Snowmobile etiquette every sledder should know

man snowmobiling in cottage country Photo by Body Stock/Shutterstock

This year was the first time I hopped onto a sled as both a passenger (and a driver, with my partner taking the backseat now and then. Not his favourite but hey, I have to get the hang of it until I get my own). The feeling of going even 50 km/h (the posted speed limit for most trails and areas) is quite the rush compared to driving a car at the same velocity. The sensation of zipping along as the chilly air whips by, surrounded by all aspects of nature is truly wonderful. The scenery is remarkable: it’s like exploring within a snow globe.

Being a new sled owner and rider comes with learning safety and etiquette, things, which experienced snowmobilers, must also continue to practice. “The OFSC website is probably the best starting point for anybody to learn about snowmobiling. There are a lot of great resources there,” says Larry Horton, president of the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Club’s (OFSC) Hill and Gully Riders Club. Collectively the OFSC creates and maintains over 30,000 kilometers of the superb trails, loops, and passages. 

Don’t over-drive the machine he cautions. Instead, drive to your own comfort level. “When I used to run tours, the biggest issues were the newbies thinking they knew what they were doing on their first time out. It takes a while to get the feel of a snow machine,” he states. “It’s not a case of just get on it and go. I recommend people take their time, get the feel for it — just as I do on any new sled.” 

Getting an understanding of how it goes into a corner and positioning on the seat is very important. “Take your time. It’s not a competition out there. Some people treat it that way, some people drive like it is, but really you’re out there to enjoy it,” Horton says. We spend enough time speeding along those 400 series highways, there’s no need to jet from Port Sydney to Baysville in 15 minutes when says it should take a more leisurely 30 to 45 minutes. 

It’s an off road experience, he reminds. “You don’t know what you’re driving over out there. Sometimes you’ll come across open water, and trees fall down all the time. We found that out the other day. The groomer had been through and no sooner a tree fell down. It was a fresh-groomed trail and we were the first ones on it. You have to be aware of your surroundings and be able to stop when need be. Sleds don’t stop on a dime — pay attention.” 

Trails are based on the same premise as our roadways here in North America: stay to the right. Use caution when steering into a blind corner, up steep hills and through tunnels. Be mindful at all intersections, railways and other trails. Slow down, obey marked stop signs and don’t follow too closely behind the guy in front of you. Nobody wants a face full of powder (or ice), nor do they want to be rear-ended. 

Unless you’re on your own property or have explicit permission from a landowner, ride only on groomed, designated trails. Don’t disrespect landowners who generously offer the use of their property for your enjoyment. “People have a tendency nowadays to think they can go riding off trail,” notes Horton. He’s well aware of this since he’s often the guy that has to go out and place extra stakes along the trail because one rider chose to do figure eights in a farmer’s field. You could be potentially ruining a crop of winter wheat or who knows what. “Just stay on the trail. You don’t have to go looking for powder on somebody’s private property,” he advises. 

Noise has always been a concern. Those modified exhausts that some riders think are cool are actually illegal, that is unless you’re in the racing circuit. Don’t install them in the first place. That way you won’t be drawing extra attention to yourself or frustrate the locals who live nearby.

Be mindful around other people, other machines — and any chance encounters with wildlife. Slow down when passing a parked snowmobile or a group of people. If someone’s pulled over to the side of the trail due to a breakdown, it’s OK to be Samaritan-like and offer help. Just remember to pull over to the right-hand side as far as possible and turn off your machine while you’re assisting them.

With a bit of research, familiarization, taking some quizzes, using caution, along with dressing warmly, and kitting up with a few snacks and water or thermos of something hot to enjoy, you’ll become a more confident driver and enjoy the sport as it was meant to be.

Know your hand signals

You’ll regularly see passing sledders’ hand signals on the trails and they’re vital to understand and use. They were standardized and approved in 1997 by the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations, the American Council of Snowmobile Organizations and the International Snowmobile Council for increased safety and consistency. 

Rules of the “Road”

Check out the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s for more sledding dos and don’ts. You can also view some snowmobile safety videos courtesy of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Did you know

French-Canadian Joseph-Armand Bombardier invented the first “snow machine” in 1922 when he was 15 years old. His father gave him an old Model “T” Ford; he took out the motor and put it on a frame similar to a four-passenger sleigh. With the addition of a wooden airplane propeller and four sleigh runners, he was gliding through the main street of his village. On June 29, 1937, he was granted his first patent. Today, Ski-Doo is the brand name snowmobile manufactured by Bombardier Recreational Products. The iconic Canadian brand was listed 17th on the list of CBC’s 2007 Greatest Canadian Invention list.


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