It’s a stunningly beautiful bluebird Colorado day in the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area and there’s no one in sight, just a landscape of white in every direction.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
With the flick of my right wrist, my thumb punches the throttle of the personal snow machine I’m riding and I go zipping off the snow-packed platform of Shrine Pass Road and plunge into a field of untracked powder. Another ping on the throttle and I zoom through the fluff with ease. But my high-torque, easily maneuverable steed is not a snowmobile. Specifically, I’m riding what might be best described as a battery-powered electric bike, built by a French company called MoonBikes.
Powered by lithium-ion batteries that drive a highly efficient 4-horsepower motor, MoonBikes have a wide, steerable ski up front and a motorized track in the rear. It’s an electric vehicle that looks something like a mashup of a snowmobile and a fat-tire mountain bike, and it operates a little like both. MoonBikes can ride packed-down trails, cut through powder, slice through gladed sections of trees and switch directions with a very small turning radius.
The Boulder-based North American office of MoonBikes, a subsidiary of the French startup company that developed these sprightly machines, is hoping to bring more of the easy-to-maneuver, fully electric snow scooters to Colorado by next winter. Founded in France in 2018 by entrepreneur Nicolas Muron, the company sees the U.S. and Canada as prime territory for growth.
It secured $6.5 million in seed funding from investors with a plan to tap the surging post-pandemic U.S. snowmobiling market, which reported a 16% increase in sales in 2021, the highest recorded since 2009. Snowmobile sales declined 9% last year, though the Western U.S.— one of MoonBikes’ key target markets — remains very strong.
MoonBikes are less expensive, lighter and easier to operate than snowmobiles and more environmentally friendly, given how efficient and quiet they are. Not only do they lack the sometimes intolerable “Brrraaap! Brrraaap!” noise of a gas-powered snowmobile or Timbersled, the MoonBikes motors are almost silent. When riding over the snow, the only noise coming from the machine is the barely audible rhythmic clicking of the direct-drive rubber belt churning through the snow.
With a two-battery setup, the bikes can run for up to three hours or an estimated 30 to 35 miles of riding, depending on whether it’s operating in Eco, Standard or Sport mode.
They’re not cheap. MoonBikes retail for $8,900, which means they’re about half as much as a snowmobile but toward the upper range of what high-end mountain bikes and road bikes cost. The target customers are adventurous individuals who both appreciate the ease of motorized recreational opportunities in the winter, and have the considerable financial means necessary to buy one.
There are plenty of customers who fit that demographic in Colorado, says Joseph Sweet, MoonBikes North America’s vice president of business development. However, that’s only a portion of the brand’s growth strategy. The other side of the business is focused on bringing this snow-riding experience to the masses by enlisting resort partners that offer guided tours on public land or closed-track operations on private lands.
“They’re designed to be fun, sporty, quick, light — all those great things,” Sweet says. “They’re designed to be adventurous, if that’s your background and that’s what you want to do. But they’re also designed to be much more approachable, to bring a new community to winter recreation and really democratize the access to those experiences.”
Whereas a typical snowmobile tour operation might skew 80% male, Sweet says its resort partners are reporting a more balanced ratio that’s closer to 60% male and 40% female.
“That’s really kind of validating and supports what we thought we had when we created the product,” Sweet says. “These are truly for everyone.”
The brand’s two most successful partners to date are The Resort at Paws Up, a luxury resort in Greenough, Montana, that offers dozens of activities on its 37,000-acre private property 45 minutes from Missoula, and Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls, Michigan, one of the most popular ski and snowboard resorts in the Midwest, which offers slow-speed guided tours on nearby state and federal public lands.
“MoonBikes are an ideal fit for Boyne Mountain Resort in bringing another standout attraction that also aligns with our dedication to sustainability,” said Patrick Patoka, the resort’s director of adventure. Specifically, he said, it aligns with the resort’s impact-reducing ForeverProject aimed at providing environmentally friendly fun.
The Resort at Paws Up offers dozens of winter activities for its guests — ranging from snowmobiles to snowshoeing — but is always looking for new and unique opportunities with approachable point of entry as a lot of their guests haven’t previously been immersed in the outdoors, said Will Smith, general manager of the Wilderness Outpost at The Resort at Paws Up.
After Smith went through a brief demo in Colorado a year ago, the Resort at Paws Up acquired a small fleet of MoonBikes and offered guided tours from December until early April.
“When I came out to try them out in Colorado to see if it was something we could bring on, my face hurt when I got back up to Montana because I had been smiling the whole time,” Smith says. “I was like, ‘This is so cool!’ It was just such a unique and very approachable experience, and I know if I have fun, our guests are going to have a blast on them.”
Ultimately, the freewheeling fun of MoonBikes will be limited to private lands or public lands that allow or can accommodate motorized vehicles in the winter. As with snowmobiles and off-road motorcycles, wilderness areas, national parks and some state parks are off-limits. But popular snowmobiling areas — Kebler Pass between Gunnison and Crested Butte, Georgia Pass Road near Breckenridge, Rabbit Ears Pass east of Steamboat, Camp Hale near Minturn and the Turquoise Lake Recreational Area west of Leadville — could be ideal for snowbiking adventures with a MoonBikes machine.
However, when it comes to specific winter trail systems around Colorado, snowbikes will likely face the same scrutiny as e-bikes. For example, riding a MoonBike would be a lot of fun on the old mining roads and adjacent terrain of Leadville’s East Side Mining District, but they’d be off-limits on the 11.7-mile Mineral Belt Trail that loops the town. Pedal-assisted Class I and Class II e-bikes, with motors that are limited to 20 mph, have been permitted on that trail in recent years during winter and summer. But it has been declared, with signs posted, to be off-limits to motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles. MoonBikes, which weigh 192 pounds and have a top speed of 26 mph, are technically more like a snowmobile than a two-wheeled e-bike.
“We feel we’ve created a vehicle in which you can explore nature and recreate in nature without disturbing it,” Sweet says. “It’s not uncommon to be out in the woods and you can still see wildlife because there’s no noise that you’re generating as you ride through.”
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center supports people accessing public lands in the winter, as long as they’re doing it in a way that is safe and responsible for them and abides by the laws of specific land agencies, agency director Ethan Greene said.
MoonBikes can access public lands in the backcountry where avalanche conditions can vary and so users should have a firm grip on snow conditions and avalanche safety when they head out to ride, Greene said. That applies even to more contained areas perceived to have less avalanche risk — such as the snow-packed roads around Turquoise Lake near Leadville.
As of April 26, there have been 10 avalanche fatalities in Colorado — five skiers, three snowmobilers, one snowboarder and a child who died in a massive snow slide from the roof of a house.
“I think another opportunity for winter recreation is generally a good thing,” Greene says. “I would say that there’s a need for anybody that is going into avalanche terrain, regardless of what they’re doing, to include avalanche safety in their recreational plan. That includes knowing current conditions, making sure that where they’re going is appropriate for the conditions, that they can stay safe doing what they want to do and carrying rescue equipment. And that’s true regardless of if you’re snowshoeing or skiing or, or riding Timbersleds or going ice climbing.”