Snowmobile Safety: Safe Riders Keep It Fun
Caution, courtesy and common sense help keep public trails open and sledders safe.
Snowmobiling can be an exhilarating activity. Exploring the expansive woods of New England, the winding trails of the Midwest or the deep powder of the wild Rocky Mountains is a fun pastime enjoyed by tens of thousands of sledders. Like any motorsport, riding a snowmobile requires a level of responsibility and respect to keep everyone out on the snow safe. A real “sled-head” rides with awareness. Here are some basic snowmobile safety tips every rider should know and practice.
Take a Snowmobile Safety Course
Most provinces and states offer snowmobile operator safety-training programs, and certification of training may be mandatory for youths and many adult snowmobilers. These courses may be taught on-line or include classroom instruction and sometimes field instruction. The courses cover maintenance and machine operation, proper riding positions, proper clothing, environmental awareness, courtesy and common sense. Completing a course can be valuable for any rider but can be essential for first-time riders. Snowmobileinfo.org offers a directory of safety classes, or check with your local snowmobile association, club or state agency.
Stay On Marked Trails
Local snowmobile clubs and government agencies have provided safe snowmobile trails that pass over private and public lands. Leaving that marked trail, even just to cut a corner, is trespassing. It is vitally important to respect the fact that private property owners have given permission for snowmobile trails through their property.
“Riding off the trail continues to be a major issue and is risking club’s trail access,” said Dave Newman, president of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs. “Every year thousands of generous landowners give clubs permission to place a trail across their property. To ride outside of the marked trail is illegal. Unless you are riding on a body of frozen water, or on your own property, or have permission from the property owner, there really isn’t any legal way to operate off-trail.”
When you ride off the trail you also risk an accident involving hidden objects under the snow such as tree stumps or rocks, powerline guy wires, fencing, unsafe water crossings, and other hazards. You may also cause damage to crops below the snow, such as winter wheat or small tree plantings. Some portions of public lands are often closed to motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles. Disregarding these closures is illegal and can damage the image of snowmobiling, ultimately resulting in the loss of access to public lands.
Use Caution at Road and Railroad Crossings
Always come to a complete stop at all posted stop signs, as well as whenever you cross a road at unmarked road crossings. Cross with care and assume a standing position so you can see and be seen by vehicles on the road. When operating in a road ditch, beware that there could be many potential hazards, particularly if the road ditch is not a designated or groomed snowmobile trail. Railroad right-of-way is private property which is almost always closed to snowmobilers unless it has been designated as part of an official snowmobile trail system. Never ride down the tracks as your snowmobile can become trapped between the rails and unable to exit if a train appears.
Watch Your Speed
Speed is a contributing factor in nearly all fatal snowmobiling accidents. Always ride at a pace that will allow ample reaction time for any emergency situation, especially at night, and in foggy or snowy conditions.
Careless or reckless operation is another leading cause of snowmobile crashes. Avoid these careless riding habits:
- Failing to obey signs and regulations
- Riding on the wrong side of the trail
- Hugging the inside corners on curves
- Approaching blind hills at excessive speeds
- Passing on corners and blind hills
- Following other snowmobiles too closely
- Excessive speed near non-motorized trail users, ice fishermen, parking areas, buildings, livestock, or wildlife
Beware on Ice
Drowning is a leading cause of snowmobiling fatalities. Never venture onto lakes or rivers unless you are absolutely certain of a safe route across the frozen surface, since ice thickness to support a snowmobile can never be guaranteed. Never trust the judgment of other snowmobilers by simply following their snowmobile tracks across ice. If you ride on ice often, consider wearing a buoyant floatation snowmobile suit, and wear a set of commercial ice picks threaded through the sleeves of your jacket, which can assist you in pulling out of the water.
Use Extra Caution at Night
When riding at night it’s easy to “overdrive” a snowmobile headlight, which may only illuminate about 200 feet in front of your sled – if you are travelling too fast you may not have time to react when a turn in the trail or a hazard pops up in the headlight beam. Many trail systems have a 45 mph speed limit at night. Always observe that limit.
Because snowmobile trails and back-country riding can often take sledders into remote areas, rider should always plan ahead and carry a full complement of gear.
- Plan a route that considers the skills of every rider in the group, and also snowmobile fuel range.
- Never ride alone. Stick with a group, or have a buddy in a large group that will always stay with you.
- File a flight plan – share your route and expected time of return with someone at home.
- Check fuel and oil level before your depart, and keep your machine well-maintained to avoid break-downs. Packing a quart of Quicksilver Full Synthetic Snowmobile Oil could save the group ride because it has been formulated to work in all brands of snowmobiles, in air- or liquid-cooled engines, and in oil-injected or pre-mix applications.
- Dress appropriately in layers that will keep you dry and warm. Shed layers before you become overheated. Pack along extra gloves, a warm cap, and spare goggles. And always wear an approved helmet.
- Carry safety gear: Map, compass, first aid kit, matches and candle for fire starting, a flashlight and extra batteries, basic tools, and a spare ignition key.
- Fully charge you cell phone before departing, and keep it in a warm pocket. Turn the phone off or set to airplane mode when riding to preserve the battery. Remember that you can’t count on cell service in many remote areas.
“Have fun on your run, don’t drink ‘til you’re done.”
No amount of alcohol consumption should be considered safe or acceptable when operating a snowmobile. Alcohol affects vision, balance and coordination, and reaction time. Since alcohol use also lowers body temperature its use in a severe winter setting is a deadly combination. Impairment starts with the first drink, so avoiding it totally is the only safe choice when riding.
If you plan to snowmobile in avalanche country, it is important to understand the potential dangers as well as the basics of avalanche safety. Many snowmobilers venture into the backcountry untrained and unequipped to rescue someone buried by an avalanche. Take an avalanche training course to learn the signs of danger, how to interpret an avalanche forecast, and how to effectively conduct a rescue. Ensure everyone has an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe on their person and knows how to use them. Never ride in the backcountry with sledders who don’t take avalanche safety seriously, or who are untrained in rescue techniques. Find avalanche information and educational training classes at Avalanche.org.