Welcome to February – one of the last months of winter! February is also a month filled with winter’s deepest snow depths and continued cold temps. Personally, February is one of my favorite winter months because usually by this time, there is a really good snowpack that is perfect for skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
By now, most people who were looking to ride a snowmobile this year probably have, but it is never too late to learn new tips and tricks to being successful on a snowmobile. Snowmobiling is more complex than most people would think. It is not as simple as starting the sled up and going fast. In fact, I encourage you to not do that! Learning the proper way to start, ride, and fix a snowmobile can save you when you are stuck, stranded, or have an accident while on the trail.
At Steigerwaldt, we use snowmobiles to get places in the winter if our trucks and ATVs are unable to. Snowmobiles can be used on most terrain, so we can drive off-trail when needed. We transport ourselves, gear, paint, and other important items using these machines. This helps us save time and energy so we can perform services effectively and efficiently. To keep our team safe, we conduct snowmobile safety training courses throughout the year and require DNR snowmobile certification for our field staff.
The Association Of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs (AWSC) had a meeting last month and called to attention the alarming number of incidents involving snowmobilers and groomers. Groomers are trucks or other vehicles, either with tracks running along both sides or dragging equipment behind, used to maintain ski hills, snowmobile trails, and groom (pack down) snow. Snowmobiles are much smaller than groomers and will never emerge the from an incident unscathed.
There are some things that can be done to help prevent these incidents. Being aware of your surroundings is essential for your safety, not only with a groomer but also with other snowmobilers who might be coming down the trail. Wisconsin state law requires all snowmobiles to have an operable headlight and taillight that is turned on while riding the state trail system. Looking for oncoming lights through the trees will help you become more aware of others out enjoying the trails. Groomers will also usually have flashing lights on them. If you see flashing lights, pull the brakes and slow down.
If you encounter a flat trail with no other snowmobile tracks on it, enjoy the smooth ride, but be on high alert and start to feel the snow as you drive. Groomers move snow in their drags to break down bumps in the trail and create a smooth surface to ride on. As more time passes, the trail will continue to freeze up, providing a harder surface to ride on.
Trail laid down directly behind a groomer will be very soft as the snow has not had time to freeze back together. If the trail is freshly groomed and very soft, be aware that a groomer may be nearby. If it feels firm, it is less likely that you will encounter a groomer. Nevertheless, continue to ride with caution.
Groomers move anywhere from 5-8 miles per hour. A groomer moving at those speeds will seem like it is standing still compared to a snowmobile traveling anywhere from 25-65 miles per hour. Riding within the limits of your machine and abilities are critical in allowing you to have appropriate reaction time and avoid a groomer collision.
When encountering a groomer head on, immediately pull off to the side or off of the trail. Once on the side of the trail, wait for the groomer to either stop and wave you by or for it to pass you. If you come up behind a groomer, slowly follow the groomer until the groomer operator stops or waves you by at a safe location. Many trails are only as wide as a groomer. Passing a groomer in these locations can lead to a dangerous situation.
No matter what form of recreation you choose this February, please keep safety in mind. If you are on a snowmobile, slow down, ride right, and ride sober. Let’s all keep our snowmobile trails safe this month!
-Max Kubisiak, Forester