Photo of a Polaris snowmobile

It’s Snowing….Time to Hit the Trails!

Many of my readers have read the post titled “The Top Ten Winter Things to do in Wisconsin’s Northwoods”, enjoyed it, and have asked for more detail on those subjects. That prompted me to write this post on snowmobiling.

There’s a  “Snowmobile Photo Gallery” that goes with this post. It will open in a new window so you can click back and forth between this post and the gallery.

Wisconsin “rednecks” call snowmobiling “sledding” and snowmobiles are called “sleds” for short. I will use that terminology. But please don’t confuse a sled with the things that children use to slide down hills of snow.

Initially, sledding is an expensive sport; but well worth the expense. It’s an exhilarating winter experience to be racing through the woods on the trails at 50 mph or across a frozen lake at close to 90 mph with snow flying everywhere. What better recreation in winter when in the Northwoods?

The expense:

Mandatory

Item

Approximate

Cost

MandatoryItem

Approximate

Cost

One new 2-up 600cc trail-rated snowmobile $11,000 One gallon injector oil $50
Studs installed in snowmobile track $200 One tank (12 gal.) premium gas $40
Modular helmet $700 Snowmobile-mounted trail map bag $15
Balaclava $15 Heavy-duty mag flashlight $15-$25
Heated face shield for helmet attachment $85 Insulated boots $90-$150
Snowmobile jacket/coat $50-$160 Insulated socks $15-$25
Insulated snow bibs $50-$100 Insulated snowmobile gloves $25-$50

Maintenance

Item

Approximate

Cost

Maintenance

Item

Approximate

Cost

Extra clutch belt included with sled Extra spark plug set pre-gapped included with sled
Snowmobile tool kit included with sled Extra starting battery $90
Extra carbide set $60-$100 Extra quart of injector oil on-board the sled $10-$15
One gallon anti-freeze $15 Trail maps, one per county where you intend to sled Free – $1.00

** all pricing was obtained from Dennis Kirk – quality snowmobile gear, but expensive

Now you are ready to hit the trails. So let’s do that.

Put all the paraphernalia to keep you warm on, except the helmet. Mount the sled and bounce on it a few times to insure that the track is not frozen into the ice and snow. Sleds have a centrifugal clutch. So if you throttle it while your track is stuck in the ice, you’ll damage the clutch belt.

Engage the choke and turn the key to start the sled while holding the throttle all the way down. You were smart enough to order electric start on your sled in place of a rope pull-start. Right? Once the motor comes to life, goose it gently a few times until the engine runs smoothly. Turn the choke off. Do not throttle it too much or the clutch will engage and the sled will start moving.  Once the engine is running smoothly, put your helmet on, plug the heated face shield into the dashboard outlet and goose the throttle a couple of times until the sled starts moving. Then throttle according to how fast you want to go. Be careful. Sleds are designed for speed.

There are two types of snowmobiling fans. Those who love speed, and those who love cruising down trails in order to see country that they otherwise would never see. Snowmobile trails wind up, down, around, and through woods. They access places that you would never walk to. So enjoy the wildlife and scenery. You’ll cross frozen swamps, streams, and lakes. The trail will be well marked by the local snowmobile club. And at each intersection of two or more trails, you’ll find signs pointing you to different places and advising you how many miles you must travel to get there. You’ll also see caution signs for hazards on the trail.

What about those who love speed on sleds? It’s hard not to love speed. Snowmobiles are powerful machines capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph. But don’t test out your speed skills in the woods or you will wind up hitting a tree or flying off the trail. If you encounter “speeders” on the trail, it’s a good idea to get as far right as possible or even stop and pull over until they go by. You’ll know how fast on-comers are moving by the sound of their engines off in the distance. Snowmobile accidents can be very ugly. There are always a few deaths on the trail every year.

Snowmobile fans who love speed generally confine themselves to lakes, rail grades that have been converted into trails, and roads that support an adjacent snowmobile trail. These fans are not much interested in scenery. They want to get somewhere fast; like the next gas station, pub, or eatery.

Trails will likely be packed and groomed by the local snowmobile club so you can expect a smooth ride. You’ll cross highways when on the trails, so be careful. Also, be courteous to other snowmobilers. Snowmobilers are like a social network. They love to chat with other sledders on the trail. You’ll meet new people on the trail who are positive, up-beat, and having fun just like you are. If someone needs help getting out of deep snow or can’t get their sled started, stop and help them. You’ll have a friend for life.

A stranded snowmobiler’s life may be at risk. Trails traverse remote areas. Never venture into these areas alone. If your sled has issues, you will have to abandon it and walk out. If you are alone and no one else is on the trail, there will be no one to help you. Take a cell phone with you when you go sledding. But don’t expect the best reception.

Anyone who is stranded on the trail needs assistance. They are usually having trouble with their snowmobile. The only alternative is to abandon the sled and risk hypothermia if they have to walk out; unless someone stops and gives them a ride to safety on their sled.  So, always check to see if someone with a parked snowmobile needs help.

Snowmobilers have rules that they follow, just like those who drive automobiles. Stay to the right on the trail. Snowmobiles have headlights with brights, turn signals, brakes, a horn, and tail lights. Use them as if you were driving a car. Dim your lights for on-coming traffic. Signal if you are making a 90 degree turn. Let go of the throttle or use the brakes to slow the sled down. If you are having trouble, use the horn to let others know. Turning your headlights off and on is also a signal that you are in trouble.

When you meet oncoming snowmobile traffic on the trail, use hand signals for safety. A raised fist (zero) means there is not another snowmobile behind you. If you raise one finger, it means to the on-comer that there is one sled behind you and so on.

Your trail map is in an attached map bag in front of you on the seat with a clear plastic face. Keep track of where you are at. If it’s night, you have your mag light to read the map in the dark. It’s not a bad idea to keep a compass in your pocket to use in conjunction with the map.

Every county has a different trail map. So you will need to stop and change maps when you cross county lines. If you get lost, stop an oncoming snowmobiler and ask for directions. Everyone on the trails is always glad to help and have the chance to chat with a fellow snowmobiler.

In Wisconsin, drinking while snowmobiling has been an issue. Bar-hopping is a favorite pastime while sledding on weekends or nights. I do it. Fortunately, you will rarely encounter a warden on the trail. But they are there. You just have to be smart enough to know when you are drinking too much. Hitting a tree at high speed and injuring yourself, or worse, is not worth everything you have put into enjoying the sport.

So where is snowmobiling popular? Where can you go? In the Mid-west, the most popular areas are areas of the State north of Minocqua. This is the “snow belt” which has the heaviest snowfall due to the influence of Lake Superior and “lake effect” snow. Ironwood/Hurley, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Northern Michigan, and Northern Minnesota are all popular and have extensive trails. Trail maps can usually be acquired at any gas station or pub.

In the West, areas along the Rocky Mountains are good as well as states like Idaho and Montana. Use the weather service and on-line trail reports to find the best conditions and trails.

It’s time to address one myth about snowmobiles. Snowmobiles CANNOT go anywhere there is snow.  When I first started snowmobiling, I thought they could. So I was always anxious to venture off the trail. DON’T DO IT. If a sled gets buried in snow that is too deep, it will take several people and as much as a day to physically man-handle that sled back onto the trail. I’ve done it. But I won’t do it again. It’s a miserable job. Sweat invites hypothermia. And you’ll sweat plenty when trying to get a 1200 pound snowmobile back on the trail.

Trail sleds come with a track that has one inch to one and a half inch paddles. Paddles this size will not get you through six inches of powdered snow. Trails are packed and groomed. Trail sleds belong on trails; not in deep powder.

Rocky Mountain sleds come with 2-3 inch paddles. These are the sleds that you see on TV as they break through deep powder on their way down a mountain side. They perform nicely in deep powder but poorly on a groomed trail. Many snowmobile manufacturers make an RMK (Rocky Mountain King) version of their sleds. If you intend to sled in the Rockies, get an RMK sled. You can always change the track to smaller paddles if you want to do some trail riding. I know rabid snowmobilers who keep both styles of tracks around. But tracks are expensive costing $400 plus. Changing a track is no small job. I advise letting the dealer do it.

The Northeast is another area that is impacted by “lake effect” snow from the Great Lakes. Conditions north are always good; like upper New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, or any area along the Appalachian Mountains. Again, trail conditions can always be checked on-line.

Be aware that a snowmobile MUST be registered and carry a sticker for any state in which it is used. Some states have day or week passes. Others require a full year’s registration, which normally cost $35 for the sticker. The penalties are severe. No sticker and you are off the trail for anywhere from a year to life, depending on the state’s laws.

Finally, if you would like to try snowmobiling, you can rent a sled for the day just about anywhere. It’s not cheap. It’s not the rental on the sled that is expensive. It’s the insurance. The outfit that rents the sled to you must insure you and the sled against liability. Plan on spending $500-$600 to rent a sled for a day. But I promise you that it will mean an adrenaline rush once you get on the trails and push on that throttle! It’s great! Try it.

For those who are serious about owning a snowmobile, I’ll publish a short post on how to maintain the sled once you acquire it. A machine that goes that fast through tough conditions needs some TLC. As I said before, the last thing you want to do is break down in some remote location on the trail. Maintenance is important.

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