Snowmobile Safety

Snowmobiles are similar to other powersport vehicles but the riding environment is different. 

Snowmobile Safety Tips and Overview

Are you new to snowmobiling and hoping it’ll be just like jumping on a motorcycle or ATV?  There are some similarities between the machines, but the environment is a big difference.  Yes, you can ride an ATV in the snow or on ice, but it does not perform like a snowmobile and it is not recommended for those conditions. 

What do you wear when riding a snowmobile?

Riding a snowmobile, just like riding a motorcycle or ATV should be done safely and with protection. Recommended safety equipment should be worn like a DOT approved helmet, gloves, and wind protection.  Due to cold conditions, a snowmobile rider will need to be protected from the elements. Riding a snowmobile should include:

  • DOT approved helmet (Full face type protects from the wind chill)
  • Balaclava or neck warmer
  • Good base layer (moisture wicking)
  • Windproof jacket (with armor is recommended)
  • Thick socks
  • Rugged boots
  • Windproof pants or overalls
  • Windproof gloves
  • (Optional) Electric clothes work well in cold weather too

What are the different components of a snowmobile?

Now that we’ve covered the proper gear, let’s go over a short orientation on the different components of a snowmobile.  This is a general overview that may not include all makes and models, but will cover MOST types and how they are ridden.

A snowmobile has a small dashboard displaying speed and other engine information.  The ignition switch to start the engine can typically be found there.  Some snowmobiles may not have electric start and below the dashboard is a pull handle to pull start the engine.

The handlebars include a thumb throttle on the right side, with a brake lever on the left side.  Headlights, signals and grip warmer controls may also be positioned on the handlebars. Most snowmobiles do not have manually operated clutches or gear changing. Snowmobiles are usually powered by a CVT style transmission that offers no gear changing and an easy take off.

The seat is similar to a motorcycle or ATV and can be positioned for two people (the driver and passenger). Some setups have heated seats for the comfort of the rider and passenger. When riding on a snowmobile, feet are generally positioned forward and on a floor board set up.  Since snowmobiles are not balancing or very easy to tip, there is no reason for the rider to put their feet down in the snow.  Feet should never be around the drive belt, as it can be very dangerous.  Snowmobiles are generally equipped with lights.  A headlight and brake light help with poor visibility in snowing conditions. 

The drive belt can be studded (small protruding screws) or non-studded.  Studded belts allow for more traction, but are very dangerous to have any appendage near. The belt should never be touched while the engine is on.  A mudflap will usually be located behind the belt to keep the snow down behind the machine.  The skis in front of the machine are attached to the front suspension.  Skis can be replaced when they are worn past their manufacturer specifications. 

How do I operate a snowmobile?

A snowmobile safety course is highly recommended. 

Once a snowmobile is in operating condition (engine warmed, and the rider is prepped), it’s time to go for a ride.  The engine will slowly accelerate as long as the throttle is applied gradually.  A sweet spot will be felt when the vehicle begins to move at a certain engine rotation. The front skis of a snowmobile tend to follow ruts and tracks in the road.  It is very important to hold the handlebars tightly.  When turning, emphasize push and pull with the left side handlebar.  With the throttle being on the right side, pushing the handlebar when turning left may cause the throttle to be applied and the vehicle to take a dangerous turn.  Be aware of the right-hand throttle and steer more with the left hand.  Apply the brake if a turn or speed is becoming uncontrollable. Leaning is involved with turning, but more or so to keep the center of balance controlled. Tipping a snowmobile can cause serious harm or pin the rider down.  

When riding in groups, always leave enough space in front of the machine for an emergency stop. The skis of the machine may follow the path of the rider in front of you, just be aware of the trail.  Hand signals work great to communicate with other riders.  Intercoms can also be used if available.  If a trail becomes very narrow or one side is dangerous, you may have to forcibly push the skis in the opposite direction. 

Trees, dangerous snow banks, cliffs and ditches will be the biggest obstacles on a snowmobile.  Low hanging branches and broken tree limbs are just some of the hazards on a trail.  Riding across frozen lakes is also a dangerous risk.  Try to assess the landscape before taking an unnecessary risk. This is especially important when riding with a passenger. Powder conditions and snow depth may also add challenges to the ride.

Can you ride a snowmobile on public roads?

In most states, you can ride across streets to get from trail to trail or on private land, but riding on public roads is generally prohibited. There are some states that do allow use on public roads. 

  • In Florida, snowmobiles can ride on some permitted streets. 
  • Idaho allows snowmobiles on most public roads. 
  • In Iowa, a snowmobile can be ridden on public roads that haven’t been plowed yet. 
  • Kansas allows snowmobiles on some public roads. 
  • In Maine,  operation of a snowmobile is permitted on unplowed public roads, and on plowed roads, as long as the operator stays to the right side.
  • Michigan allows snowmobiles on unplowed public roads.
  • Montana allows snowmobiles on unplowed roads that are inoperable by regular automobiles. 
  • In Nebraska, snowmobiles with headlights, tail lights and reflector material are permitted on public roads.
  • In New York, some local municipalities may allow street use of snowmobiles. 
  • Oklahoma allows street use of snowmobiles in certain circumstances such as roads under 25 mph. 
  • Pennsylvania allows snowmobiles on public roads when a state of emergency is declared. 
  • South Dakota allows snowmobiles on unplowed public roads . 
  • In Tennessee, snowmobiles with headlights, tail lights and reflective material are permitted on public roads
  • Snowmobiles are street legal in Wyoming. 

Before riding a snowmobile, it is always recommended to research the license, registration, insurance and usage requirements in the state. Be safe and have fun!

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