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How Snowmobiles Work

Snowmobile Safety
The clothing and helmets of these snowmobilers keep them well-protected from the cold.
The clothing and helmets of these snowmobilers keep them well-protected from the cold.
Photo courtesy National Park Service

Modern snowmobiles are made of lighter, more durable materials and faster, more fuel-effective engines. This provides greater excitement for the rider, but also increases the possibility of accidents.

A snowmobile can weigh in excess of 600 pounds, not including the weight of the driver. Engine sizes can reach 1000 cubic centimeters (61 cubic inches), comparable to a mid-size motorcycle, with top speeds nearing 90 MPH on lighter, high-performance sleds. Snowmobiles have the advantage of being lower and wider than motorcycles, reducing the risk of tipping over, but riders can be thrown more easily due to their open design. Braking distances on snow and ice are also longer than on asphalt roads, due to reduced traction on the wet terrain.

Protective clothing serves double-duty for snowmobilers -- it must protect them not only from hazards caused by speed and noise, but also from the cold and wind. The waterproof nylon jackets and pants often sported by snowmobilers are very similar to those worn by snowboarders and skiers. Emphasis is on keeping the rider warm and dry, with inside layers wicking moisture outwards.

Similarly, snowmobile helmets draw heavily on motorcycle designs. Many leading manufacturers design models for snowmobilers, motorcyclists and all-terrain vehicle riders. (See the sidebar in How Motorcycles Work for basic helmet design). Snowmobile helmets add an anti-fog coating to the visor; cold, moist air on the outside meeting warm breath on the inside would cause condensation otherwise. Many helmets also incorporate a breath-guard over the mouth and nose, which keeps incoming air warmer while guiding warm breath away from the visor.

Gloves and boots are important accessories, as fingers and toes are especially vulnerable to frostbite in cold conditions. Snowmobile gloves typically combine thick palms (for durability while holding on to the handlebars) with articulated fingers and wrists (for mobility when braking and steering). Popular boot designs incorporate thick rubber soles with heavy grips, and removable liners that can dry quickly between rides. Of course, these accessories must be waterproof as well.

Using established hand signals when snowmobiling is another way to stay safe.
Using established hand signals when snowmobiling is another way to stay safe.

Ultimately, snowmobile safety depends on the person at the handlebars. Each state and province sets its own regulations regarding helmets and licensing, with national parks and private trails often imposing additional regulations on riders.

Organizations such as the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations and American Council of Snowmobile Associations represent local and regional riders' clubs and associations, often advocating on their behalf in safety and legislative discussions. They also work towards uniformity in trail signage and networking snowmobile trails, and promote tourism between Canadian and American enthusiasts and their counterparts in Europe.

For lots more information about snowmobiles and related topics, check out the links on the next page.