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September 2010

Utes Can Be Brutes

UTVs are great at tackling small ski area jobs.

Written by Peter Oliver | 0 comment

UTVs, off-road machines with side-by-side seating that are the practical, responsible big brother to ATVs, are one of the newest tools to get the attention of mountain managers. Areas are using UTVs for personnel transport, light hauling, winching, light plowing, base-area management, parking-lot maintenance, and security, among other things. That’s a lot of utility for a small vehicle.

Figuring exactly where those vehicles fit into an area’s fleet—exactly how their utility will be defined—isn’t always clear. Ski areas have only begun adopting these vehicles in the last five years or so. But, as Jay Roberts, vice-president of resort operations at Wintergreen, Va., says, “you buy one, and suddenly you find all sorts of applications where it can be used.”

Roberts describes the three UTVs that the resort has in its fleet as “Leathermen”—do-all tools with “a thousand uses” previously assigned to, among other vehicles, pick-up trucks, ATVs, and snowmobiles. UTVs can handle many of those tasks more efficiently, economically, and safely, and usually with less environmental impact. In fact, says Roberts, “a pick-up only makes sense if you need something that is street-legal.”

So, just what is a UTV? The common UTV configuration is a four-stroke, four-wheel-drive four-wheeler with side-by-side seating, a roll cage, and a small cargo bed, usually hydraulically powered for dumping. Cargo-carrying capacity typically ranges from 400 to 1,200 pounds, with the larger cargo beds typically found on two-seater models, in which the bed takes the space where rear seating might be. The leading manufacturers include Bennche, Bobcat, Club Car, John Deere, Kawasaki, Kubota, Polaris, and Yamaha. Retail prices generally range from about $7,000 (e.g., the Bennche Bighorn 500) to $12,500 (e.g., the Polaris Ranger series). From there, a wide variety of accessories is typically available, including plow blades.

Perhaps the main area where UTVs are being used at ski areas is in personnel transportation. Jim Schulz, mountain manager for Hidden Valley, Pa., uses the area’s four UTVs almost exclusively for summer work, dedicating three machines to mountain operations and one to the grounds crew. When the ski area underwent a major overhaul in the summers of 2007 and 2008, Schulz says the UTVs were essential in moving around as many as 14 crew members, working full time on replacing lifts and 25,000 feet of snowmaking pipe. Roberts agrees, calling Wintergreen’s Club Car 1550 “a huge resource, able to move six people, replacing a pick-up.”

Maine’s Sunday River, with seven Kawasaki Mules and Polaris Rangers in its fleet, has gone a step farther in the realm of people movement, using some of its machines to transport guests on summer mountain tours. According to operations manager Brent Larsen, the resort at the beginning of the summer was also looking at using UTVs to shuttle guests back to the top of its zipline.

While UTVs appear to be especially useful for non-winter operations—Schulz says he basically garages his UTVs once the area opens for skiing—other areas are converting machines for cold-weather applications once the snow flies. Brent Giles, director of operations at Park City Mountain Resort and director of environmental affairs for Powdr Corporation, especially appreciates the resort’s Polaris Ranger in parking-lot plowing and maintenance, as it is able to get around and between parked cars—where larger plows can’t go. The uses of UTVs just seem to keep expanding.

That said, few mountain managers are eager to use UTVs for the type of on-mountain, on-snow applications typically assigned to snowmobiles. Ground clearances range from between about six to 12 inches, so they are not ideally suited for traveling in deeper snow. And while after-market retrofit kits are available to mount tracks for on-snow use, not many ski areas appear to be going in that direction. In addition to the expense of the tracks—several thousand dollars—they can put extra stress on the engine. Schulz says Hidden Valley experimented with tracks, but found that “redlining” with tracks led to a variety of mechanical failures.

So what are some of the features that make UTVs particularly appealing to ski-area managers? Maneuverability, for one. Kawasaki’s Mule models feature a turn radius of as little as 11.2 feet; Yamaha’s Rhino 700 comes in with a turn radius of 153.5 inches. Those are numbers a pick-up can’t possibly match. In addition, according to Donna Beadle, spokesperson for Polaris, the Versa Trac feature available on many of its 4x4 Ranger models allows the machine to essentially pivot on a locked, inside wheel, tightening the turn radius while minimizing the environmental impact of tire-to-ground interaction. Beadle notes that she has “rock-crawled in Utah” with a Ranger, so there may be an enhanced ability to get to places that other vehicles, especially pick-ups, can’t go.

Another feature of UTVs that both ski-area operators and manufacturers point to is safety, especially when compared with single-seater ATVs. Side-by-side seating tends to provide more stability than the front-and-back seating on an ATV, and stability is increased by a wider axle base. Kawasaki’s Mule 4010 4x4, for example, is 62 inches wide, roughly a foot wider than a typical ATV configuration.

Roll cages and seat belts provide an extra safety net in the unlikely event of a rollover. In addition, the sight lines in a UTV are better than in a larger vehicle like a pick-up, especially when operating in tight spaces, decreasing the possibility of collisions with light poles, curbs, other vehicles, people, and just about anything else.

Finally, both economic and environmental bonuses can be factored into the equation. Giles, for example, is running a Polaris Ranger six-wheeler with an electric engine at Park City, not only maximizing fuel economy but also minimizing the noise factor of a gas- or diesel-powered engine. That’s an especially useful bonus, says Giles, when operating in environments (e.g., lodging, food and beverage) where guest interaction is high. Giles says he gets roughly 50 miles on a single charge. Even gas- or diesel-powered UTVs, however, are far more fuel-efficient than pick-ups.

If ever there was a test of the utility of utility vehicles in a snowsports environment, it was at the 2010 Winter Olympics, where, according to Dan Muramoto, UTV product manager for Kubota, 100 vehicles from Kubota’s RTV series were put into service. One machine alone logged 400 hours.

Says Muramoto: “The typical customer comment is, ‘I didn’t know how much I needed one till I got one.’” That sentiment is echoed by ski-area operators who favor the use of UTVs. “Every time we get a chance to use something more efficient and environmentally friendly, we’ll do it,” says Giles, and the UTVs in Park City’s fleet have produced a variety of opportunities. Giles says other UTVs will be put into service at other Powdr resorts.

UTVs combine a broad range of utility with safety, efficiency, economy and a decreased environmental footprint. When the benefits of UTVs are compared to other vehicles in a ski area’s fleet in performing a variety of tasks, the rationale for putting them to work becomes increasingly clear.


1) Arctic Cat

2) Bennche

3) Bobcat

4) Club Car

5) Honda

6) John Deere

7) Kawasaki

8) Kubota

9) Polaris

10) Yamaha