There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of zipping full throttle on a snowmobile across a frozen lake. And as fresh powder settles onto the deep woods and fields of Canada, snowmobilers across the country are starting to feel a twitch in their fingers as they eye the dusty throttles of their stored machines. But it’s easy to forget that just because someone like B.C. native Brett Turcotte can side-saddle his way through the air to an X Games gold medal, doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Sitting astride a 500-pound assemblage of blades, belts, and gears, we often forget just how powerful snowmobiles are. So, before you head out on your first run and attempt that kiss-of-death backflip, you may want to check out these five snowmobiling safety tips.
1. Keep your machine in top shape
The last thing you want to hear mid-ride, far from home is the rattling wheeze of your snowmobile’s engine as your gas needle drops to empty. “Make sure your sled’s properly filled,” says Dennis Burns, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations (CCSO). “You don’t want to scoot out and run out of gas.” Burns also stresses that before you even start your machine, you should make sure the throttle is free. “You don’t start your machine and then check to see if the throttles free because if it’s icy, and the throttle sticks, your machine launches and it’s gone. There’s no way to stop it.” It’s a good idea to give your machine a once over before heading out for a ride, checking the wear and tear, and gas and oil levels. For a good guide on snowmobile maintenance, check the owner’s manual that comes with the machine.
2. Follow the Rules
Before heading out, you should make sure you’re complying with your province’s snowmobile rules and regulations, which can be found with natural resources and law enforcement agencies, snowmobile dealers, or local clubs. Depending on where you’re riding, there are restrictions on the age limits of drivers and may require an official driver’s license. There may also be areas that snowmobilers are not allowed to enter.
3. Be Prepared
The idea of throwing on your shades and a denim jacket to shred trails might sound cool, but if your snowmobile breaks down and your forced to walk home, that winter wind will blow right through you. “Going outside, first thing you have to do is check the temperature,” Burns says. “How cold is it? You have to dress appropriately.” This includes layering your clothing with a windproof external shell, as well as a certified helmet and eye protection against the glare from the sun. You should also check the conditions of the trails, and let someone know when and where you’re going. Can’t hurt to bring along a friend either. Otherwise you might be spending the night camping alone in the woods. And as Burns says: “A brand new, beautiful, wintry day where you go for a snowmobile ride is a beautiful thing, but try and start a fire on that same day. It’s a handful.”
4. Beware of Water
As mentioned before, there’s nothing quite like opening the throttle across a frozen lake. No trees, no turns, just uninhibited landscape. But it’s important to know whether the ice can support your machine. “Most people get really eager to go for a ride like right now, and the problem with going for a ride right now is the ice is never good this time of year,” Burns says. “Even if it is frozen, it’s never good ice. The difference between ice in December versus ice in March is March it’s usually three feet thick.” Burns also advises being careful in the backcountry as swamps and marshes can become insulated by early snowfall, not allowing them to fully freeze, leaving the ground beneath the snow murky and wet.
5. Take care of the trails
Getting out on your machine is as much about experiencing the outdoors as it is about the experience of driving. In order for everyone to enjoy their ride, you must respect the trails and surrounding wildlife. This means not running over vegetation or harassing animals. It also, once again, means being patient before going out for your first ride. You want to wait until the ground is frozen and the trails are covered in a few feet of snow. “If you go out too early, the ground’s not really frozen and when you cut through the snow with a good pair of carbides, you’re actually cutting into the soft gravel,” Burns says. “That just means when you turn it doesn’t skid or do anything. It just cuts in. It makes steering harder.” Burns also says that without enough snow, your chances of hitting a rock or stump greatly increase.
Snowmobiling is a great winter activity, but in order to keep it safe for everyone you need to abide by the rules. If you’re looking for more safety tips, check out the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations website.