When I get calls asking about Snow Bike Kits, one of the first questions are which bike should I buy or what’s the best bike or can I make my old dirt bike work, etc. This guide will highlight the features you should consider when trying to decide what bike to purchase or if your existing bike with work for you.
Two Stroke vs Four Stroke
Most of us are going to want the reliability, torque and power of a modern four stroke; however, if you are experienced with two stroke bikes and really want to make one work as a snow bike, then you can make them work.
The majority of us will need a 450cc or larger displacement engine. For some women and young teenagers, a 250cc or 350cc motor maybe all they need. They can transition to a larger displacement once they feel they have outgrown the smaller engine.
In my opinion, the single most important feature to have on your snow bike is fuel injection. I know there are plenty of guys getting along with carbureted bikes, but fuel injection removes all jetting issues and lets you focus on riding instead of wrenching. In addition they run a closed fuel system so you don’t have to worry about dumping a bunch of fuel every time you tip the bike over. So if you can afford a newer bike then you should only be looking at those with fuel injection.
Race versus Trail
Now there are a series of other things to consider that split bikes into two categories, Race and Trail. Manufacturers tend to put their newest technology into their race bikes and they make the most horsepower. Race engines rev quicker and higher and make some great noise that some of us really like. Race bikes have close ratio transmissions that are an advantage on the snow. On the other hand, trail bikes have bigger fuel tanks, electric start, headlights and batteries that make it easier to run heated grips. They also offer 500cc and higher displacement engines that make a lot of torque and have heavier flywheels for great lugging power. But they will also rev slower and with a wide ratio transmission, you may find first gear too low and second gear too high in some situations.
So there are going to be trade-offs between Race and Trail and you need to decide what type of bike best suits your personality and what type of riding you plan to do. Or, you need to decide what features are most important to you and what trade-offs you are willing to make to get those features.
Having electric start can be a huge convenience out on the snow. Kick starting takes a fair amount of energy that you could otherwise put into riding. Sometimes you have the bike in a situation where using the kick starter is really difficult. The kick starter can be hard on snowmobile boots too. I put the tip of my kick starter through the bottom of my $350 snowmobile boots when starting the bike on a steep slope. I nearly tipped over trying to get the boot off the kick starter and hate to think what could have happened if I had fallen.
The other advantage to electric start is that you have a battery which makes it easier to install accessories like head lights and heated grips. EFI bikes however, do put out a lot of electrical power and most, if not all, are capable of running LED headlights and heated grips directly off the EFI system.
Only one manufacturer has electric start on their race bikes and that is KTM. Unfortunately, their newer race bikes don’t have a backup kick starter. I would not own one these bikes unless I had a means to jump start the bike in the back country.
Most race bikes have a 5 speed close ratio transmission while most trail bikes will have a wide ratio transmission and some will even have 6 speeds. A close ration transmission is going to give you more options in nearly all situations with the only exception being a higher gear for out on the trail. Out on the hill with a close ratio transmission, you might use first, second and third gear while with a wide ratio you will only be able to use first and second. I have been on ride where guys on trail bikes have complained that first was too low and second was too high.
You will be carrying fuel on your snow bike no matter how large your tank. Obviously a larger tank means you will fuel less often and may not have to carry as much extra fuel. I’ve been riding a 2012 YZ450F with a 1.6 gallon tank and I usually have to refuel twice during a full day of riding. I find this to be workable and do not feel I need a larger tank. The larger tanks make a bigger difference if you want to take long rides on your bike in the summer. Larger fuel tanks are available for most newer race bikes if you feel you need one.
Snow Bikes benefit from having a thermostat installed to get the engine up to operating temp quickly and to keep it there in very cold conditions. In most cases you will have to add the thermostat, but some of the trail bikes come already equipped with thermostats. While adding a thermostat is not overly difficult, it is nice when the manufacturer takes care of this for you.
There is no perfect off the showroom bike that I know of. You will have to decide what features are most important to you and find the bike that best meets your needs. Hopefully this guide will help you in your decision.