As a lifelong “mountain guy,” I tend to scoff at the mention of “a fresh way to explore the backcountry.” The last thing the outdoor rec industry needs is another motor on the trail systems or a “new” way to snowboard (I like using bindings, thank you very much, and you’ll never catch me on a monoski.) In winter I hold a firm line that one should almost always stick to the skin track when not taking the lift.
But what if there were a compromise? A way to move more efficiently across hills blanketed in white without strapping on skins, burning fossil fuels, or radiating a loud and incessantly annoying “brap, brap!” across the peaks?
French company MoonBike aims to offer just that. Launched in 2019 by the French aeronautical engineer and adventurer Nicolas Muron, MoonBike debuted first in the French Alps, with its US headquarters now open in Boulder, Colorado. With an electric drivetrain, a single mini-ski in front, and a track in place of wheels, it rides like a cross between a burly electric mountain bike and a snowmobile, borrowing the tech-forward efficiency of the former and the full-throttled power of the latter.
The MoonBike is far more conscientious than either, however – you’ll never hear the startling revs of an engine or sense it sniffing up your heels as you ascend a switchback. Rather, the electric snow bike is lighter and easier to ride than a snowmobile (and only ⅓ its size), with the benefit of zero emissions. The result is a people- and planet-friendly method for non-foot-powered winter exploration in the backcountry.
This device is a functional, albeit pricey, solution for those dust-on-crust days when your powder board is overkill and the lift lines are long. It performs best in shallow powder, where it’s able to zip through gullies and climb hills with ease. Rather than pedaling, your feet and legs serve as guide-bearers assisting the handlebars in steering the bike in the direction you want it to go. In that sense, MoonBikes drive like a speedboat – you can fishtail like a maniac or swoop gracefully around a turn, holding an edge while taking in a 360-degree view of the peaks surrounding you.
However, the MoonBike isn’t just for pleasure riding. The company notes that over 40 European and American ski resorts and recreation-centric businesses now use these bikes as winter transportation and recreation tools for guests. It’s easy to see why the device caught on so quickly overseas–weighing in at 182 pounds including the battery and only 88 inches long, it can fit into a trailer or the bed of a pickup truck. Its double-battery pack can handle up to three hours (or about 22 miles) of use before requiring a recharge, with a top speed of 26 miles per hour.
How Does the MoonBike Ride?
I tested a MoonBike in Colorado’s Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, an alpine zone I’ve become familiar with on a splitboard but had never explored otherwise. At first, I struggled to maintain composure due to the rapid-fire torque of its electric engine and the somewhat awkward lack of moveable pedals—a new experience for a guy who commutes regularly by bicycle. “When turning, take your feet off the planks and let them guide you, using your body weight to lean into the turn,” a rep from MoonBikes told me. I imagined this to be similar to riding a jet ski, which I’d done a single time over the decade prior. I watched him gun it toward an open field of snow in front of us and rip around a berm on the backside of it like a surfer cutting back across a wave before reversing course and heading back toward me.
My attempt at the same didn’t go as planned. I zoomed across the gulley but then lodged the bike in a deep pocket of snow adjacent to a tree well. Fortunately, the bike’s lightweight and easy maneuverability meant I didn’t have to spend time digging it out (another win over a snowmobile). By packing some snow under the track with my foot I was able to rev the engine and pull the bike out of the snow, then hop back on and ride off. Our group of six whipped around the gulley and a few surrounding snowfields, slowly gaining our footing with the turns and varying firmness of the snow.
After 20 minutes I felt increasingly confident in my ability to turn at a decent speed and handle the powder without sinking in. This, I was told, is part of the MoonBike’s appeal: it boasts a learning curve that allows riders to steadily ramp up the difficulties of their ride as their comfort level on the bike increases. I wasn’t supposed to be an expert my first time out.
My favorite part of the ride happened when we rode a snowmobile track over a few small bumps. Here, I was able to get a small amount of lift, at least enough that the ski at the front of the bike momentarily left the ground. In front of our group of mostly first-timers, I felt a bit like Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite, when just a minuscule amount of air impressed his novice best friend.
The final challenge of our session was an attempt at straight-lining it up a small hill en route back to the parking lot. Again, I watched our guide execute the maneuver perfectly, and again, I failed, losing momentum halfway up and having to make a sharp right turn to head down before losing my balance and falling over. It took me two more tries, but I eventually made it up.
Two things stuck with me about my MoonBike experience. First, its electric powertrain fits in line with my forward-thinking adventure mantra on the sustainability front. Second, I appreciate how riding this bike brought together skills from many different outdoor activities, ranging from bike riding to boating, and jet skiing to snow skiing. It’s fitting that the company is making inroads across the snowsports industry, as the potential for such a massive shakeup in the established order likely hasn’t happened since the snowboard landed at Stratton Mountain in 1983.
These bikes are no substitute for the pure bliss that accompanies a powder day on a snowboard or skis, but that isn’t the intention. Rather, this is a new manner of winter travel and exploration, one that can complement your downhill pursuits by assisting with the ascent, such as when riding a MoonBike to reach a backcountry hut and then touring from there. Or, it can be the day’s primary activity, eliminating the need for steep peaks altogether.