Know your snowmobile and keep it in good operating condition by performing regular maintenance. A mechanical problem can occur at any time so it is a good idea to be equipped with a tool kit and the following items: extra spark plugs, drive belt, tow rope, extra key, headlight and taillight bulbs, electrical and duct tape, flashlight, knife and an extra starter cord. It is a good idea to make sure all of these things work beforehand!
It is so important to be outfitted with the right gear – to protect you from injury and cold. It is important to wear clothing that will keep you warm and dry. Dressing in layers is key – try to include thermal underwear that wicks moisture, a layer of warm clothing and, of course, your outer protective layer that will protect you from the wind and water. Do not wear loose clothing or a scarf as they can get caught in the snowmobile or on a branch as you go by. Don’t forget about a good pair of padded, warm gloves – preferably with gauntlets to prevent cold air from entering your sleeves. Your boots should have grips on the heel, be waterproof and be lined for warmth. Make sure you have a properly fitting helmet with a face shield or goggles and that you secure it before you ride. They will help protect your head and face from injury during collisions, falls, cold and branches.
Emergency Survival Kit
What would you need in order to survive a night in the backcountry? Food, water, shelter, protection from the cold, just to name a few. Assembling an emergency kit can help you be prepared with these items:
- Well stocked first aid kit
- Emergency blanket
- Extra clothes and warm layers (including a toque and spare gloves)
- Extra food and water (for 1 or 2 days)
- Energy or candy bars
- Flashlight (L.E.D is recommended)
- Hand axe or saw
- Nylon rope
- Plastic whistle
- Pocket mirror
- Signal flares
- Waterproof matches
- Aluminum foil
- Compass or GPS receiver (know how to operate)
- Cell phone (consider a satellite cell phone as some areas won't have reception)
- Tools and a repair kit (a spare belt)
Know before you go
P – Prepare for the trip, consider terrain, location, weather, check avalanche warnings – use this information to prepare for ways to deal with them.
L – Locate the area you will be riding – familiarize yourself with the area using a map.
A – Assess your physical condition, equipment and safety rules. Use this info to help you decide whether the timing of the trip is good or not.
N – Notify someone about where you are going, whom you are going with and when you expect to return. It is a good idea to leave your specific route with a family member or friend.
Signaling for help
Of course using your cell phone is a good idea but service is not always available in the backcountry. Three of any signal is the international sign of distress, for example: 3 fires evenly spaces, 3 whistle blasts or 3 flashes with a mirror.
Shelter can help ward off cold and keep you protected from the elements. It is best to build your shelter before dark. Try to find a natural shelter like trees or overhanging rocks that are both dry and offer protection from the wind. You can build a lean-to by leaning branches against the tree or whatever you can use. If you can, cover the branches with leaves, twigs or a tarp, if you have one.
Building a fire
If building a fire is necessary, please be respectful of the environment and do your best to minimize your impact. Find an area where heat will warm your shelter but at a safe distance away. Gather everything you need before you try to start the fire – more than you think you will need to use. It is also a good idea to have everything you need to extinguish the fire nearby as well. Pile fine twigs, grass or bark shavings as a base and then put the bigger sticks on top of that until it is about 10 inches high. With the match, start your fire where it will best utilize the wind (flame blowing toward the rest of the ‘fuel’). Don’t’ forget to distinguish your fire properly before you leave.
Surviving without fire
If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot build a fire, try to limit your physical activity as you need to conserve your energy and avoid sweating. Find shelter from the wind, weather, and cold. Use your emergency blanket and avoid resting for long on cold surfaces like the ground or rocks.
Food & Water
Be smart with your food and water. Humans need about 2 – 4 liters of water per day and can survive only 3 days without it. You can melt snow over your fire using a tin can or aluminum foil formed into a bowl. Note – drinking cold water can lower your body temperature, which can be dangerous. You can go for about 2 weeks without food so be sure to ration it wisely.
Cold weather, wet clothing, lack of protective clothing, wind and poor circulation are a recipe for frostbite. Take precautions – like avoiding extreme weather and keeping your head, ears, nose, fingers and toes protected. When out in the cold wear warm, protective clothing, favoring fabrics that wick moisture. Frostbite can be recognized by off-white skin color, prickly/tingling sensation as ice crystals form, pain at first but it will disappear as the frostbite progresses and may lead to a loss of feeling in the area. While the best cure is prevention – you can do these things to treat frostbite: warm the area with body heat, but do not rub as it may damage the tissue, wrap with warm, dry clothing, find warm shelter, drink hot liquids and most importantly, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Hypothermia is a great danger to stranded snowmobilers. It occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. While everyone understands that it is caused by cold weather, you may not realize that the use of alcohol and drugs are also a factor – yet another reason not to drink and ride! Preventing hypothermia is as easy as avoiding extreme cold, dressing properly and keeping dry (if you do get wet, dry as quickly as possible). Eating high calorie foods such as chocolate, peanuts and raisins will help your body to produce heat, so bring on the trail mix! Symptoms of hypothermia include: shivering (this will slow as the hypothermia progresses), slow and slurred speech, memory loss, irrational behavior (such as removing clothing), lack of body movement, sleepiness and unconsciousness (this can lead to death). To treat hypothermia find shelter immediately, replace wet clothing or dry one layer at a time, drink warm liquids (no alcohol), eat high energy foods, use fire, blankets or another person’s body heat to warm up slowly. Do NOT take a hot bath or get too warm too quickly as it may lead to traumatic shock. Get medical attention immediately.
Beware of Water
Riding on ice
Be careful when snowmobiling on ice – stop slowly and stay seated. Of course, before you even venture onto a frozen lake or river, you should test the thickness to be sure it is safe: it should be at least 8 inches thick and will be clear. Avoid slush and dark spots as it is an indication of weak ice or holes. If you break through the ice – keep calm! Extend your arms toward the unbroken surface and kick your legs so you are nearly parallel to the ice and try to work yourself forward onto the ice. If it breaks again, stay in this position and continue to try and slide forward. Once you have reached firm ice, do NOT attempt to stand up, but instead roll away from the broken area until you reach a safe place – this will distribute your weight over as broad an area as possible on the ice.
Alcohol and Drugs
Drinking and Snowmobiling do not mix.
Alcohol opens the blood vessels and removes the feeling of chill, but it does nothing to increase body heat. Instead it can increase the risk of hypothermia, a dangerous lowering of your body’s core temperature. Alcohol increases fatigue, fogs your ability to make good decisions and slows your reaction time. The same laws apply to marijuana which impairs drivers reaction times.
It’s a formula for disaster, and it’s against the law!