Snowmobile safety: Things to know before you go

Lifesaving tips for one of Michigan’s most popular winter sports.

Even during the coldest winters ice thickness can be unpredictable. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

Even during the coldest winters ice thickness can be unpredictable. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

With more than 6,200 snowmobile trails it’s easy to understand why Michigan is a top destination for this cold weather pastime. However, like any outdoor adventure sport, snowmobiling comes with risks. Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant encourage drivers and riders to keep safety in mind at all times but especially if venturing onto ice-covered streams and lakes. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Law Enforcement Division, in the winter of 2014 to 2015 there were fifteen snowmobile related deaths in Michigan. Understanding the risks and taking a couple of simple steps can help you stay safe this snowmobiling season. All of these safety tips can be explored in more detail using the Michigan DNR approved snowmobile safety course.

  • Never drink and ride. A quick reaction time, ability to respond to unexpected obstacles and careful attention to your surroundings are key while snowmobiling. Even a small amount of alcohol will impact perception and reaction time. Alcohol also lowers your core body temperature increasing the risk of hypothermia.
  • Slow down. Most snowmobile causalities are associated with riders traveling at high speeds. It is important to maintain a speed that allows you to react quickly to unexpected obstacles especially at night
  • Ride with a friend. Riding alone increases your risk of being injured in a remote area and unable to access help.
  • Use a helmet and protective face gear to avoid injury from flying rocks, twigs and ice.
  • Choose your clothing carefully. Use waterproof layers and make sure not to leave any loose ends that might catch in moving parts of the machine.

Snowmobiling on ice is much more dangerous and extremely unpredictable. The best approach is to stay off ice entirely. Remember the safety motto “No ice is safe ice.” Especially on large bodies of water like Lake Huron or Saginaw Bay changes in wind, waves and currents can rapidly destabilize or breakup ice turning even the “safest” ice dangerous very quickly.

 If you do decide to venture onto the ice it is important to take additional safety precautions. Some measures recommended by a consortium of snowmobiling associations include:

  • Carefully evaluate the ice. New clear hard ice is the safest. Ice should be at least five inches thick for snowmobiling. Always remember that ice is rarely uniform in thickness and ice over running water is especially unpredictable. Even thick ice can be weak if it is “rotten”—meaning it has frozen and thawed repeatedly, building up thin layers of water within the ice. Snow on top of ice does not make it stronger but rather acts as an insulator warming and weakening ice. Pressure ridges in the ice due to the movement of currents and wind can also make ice unstable.
  • Stay off the ice during spring thaw. In late winter and early spring ice thaws rapidly. Ice that was safe one day may be at the breaking point the next.
  • Wear a buoyant snowmobile suit to provide extra insulation against icy water and help you float to the surface if you fall in.
  • Take navigation instruments with you such as a GPS or a compass if you are going to be traveling on a larger body of water. It can be easy to get disoriented and start moving towards open water rather than land.
  • Bring small ice picks and a rope to help aid in pulling yourself or a friend out of the water. Keep the ice picks in an easily accessible place.
  • Use extra caution and slower speeds. Remember it is more difficult to stop and maneuver a snowmobile on ice than on land

If you do fall through the ice:

  • Remain calm. Your body’s initial response when exposed to frigid water is shock including increased heart and breathing rates. It’s important to resist your first instinct to gasp or inhale water.
  • Face the direction you came from. That ice was strong enough to support you and trying to pull yourself out in another direction may put you on weaker ice.
  • Don’t try to pull yourself up vertically, instead position your body horizontal to the ice, kick your legs and use your arms and upper body to shimmy forward on the ice. Try to distribute your body weight over as large an area as possible. If you have ice picks, keys, a knife or another sharp object use it to help you gain traction on the ice.
  • Once you are out of the water roll away from the hole do not stand up until you are certain you are once again on solid ice.
  • Keep moving and find shelter immediately. Hypothermia is still a serious concern. It is important to get warm and dry as soon as possible.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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