remote, rugged backcountry terrain in the lower 48 states.
Why. Why not? It seemed like a good idea.
How. Through the teamwork of like-minded brands. While they’re basically dirt bikes, the snowbikes do have extra real estate on the tunnel above the track. So, the luggage solution came to Mosko R40 rackless bags and Scout 25L duffels for bulky gear on the tunnels. Our summer tents wouldn’t be ideal for the elements, so Big Agnes mountaineering tents coupled with pads, sleeping bags and inflatable pillows covered our sleep systems. And let’s be honest, of course we’re riding in KLIM gear.
In the morning, we unloaded on the edge of a wide valley, hustling to get on the bikes through a persistent wind blowing snow in from the south. Looking up towards the mountains, we couldn’t even see the peaks through the weather up above. It was midday, and I had no idea how long it would take to find a suitable camp spot, so I was anxious to get some riding time in. We gave Jesse a few quick pointers on handling the snowbike and got moving.
Climbing up the learning curve, Jesse got stuck after finding some deeper wind drifts. He’s an experienced dirt rider, but these snowbikes with camping luggage take a bit of time to adapt to. Galen swung his bike around to help and when I tried to do the same, I got stuck and dropped it. If nobody sees you get stuck, does it count?
Soon we all headed back up the mountain, following what was once a small road before multiple feet of snow covered it. Playing in the snow on the way up, we got more of a feel for the loaded bikes. To be clear, Jesse and I aren’t expert riders. Up until this point, I had only spent 3-4 hours on a snowbike and this was Jesse’s first time. Galen, however, was once an olympic-hopeful mogul freestyle skier and has plenty of experience getting rowdy in all kinds of winter action sports, including snowbiking.
We stopped for a quick lunch and played around in some trees for a while before following Galen to a camp spot hidden on a small knoll. While Jesse and Galen used snowshoes to pack down three pads for our tents, I got to work digging out a pit for us to hang out in after dark. We collected some firewood, boiled up some water and made our dehydrated meals.
It continued to snow lightly as we told jokes and tales of yesteryear, and watched the temperature drop into the single digits. The sleeping bags we had were rated for 0º, meaning we wouldn’t die, but it might not be comfortable if it got much colder. Luckily, when I was packing, Past-Lukas thought ahead and gave Future-Lukas an extra sleep solution: a small down quilt.
Eventually, we all crawled into our tents, trying hard not to drag snow in. Not being my first winter camping rodeo, I knew how long it should take me to warm up my sleeping bag. I wanted more warmth. This is where the extra down quilt came into play. It’s a 40º UGQ quilt, custom made for my summer motocamping, but here it worked as an extra insulation layer with the sleeping bag. Partway through the night I had to unzip because it was too warm.
Bonus Pro Tip: The 3 liter Hydrapak water bladder fits down the inner pocket sleeve in our Torque jacket, so it’s an easy way to store your drinking water in a warm place to keep it from freezing while working around camp.
Day 1 Recap
Miles: I’m no mathematician
Mental Status: So Good It’s RiDQulous
Huge Fire Pits Dug: 1
Observed Low Temp: 6 or 7ºF
Frozen Beer Slush Level: 6/10
Approximate Snow Depth: 4 feet-ish
… With the morning light beginning to glow, I’m rewarded with the shadow of snow drifted halfway up the outside of my tent door. Just last night we talked about how mountaineers can get trapped in their tents in snow storms. It’s easy to see how that can happen. I can’t help but chuckle to myself. Being a midwestern boy, I’ve never experienced snowy mountain conditions like these.
We all take our looks at the surrounding conditions and express our amazement. Galen is no stranger to big snow, but even this gets him excited. We have maybe 50 or 100 yards of visibility, sometimes even less, and there are no signs of the snow stopping soon. But first things first. We need to get our camp packed up, get the bikes started, and then we see if we can make it out of the mountains.
Galen carries skis on the side of his Timbersled, so even if his bike fails, he’s got a human-powered escape method. Jesse and I have snowshoes with us, but those are a last resort. The air temperature reads somewhere a little over 10ºF, our loaner Hondas fire up pretty easily. Galen’s bike is kickstart-only, and is being stubborn. He started it the morning before in colder temps, so it should work no problem, but it doesn’t. We take turns kicking, finally getting it running and begin packing up.
I take one small step to the side of my packed-down tent space and fall straight into the snow up to my chest. It’s deeper than the day before by maybe a foot, and even then we were having some trouble getting bikes stuck. It’ll be an interesting ride out
These conditions are what snowbikes were made for. They feel right at home blasting through the fresh powder, and as cliche as it sounds, it’s like riding on a cloud. Picking up speed in the open areas, snow pours over the handlebars and into my lap and face. If you don’t put some weight on the pegs, the snow is dense enough it can push your feet off. Standing up helps lock my feet on the pegs and keeps my face out of the snow blast zone.
As the riding flattens out, we come across some old homesteads from a ghost town mining community. Gold or silver I’m not sure which, was the driving force to bring people into this remote terrain back in the early 1900s. When the precious metal ran out, the people did too. See, back then, average people didn’t go out into the wilderness to camp for fun the way we do now. The wilderness was an ever-present challenge that you didn’t mess with unless you had to, and then it was a serious undertaking. It was an entity that people felt had to be tamed and controlled, and would be used exclusively as a resource for materials instead of a place for recreation.
Returning to our vehicles, it’s easy to take for granted the experiences we can have nowadays that would’ve been considered ludacris a few decades ago. Now, they’re fun weekend activities. But what draws us away from the comforts of a warm and dry home, if only for a few free weekends here and there? Anyways, we’ll save the exploration into human psychology and adventure sports for another time. The three of us stop by a burger shop for some greasy lunch and relive stories from the weekend before heading our separate ways, all looking forward to the next trip.
Day 2 Recap
Miles: We’re all gonna make it
Mental Status: Don’t Bother Me, I’m Eating
Big Fire Pit Drifted In: Yes
Fresh Snow Accumulation: 1 foot-ish with big drifts
Approximate Snow Depth: More than this Michigan boy has ever been in
Snowdrift Truck Escape Method: 4-High and locked hubs ‘cause my truck won’t go into 4-Low
Thoughts About Settlers and Frontiersmen: Many