Backcountry Sled Navigation Tools and Tips from Mike Duffy

One of the best parts about riding sleds is the amount of ground that you can cover in such a relatively short amount of time. But with the access that riding a sled provides, it also comes with a higher chance of getting lost. I’ve come to learn that when traveling deep into the backcountry, having proper navigation tools is essential. With the right tools, you can save time, prevent getting lost and have an easier time getting to the zones that you want to explore. Electronic sled navigation tools like GPS and smartphone apps are extremely useful. Below, I will outline the sled navigation tools and the tricks that my riding partners and I use to safely navigate in the backcountry.

Four tips that lead to successful sled navigation

  1. Use multiple ways to navigate (i.e. paper map, GPS and smartphone app). This way, if one of your navigation tools fails, you have back-up.
  2. Have more than one person navigating. Having multiple people navigating creates redundancy and minimizes the potential for mistakes.
  3. Start GPS tracking right from the trailhead.  If weather moves in, or it gets dark, even the most straightforward routes can become challenging with low visibility. If you start tracking right at the trailhead, you create a GPS “breadcrumb” trail for you to follow back to the car.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. These tools are useless unless you know how to use them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to help people who had a GPS but didn’t know how to use it.

SLED NAVIGATION TOOLS TO USE:

Smartphone Apps:  There are several apps available on most major smartphone platforms that are easy to use and are extremely useful, even where there’s no cell service.

Avenza Maps: Avenza is an incredible tool with almost 1 million maps for your phone.

Gaia GPS Maps:   Gaia offers topographic maps, satellite maps and much more. This is probably the most user-friendly GPS app out there, with easy route tracking, waypoint setting, and trip stats. Their latest updates offer slope shading, tree density, and snow forecast overlays.

FatMap:  www.Fatmap.com  Fatmap has a feature to show general slope steepness. This is very useful for route planning and determining if you’re heading into avalanche terrain.

While these tools are incredible, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get lost or hurt. Never rely solely on a phone for rescue, as many areas don’t have cell service. Instead, use a GPS satellite messenger, such as a Garmin InReach Explorer. With tracking, a full GPS and a messaging feature, the Garmin In-Reach explorer is my go-to navigation tool.

Pro Tip: Have a way to charge your devices in the field. I always have a primary and a backup method to charge my devices. A portable jump starter device like the Microstart XP-3 is recommended.

Don’t forget your device cable! Most sleds have a 12-volt plugin that can be purchased for electronic devices.

SLED NAVIGATION MAPS: 

Don’t forget paper maps to get the big picture.  When you zoom out on a phone or GPS, it’s hard to figure out where you are, there’s just not enough detail on a small screen. The map gives you the big picture of where you are and helps tremendously in figuring out the big picture and a way out. 

I usually carry a couple of maps of the area. Snowmobile trail maps usually don’t have significant detail, so I also carry a topo map of the area.

Brand-related GPS navigation accessories include the Ski-Doo glove box extension with power for Garmin GPS with USB port accessory, and Polaris Ride-Command app and GPS accessory.

Pair good navigation with good communication.   Using the BC Link Radios helps your group stay together.  Which, in turn, prevents people in your party from getting lost.

And finally, PRACTICE.  Preparation and practice help tremendously in tough situations.   Good sled navigation skills can make the difference between spending the night out or getting back to the trailhead.

Happy riding!