Skier Snowmobile Tow Rigs

Post by blogger | March 4, 2009      

Sorry this took so long to post today, spent the morning mounting some Dynafit FT12s for Chris Davenport — when that world traveler finally shows up at the workshop you’ve got to jump on it! More about Dav’s Reader’s Ride in a few days. For now, what about towing skiers with a snowmobile?

Backcountry Skiing

These young squires are using the rope with poles-as-grip method -- not so friendly to your shoulders and back, and the poles go with the snowmobile if you let go, thus leaving you stranded with just your skis. Not recommended, see better methods below.

Towing skiers behind your sled is part art, part science, and part athletics. First, your tow-ee has to be a good skier, otherwise they’ll struggle with the unfamiliar combo of both gliding skis and pull force. Cord choice is important. I favor 7 or 8 millimeter climbing rope. This has some give, is light weight, but still thick enough to tangle less during storage and be easier to handle with gloved hands.

For safety reasons on narrow roads and trails I try to tow no more than two people at a time, so I use an approximately 60 foot chunk of rope and divide it between the two skiers, with a few feet of stagger so they’re not exactly next to each other. By the time the rope is knotted in various ways and adjusted for the type of trail, the skiers end up anywhere from about 20 to 30 feet behind the sled. Closer works better for trails with tight turns but the skiers get blasted in the face by the track wake, farther is more relaxing but doesn’t work as well for turns.

Perhaps the most important trick is how you attach the skier. Foremost, never ever tie or clip the skier in to the rope. If they fall they’ll get dragged and likely injured. Instead, whatever method of attachment you use should be “dead man” in that when the skier lets go with a hand they immediately detach from the rope. For ultimate simplicity or short distance you can hand hold a knotted rope, or insert your ski poles through a loop and use them as a handle. Either of those methods are hard and possibly even injurious on the arms and shoulders, and having your poles attached to the rope means if you drop off for some reason you’ll be stranded without your ski poles, watching your friend and his sled fade into the distance with your ski poles merrily bouncing at the end of the tow rope. (More, for safety reasons we don’t recommend using ski poles as a handle, see below.)

Better, attach the rope at your waist and use some sort of shock absorption system and dead-man link. Below are a few ways of doing that.

Backcountry Skiing

WildSnow reader Robin Beech sent me this photo of the rig his SAR outfit uses. The bicycle inner tube is passed around your waist and clipped into the carabiner, then the rope is held as pictured so letting go will result in immediate detachment from the tow. For more friction you can pass the rope through the knot loop instead of the screw-link, and you can tune the shock absorption by using different thicknesses of inner tube.

Backcountry Skiing

In my opinion the best methods require skiers to have a harness of some sort and a 'biner, you then use a bicycle inner tube as a shock absorber inline with the rope. Photo above shows one way to rig this, length and grade of tube makes a big difference. If things get technical you can let go of the harness loop and just hold on to the tube or rope with your hands. I usually recommend simply carrying your ski poles on your pack while you're being towed, so you have both hands to work with. But for short tows you can just hold your poles in one hand. The inner tube rubber has a ton of friction around the biner so it should be easy to hold unless you're dealing with excessive force. This system could also be rigged with rope tied to the skier end of the inner tube, and done more like Robin's method.

Backcountry Skiing

We've tried this method for a while, but the inner tube tends to catch around your waist and not 'dead man' safely when you let go. Not recommended.

Another aspect is how you attach the rope to the snowmobile. I favor a tying a simple bowline knot on the rear bumper. The main thing is not to leave any rope that could hang down and get tangled in the track. Likewise, take great care if your sled has reverse as backing over a rope and tangling in your track could be a mechanical disaster.

How the snowmobile driver behaves is as important as your tow system. Drop throttle starts obviously don’t work unless you’re trying for amusement park thrills. Likewise, keep your speed down. I’ve found the safest velocities to be around 15 mph for rough technical trails with grade variations, creeping up to 25 mph on wide groomers. You can go faster than that with good skiers on the right trail, but remember you’re not there to produce thrills, but rather to reach a destination in the most efficient and safe way possible. Get in the habit of frequently looking back at the skiers — another reason to keep speed down as in normal snowmobiling looking to the rear is a BAD habit. If you do a lot of towing, get a hands free comm system and use it for chat between the towee and driver. Or at the least agree on some hand signals.

Skier technique and behavior are important as well. Above all, resist the temptation to goof around when you’re being towed. It’s all fun until someone gets hurt. What’s more, trying to “water ski” behind a sled places more resistance on the mechanicals and causes funky steering behavior when the tail of the sled gets pulled to the side. Best is to simply strive for a relaxed glidy style that puts the least stress on you and the sled.

Perhaps the hardest part of being pulled on skis by a snowmobile is dealing with downhills. As a towee you’re already moving at a steady clip behind the sled, so when you hit a downhill you may find yourself accelerating to a slightly higher speed than the sled and developing slack in the tow line that’s tough to deal with. As the towee on a downhill, try keeping your speed down by throwing in a slight snowplow. As driver, try to anticipate downhills. Slow down a bit before you hit a down grade, then accelerate back to cruising speed as you progress on the downhill section — idea being to keep slack out of the line. On long downhills the towee should simply let go of the tow line and glide it out, especially if they can’t control their line slack.

Lastly, since this is a motorized “sport,” everyone involved should be wearing a helmet.

Suggestions anyone?


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


37 Responses to “Skier Snowmobile Tow Rigs”

  1. Ziptie March 4th, 2009 11:45 am

    I have another system that I used this past weekend (as the one being towed), and I found it works quite well. It is similar to your second option. The pieces required are a waterski tow rope, a harness, a locking biner, and a bicycle inner tube. Keep the bicycle innertube uncut, clip the tube into the biner on the harness, loop the tube thru the waterski handle and hold onto the tube that has been passed thru the handle. I found this works even better with 2 tubes (or 1 doubled up), depending on weight, you don’t get as much tube stretch when the sled takes off. This system is pretty safe, because if you go down, you just let go of the tube, and it pulls out through the tow rope handle. Towing is very easy on the skier, because they are being pulled about 60/40 from the harness and their hands on the tube. Safety note: If the rope slacks, make sure you watch where the handle goes, and don’t get it hooked behind the biner on your harness… that makes for a pretty harsh takeoff.

  2. Kurt March 4th, 2009 12:27 pm

    It’s also important for the sled operator to check on his towee every now and then. Otherwise he’ll arrive at the top of the run with a slack line and everyone asking “Hey Simon, where’s Trevor?”

    It’s not like water skiing where you have a dedicated spotter, but the odd shoulder check from the driver at least reassures a new towee that his operator is thinking about him.

    I also prefer the poles on the pack method.

  3. Jeff March 4th, 2009 12:51 pm

    As always…go fast and get it over with quickly!

  4. Newman March 4th, 2009 12:53 pm

    Lou, I like the simplicty of 29er tube (longer) tied to the end of the tow rope, looped around the waist and then doubled over the tow rope onto itself and held with your gloved hand (creating the deadman). Is comfy, simple and has released for me without fail.

  5. Morgan March 4th, 2009 1:12 pm

    I take a few wraps around my poles with the rope then use the poles as a handle. I usually take enough wraps that I only have to hold the rope with my thumb and friction takes care of the rest. Then to let go all you have to do is let the tail of the rope go and it slides of your poles.

  6. Lou March 4th, 2009 1:29 pm

    I should add that by using a nice 60 foot chunk of good quality 8 mm rope, I’ve got an excellent tool to set up a Z pully with if the sled needs extrication from a tree well or creek bed. That’s why I don’t cut the rope into pieces.

  7. Dongshow March 4th, 2009 6:33 pm

    We use one long rope with large loops tied in it. Up to 3 skiers being towed on the single rope, its really easy to work together and reduce the amount of slack your dealing with. The bike tube versions pictured above do work well, i’ll back those up.

  8. Tom Williams March 4th, 2009 7:51 pm

    Hi Lou, do you think a skijorring quick release snap would work? A little spendy compared to a bicycle tube, but the ones I have seen are pretty slick. Also, the tow lines used have built in bungee for shock absorption.

  9. Steve March 5th, 2009 12:48 am

    Seems to me that being tied in around the waist would make it somewhat difficult to brake while going downhill or when catching up to the sled (I haven’t tried it so I may be wrong). I prefer just using my hands with my poles and a bike tube between me and the sled as a shock absorber, that way my arms can also act as an additional shock absorber. If the driver is paying attention and doesn’t accelerate too fast I don’t see any problems with shoulder/arm injuries.

  10. Lou March 5th, 2009 7:34 am

    Tom, skijoring requires a hands free rig, while being towed by a snowmobile does not. Thus, the skijoring quick release is unnecessary and even dangerous as being towed by a sled means you’re being pulled with a lot more power than a few dogs, so if you happen to get tangled around a tree or something you want that rope coming off as soon a you let go, you don’t want to be reaching for a pull cord. Things just happen too fast and with too much power. In other words, a “dead-man” type attachment or link is mandatory, not something that requires user intervention.

    Let me repeat. When being pulled by a snowmobile you are attached to an object that weighs over 400 pounds, frequently moving at over 20 mph. If you fall or otherwise flub, even the slightest delay in line detachment can result in serious injury.


  11. Lou March 5th, 2009 7:59 am

    Regarding using ski poles as a handle. Another problem we’ve found with this is a safety issue. If you’re being towed with others and the group falls in a tangle, having ski poles inserted in the ends of the tow ropes can cause the poles to tangle with the skiers and do all sorts of nasty things before the snowmobile stops forward travel. We’ve even seen this happen with a solo towee, when the rope got wrapped around a ski, and the ski poles ended up jammed against his legs and pulling him sideways at 20 mph. Result was bad bruises, but a broken pole could have easily cut into the femoral artery or something. It was a scary incident.

    All this is why I suggest keeping it simple, with a dead-man attachment system and poles in backpack (or in one hand for short distance pulls), if you like holding something horizontal rather than using a waist attachment system use a waterski handle.

    But I strongly suggest that eliminating the upper body from the connection (by not holding on with your hands and using waist attachment) is much better for long term back and shoulder health, not to mention short term energy savings.

    If you use a waist harness with the simple pass through attachment as shown in the second photo above, you can always switch to hand-holding by taking the pull rope off your harness and moving your grip up to the knot.

    Another thing. I should have mentioned in the post that driving style is a big part of making any tow system work. I’ll edit to include that.

  12. Mark March 5th, 2009 8:26 am

    The one time I was towed behind a sled there were three being towed. As we neared the top, the strain was immense on skiers’ arms as well as the sled. We all were in one line, so when the first two guys peeled off in fatigue, it wasn’t entirely safe for anyone behind them. I think we used the poles in a loop in the rope. While it seems like a reasonable system, as things unfold and people get tired or the terrain steepens, this isn’t likely the safest setup.

  13. Kidd March 5th, 2009 9:06 am

    One thing I would add. When you let your friends, who more often than not aren’t experienced, drive down to pick you up, tell them to stay on the road. Tell them that their job is to get to the bottom and not have fun in powder on the way down.

  14. Frank Konsella March 5th, 2009 7:07 pm

    First off, don’t forget that tandeming is much much easier on the machine and towee if there are only 2.

    I like the method that Robin had in the first photo above, more or less. One part of the tube goes above the butt with the other half below, making a diaper sling, sort of. DH tubes, rather than XC ones work best as well.

    One other tip for the towee is to try to skate a little when starting off, rather than just getting jerked at a dead stop.

  15. Lou March 5th, 2009 7:37 pm

    Frank, my pull is like the kiss of a butterfly, no need for skating (grin).

  16. Al March 5th, 2009 9:24 pm

    we used much like the 1st picture , the mtnbike tube binered together around the butt ,rope thru the biner and back thru the loop ,worked fine except I forgot the goggles … 52km with just sunglasses & a bala clava made for some minor frostbite

  17. Alex April 20th, 2009 10:15 am

    So, I know I’m asking for the motherlode, but what about a discussion of some good (not your super secret stash, but better known) sled ski zones. I recently bought a sled for this purpose only to find out a.) I have to learn how to ride it in powder, and b.) it’s not trivial to find good zones for sled-shuttle skiing. While I know of a couple near the I-70 corridor, I’m living south now (Santa Fe) and so exploring around is a pretty big time commitment that I am willing to make, but a hint in the right direction (discussion of Independence pass vs. CB. vs. Silverton or leadville) would help out alot.
    Well, I know it’s a long shot, but asking really doesn’t hurt anyone…

  18. Alex April 20th, 2009 10:17 am

    Oh yeah, We used the setup with the quick link and bike tube and found that a DH tube works best, less stretch than a normal MB tube, and a wider piece of rubber around your butt. Downright comfy!

  19. Steve Langer October 22nd, 2009 3:55 pm

    Hi Lou,

    Have read your magazine articles forever, just ran accross your site. We (me and my adult kids and our friends) have been sled skiing for three years, and I just dumped my ghetto sleds for newer versions. Not fancy 4 strokes like some people, but quieter for sure, and electric start/reverse which for us old guys is a wonderful thing.

    I looked through some older threads and would love to reopen the conversation about towing versus riding two up versue riding “Canadian”. It is obviously more fun to get three people up on one sled than two, as two then get to ski down together.

    We mostly ski Ptarmigan Pass and Buff Pass, so we are accessing using pretty well kept roads. I would be interested in hearing people’s experience on whether a sled performs better with more weight on it or towing behind it.

  20. budda January 28th, 2010 2:36 pm

    :devil: :wub: 😉 :whistle: :w00t: :wassat: :blush: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :ninja: :face: :face: :face: :heart: :ninja: :heart: :ninja:

  21. will April 10th, 2010 9:04 pm

    What is a good 2011 ski doo sled to tow out of all of the new models. I’m thinking that a utility two seater is a possibly good idea.

  22. Lou April 11th, 2010 7:15 am

    We’re of the opinion that a lightweight mountain sled makes the best tow sled for us, though it’s a good idea if possible to have the mountain sled re-geared so it’s easier to drive it slower.

    We feel this way because we end up breaking trail or riding fairly rough trails, getting stuck and so forth, and the big heavy “utility” or “trail” sleds handle like dogs and when they get stuck it’s like trying to move a grounded battleship. Also, when dead-heading or riding for fun, the mountain sled is just so much more enjoyable to drive.

    As for riding double, we do it all the time on our mountain sled, though doing so only works if you’re careful, and the riders are not too large.

    I’d also recommend a 4-stroke for skier towing. The lack of annoying exhaust is worth it.

  23. will April 12th, 2010 9:32 am

    I found a snowmobile that i think would be the best ski doo. But, id like to hear other opinions. If you click on the link it will take you to the 2011 ski doo sleds.

    I thought that the renegade sport would be the best. The price seemed good for a brand new snowmobile. Im wondering if there is something to hook up a tow rope. Also, is there room even on a non double seater like the renegade to have two people on the snowmobile? I have no clue about new snomobiles so if anyone is educated about this stuff it would be good if you could help me out.

    My brother told me about a premade tow rope and i was wondering if anybody has seen them and if so can you give me a link?

  24. will April 12th, 2010 9:34 am

    Where in Colorado is a good place to tow skiers. I know about Jones and Vail pass, but is there any other places?

  25. Lou April 12th, 2010 9:44 am

    Will, if you’re talking about towing up and skiing down, I’ve seen some of that being done in the legal sled terrain near Red Mountain Pass. If you’re talking about towing in for access, just about any of the roads that are open in summer and closed in winter but open to smowmobiles lend themselves to that sort of use.

  26. Justin April 13th, 2011 8:56 am

    I have a 4 inch loop of rope permanently attached to the back of my sled. This way i can use a carabiner to attach and remove the tow rope when needed.

    The way we set up our tow system is we clip an inner tube and the rope to the loop. The tube (two feet long is then attached to a place on the tow rope about four feet out. This lets the tube stretch but the rope limits the stretch so as to not break the tire. It also give the system some redundancy.

    My buddy wears a harness and has a New Zealand Tow Rope gadget that pinches a know in the rope. works well. I usualy put the rope behind my back do one wrap around my poles and than pinch the rope. I am not holdng my poles rather my hand is pressed up agains them.

    The tube takes away a lot of the shock and is not in the skiers end. It makes for a very clean system that is easily removable for sled play time.

  27. Will Hurtgen August 14th, 2011 8:49 pm

    We just got a great deal on a 2009 yamaha sled. We are thinking about what rope to buy. We went to lowes and ended up not buying anything. Now we are thinking of ice climbing rope. It seems like we are over thinking it. But, in the long run we want something functional that will last. Does anyone have any deals on good rope that is proven to work. I am also wondering if the cheaper rope will get wet and freeze? This would be a potential problem. Are you supposed to store the rope on the way down or let it drag?
    Sorry if this is to many questions but they are burning to be answered for this upcoming season!

  28. Will Hurtgen August 14th, 2011 8:51 pm

    also what does everyone use for communication. Im thinking of a Rino or maybe a motorola radio(they would have to be a higher range one)

  29. Lou August 14th, 2011 10:26 pm

    Hey Will, a couple things. For comm, yeah, get some FRS radios but no need to get too fanatical about them, they’re all pretty similar. Just get one of the higher end models with all the channels and a bit more power. We like the Motorola models that us AA batteries, but whatever.

    As for rope, I feel the prefered tow rope is 7 mm climbing accessory cord. Lightweight, stretchy, packs small. If you’re in a we area get 7 or 8 mm in the latest “dry” rope technology, so it won’t water saturate. In Colorado, just about anything works.



  30. Will Hurtgen August 14th, 2011 11:12 pm

    So Ive been looking up all kinds of radios. And i heard Motorola’s dont operate in cold conditions well and all kinds of negative stuff. Can you give me the exact model or link to what you use?

  31. Lou August 15th, 2011 8:59 am

    Will, where did you “hear” all kinds of stuff? That sounds like some shaky advice, as 7 of us used Motorolas on Denali for three weeks a year ago and we also use them in Colorado every winter, all with good success. I’m not home so I can’t give you the models I like, can do so in a few days. If you’re concerned, just look for a waterproof radio in any brand. And yes, in a moister environment any non-waterproof radio could have problems.

  32. Will Hurtgen August 15th, 2011 9:19 am

    ok thanks i just didnt want to buy multiple radio systems before it works. Thanks for all the help.

  33. Lou August 15th, 2011 11:23 am

    The “blister pack” radios are not as good nor as reliable as mil-spec amateur HTs, but they cost so much less it’s amazing and are much easier to use. I have both and tend to use the cheaper ones. Remind me in a few days and I can give you some model numbers, but meanwhile just look at the Motorolas that take AA batteries and are advertised as having the longer range. They’re all pretty similar. The ones we have include and LCD bulb flashlight feature that’s actually amazingly useful, not a gimmick, as it acts as your spare lightsource.

    Found it. This one is the same or similar to what we’ve been using with great success:

  34. Austin October 13th, 2011 10:12 pm

    Towing skiers isn’t exactly what a 2 stroke snowmobile is meant to do. It may be harder on your skiing companions, but the best way to ride most 2 strokes is to work it through the powerband (like a chainsaw). If you keep the sled revved at a constant low RPM, you’ll overheat. It takes some skill to give your companions a smooth ride, but your sled will thank you.

    Most times, I find it easier to ride with people on your sled. Here’s some popular ways to stack multiple riders on your sled.

    1. Canuck- Riding with one person on each side of the tunnel. 1 person controls brakes, one person controls throttle.

    2. B%$@- passenger rides behind and holds on to the driver

    3. Squirrel- Passenger sits in front of the driver

    4. Clown car- combination squirrel/canuck. One person rides on each side of the tunnel and one person sits holding onto the handlebar strap

    Squirrel is the preferred position (assume it!) to ride in fresh snow. The driver has full control of the sled and can move your feet to each side of the tunnel to turn in fresh snow. I wish I had some good pictures of clown car, b/c it is really entertaining to watch.

  35. John June 29th, 2015 8:15 pm

    With two really strong skiers, you can blast through a thick forest at damn near 40mph. I like to take ’em over jumps and see if they can clear the tops of smaller trees. Can’t wear a helmet, though.. gotta have maximum peripheral vision when you’re surrounded by trees. Don’t forget the whiplash effect on your skiers when zig zagging through tight turns in heavily forested areas. They have to let go of the rope for a split second when their hand reaches a tree, BTW.. or the rope and tree will act sorta like a jigsaw and slice their hands clean off (OUCH!). Best to carry a meat cleaver-type hook and release right before the tree, then in one deft motion, swing the meat cleaver back and catch the rope again. Oh.. and no goggles ..they interfere with peripheral vision as well. Ya gotta nut up or shut up!

  36. Nick November 27th, 2017 11:59 am

    Lou, are you of the opinion that towing is less stressful on a 4-stroke mountain sled than riding tandem? I’m thinking approaches on flatish terrain that are easily accessible roads in the summertime, not necessarily steeper routes for sled-to-the-top skiing.

    I have a nice yamaha apex mountain and an older skidoo touring sled that my wife usually rides, but unfortunately it’s been in the shop with the search for a discontinued part being a major holdup. So we’re faced with having to double up on the mountain sled for the time being, which is not fun. towing is more comfortable, but less ideal since our typical zone involves about 10 miles of what is a nice 2-lane highway in the summer.

    Anyway, just looking for your opinion on what puts the least stress on the machine since you’ve done so much touring w/ snowmobiles. Thanks for any advice.

  37. Lou Dawson 2 November 27th, 2017 3:27 pm

    Hi NIck, it’s more how you drive it than whether you’re towing or riding double. If you’re easy on the sled, adding weight is no different than breaking trail in powder, just some added resistance that burns up more fuel. I wouldn’t even worry about the suspension unless you’re double riding two huge people, though you might want to tune the suspension for a better ride if you do a lot of doubling. Have to say I really dislike towing long distances, both for driver and skier, it’s exhausting and can be dangerous as speed creeps up. But it’s sometimes the best alternative for various reasons. Lou

  Your Comments

  Recent Posts

Facebook Twitter Email Instagram Youtube

WildSnow Twitter Feed


  • Blogroll & Links

  • Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free ski touring news and information here.

    All material on this website is copyrighted, the name WildSnow is trademarked, permission required for reproduction (electronic or otherwise) and display on other websites. PLEASE SEE OUR COPYRIGHT and TRADEMARK INFORMATION.

    We include "affiliate sales" links with most of our blog posts. This means we receive a percentage of a sale if you click over from our site (at no cost to you). None of our affiliate commission links are direct relationships with specific gear companies or shopping carts, instead we remain removed by using a third party who manages all our affiliate sales and relationships. We also sell display "banner" advertising, in this case our relationships are closer to the companies who advertise, but our display advertising income is carefully separated financially and editorially from our blog content, over which we always maintain 100% editorial control -- we make this clear during every advertising deal we work out. Please also notice we do the occasional "sponsored" post, these are under similar financial arrangements as our banner advertising, only the banner or other type of reference to a company are included in the blog post, simply to show they provided financial support to and provide them with advertising in return. Unlike most other "sponsored content" you find on the internet, our sponsored posts are entirely under our editorial control and created by WildSnow specific writers.See our full disclosures here.

    Backcountry skiing is dangerous. You may be killed or severely injured if you do any form of ski mountaineering, skimo randonnee and randonnée skiing. The information and news on this website is intended only as general information. Due to human error and passing time, the information, text and images contained within this website may be inaccurate, false, or out-of-date. By using, reading or viewing the information provided on this website, you agree to absolve the owners of Wild Snow as well as content contributors of any liability for injuries or losses incurred while using such information. Furthermore, you agree to use any of this website's information, maps, photos, or binding mounting instructions templates at your own risk, and waive Wild Snow owners and contributors of liability for use of said items for ski touring or any other use.

    Switch To Mobile Version