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An RCMP officer drives a snowmobile in fresh snow.

Snowmobile safety involves planning ahead

Snowmobiling is fun but also comes with responsibilities, including being well-prepared for conditions and knowing your limits. Credit: RCMP


There are some common themes you hear from snowmobile safety advocates at the start of each season: know your machine, know your terrain and if you go somewhere alone — always tell someone your plans.

"And don't drink and drive. It's a Criminal Code offence whether you're driving your car or snowmobile," says RCMP Sgt. Chris Dodds, who has conducted snowmobile patrols throughout British Columbia.

According to the Canadian Safety Council, there are more than 700,000 registered snowmobiles in Canada and more than 125,000 kilometres of trails.

That trail number is likely higher when you consider riders who traverse the backcountry, farmland — with the owner's permission — and Crown land.

"As soon as the first snow falls, people get the itch to get their machines out," says Sgt. Paul Manaigre, an RCMP media relations officer in Winnipeg, Man. "But they have to be prepared and take precautions wherever they ride."

To provide a safe riding experience, snowmobile riding associations across Canada are busy year round making sure trails are debris-free in the summer so they can be groomed and passable in the winter.

"But if you're off trail, you have to know what you're riding on, and if you're near water, you have to make sure it's thick enough, especially if there are strong currents," says Manaigre, who says riders on water should also wear a floatation device over outer clothing.

In parts of British Columbia, the mountains are a big attraction for off- and on-trail riders.

"Riding, especially in the alpine environment, is a physical and demanding sport and you have to be strong to control the machine, navigate the terrain and turn around," says Dodds, who's the RCMP operations non-commissioned officer at Revelstoke, B.C. "And you don't want to get stuck, because even when you're with a partner, those machines are hard to get out."

Dodds recommends three essential pieces of equipment for snowmobiling in British Columbia's mountains: a transponder to locate the wearer if he or she becomes lost, a probe to search for survivors in an avalanche, and a shovel.

On Canada's East Coast, Cst. Travise Dow has performed snowmobile patrols for years.

He points out that all-terrain vehicles and side-by-sides are also used in the wintertime.

"No matter what you're driving, you have to know how to operate your vehicle safely," says Dow, who works with traffic services in Amherst, N.S.

He says snowmobile clubs do great work to promote rider safety. However, he says drivers have important responsibilities each time they take their machines out.

"You have to control your speed and understand the environment and snow conditions you're in," says Dow. "You have to pay attention to your environment and your surroundings because the weather and conditions can change quickly."

Some safety tips for riding in winter:

  • Check the weather conditions before you leave.
  • Wear proper clothing, including a helmet, to keep you warm and safe.
  • Ride in groups and carry a cell phone.
  • Have a map and note any available shelters.
  • Ride sober! Drinking alcohol and using drugs while operating a snowmobile don't mix.
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