You like to think of yourself as a conscientious snowmobiler. Even though your state may not require it, you always wear a helmet. You also try to moderate your speed, especially when riding near others. Yet you’ve heard harrowing tales of snowmobile accidents, injuries, and even a death or two. That has you wondering, are snowmobiles dangerous?
Like operating any vehicle, riding a snowmobile does carry a degree of risk. If you follow the rules in your area, ensure your group does the same, and give plenty of leeway to other snowmobilers, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have a safe, enjoyable ride every time.
In this eye-opening article, we’ll share statistics about snowmobile accidents and deaths to prove that yes, these things happen. We’ll also discuss the types of injuries you could suffer on a snowmobile and even include some safety tips you should always keep in mind when snowmobiling.
From beginner snowmobilers to more seasoned riders, everyone can get something out of this article, so we strongly encourage you to keep reading.
How Many Snowmobile Accidents Occur a Year?
According to a 2003 report published in the medical journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, riding a snowmobile will lead to 14,000 injuries in a given year. Now, that’s not the most current figure, admittedly, but it’s the most general one we could find, as many states only track snowmobile injury data for their state specifically. Also, some states record snowmobile deaths instead of injuries, of which there are many more every year, unfortunately.
How Many People Are Killed on Snowmobiles Every Year?
Going back to that Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research study, the researchers who published that data said that 200 people die a year from snowmobile injuries. That study is again from 2003, but the numbers may hold true today, more or less.
Back Country Access, a backcountry educational resource, says that between 2018 and 2019, 25 United States residents died of avalanche fatalities alone. As we’ll discuss in the next section, avalanches can be a leading cause of death for snowmobilers and others who enjoy cold-weather athletic pursuits.
This article in Bangor Daily News said that as of late February 2020, Maine had already had one of its worst years for snowmobile deaths, with seven deaths having occurred very early into the year. The Wausau Daily Herald mentions in a February 2020 article that Wisconsin’s snowmobile deaths averaged to about 20 over those two months, which was also high for the state.
In 2019, New York was up on the list for states with the most snowmobile deaths, according to news resource New York Upstate. They had 20 deaths last winter.
Over in Michigan, that state experienced 14 snowmobile-related deaths between 2019 and 2020. You can see a detailed list of each fatality per the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Division’s page.
You can see now why the Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research data is so sought-after then, because it’s one of the only resources that tallies up every death across the US and lumps it into one figure. Otherwise, you’re left digging through the numbers for your area specifically, which, while helpful, is not indicative of the snowmobiling deaths in the rest of the country.
What Kinds of Injuries or Deaths Can Happen to You on a Snowmobile?
So what dangers could befall you on your snowmobile if you happen to venture out into the great wide open? Many, many things, sadly. Let’s talk about these more now.
Crashing into Other Snowmobilers
Failing to maintain control of your snowmobile for any reason puts you at risk of hitting other snowmobilers in the vicinity. Perhaps your snowmobile has a mechanical failure at an unideal time, you turn away from your path for a second too long, or conditions were dark and snowy and visibility was reduced. No matter the cause, if you hit another snowmobiler, expect possibly extensive injuries suffered from both parties. In some instances, one or both snowmobilers could die.
Sometimes, you do everything right, but the accident could be caused on the part of another snowmobiler. Such a driver may be experiencing the issues above, or they could consume alcohol and then operate their sled.
According to the Canadian Journal of Public Health, from 1996 to 2000, 16 snowmobile deaths in Saskatchewan, Canada from collisions were attributable to alcohol consumption.
Crashing into Fences, Trees, or Rocks
Perhaps you don’t have a collision with another snowmobiler, but rather, an inanimate object nearby. From fences to trees, rocks, and even barbed wire, these items can cause serious, sometimes even fatal injuries.
The same reasons as above could be why you miss an obstacle until it’s too late. Also, perhaps you don’t see it because the conditions are blustery, or you’re riding off the beaten path. The item could also be buried under snow, so until you collide with it, you had no idea it was there.
Collisions with Animals
You’re not riding on your snowmobile alone, even if you’re going solo. If you’re in a natural area, then you have to expect you’re sharing the space with the wildlife that calls it home. Which wildlife will be native to the area will depend on the state or country, but dangerous animals abound in all sorts of forms.
Birds passing by could get in your face and cause you to crash, and a bear could spook you and lead to the same scenario. You could also hit a large animal such as a moose or an adult deer. This collision could throw you off your snowmobile and cause injuries if the crash doesn’t. These types of accidents can certainly be fatal depending on how fast you’re driving your snowmobile.
Misusing your vehicle is another way to cause accidents, either on your part or that of the other snowmobiler. Rail riding, where the driver on the snowmobiler tries to ride over or between railroad tracks, is one such risky maneuver to try and pull off. Since snowmobiles have a voluminous engine, being able to hear a passing train as it comes near is not always possible. If a train hits your snowmobile, your chances of survival are very, very low.
If you refrain from riding your snowmobile in the middle of winter because it’s too cold, you have another hazard you must be aware of. As the temperatures begin to thaw, that sheet of ice becomes more likely to melt or at least weaken.
The weight of your snowmobile over a sheet of weak ice can be all it takes for the ice to crack, sending you and the sled right into the water. Since a snowmobile isn’t enclosed like a car is, theoretically, getting off the sled and swimming towards the water’s surface is possible, but it doesn’t happen often.
The cold water can send people into shock, and if you don’t know how to swim, that’s hugely problematic in a predicament like this. Also, the weight of your cold-weather clothing can make maneuvering in the water more difficult than it would be without such garments.
That’s why snowmobilers must be aware of the likelihood of drowning deaths, as sad as they may be. In Alaska especially, dying this way happens more often than you’d think.
As we touched on, sometimes the difference between life and death can be how quickly you’re going on your snowmobile. When engaging in races on your sled or just riding faster because you’re in an open area, that fence you bust through could now end your life because of how fast you collide into it.
One of the most harrowing causes of death you have to worry about as a snowmobiler is avalanches. Statista notes that, in 2019, 25 people in the US died from avalanches. That number held steady in 2018 as well.
2008 and 2009 were two of the worst years in about 20 for avalanche deaths in the country, as both years had 36 average deaths each from avalanches. In 2014, it was 35 people.
Now, granted, these aren’t all snowmobilers who didn’t survive, because avalanches will claim anyone’s lives who are too close. The crush of an avalanche can be what leads to death as all that heavy snow piles atop you. Suffocation through being buried is another cause of death, as is internal bleeding and broken bones from the trauma of the snow crashing atop you. If you fall down a cliff during an avalanche, your body could be crushed from the rocks and other debris you hit on your descent.
When you highmark on your snowmobile, or test the limits of a hill or mountainside, you’re at a far higher risk of triggering an avalanche.
Are Snowmobiles Dangerous?
A 1999 study published in Public Health Reportssays the following: “For 1993-1994, injury death and hospitalization rates were greater for snowmobiles than for on-road motor vehicles. In northern Alaska, snowmobile injuries outnumbered on-road motor vehicle injuries. A total of 26 snowmobile injury deaths were reported; 7 decedents drowned after breaking through ice and 8 were ejected from vehicles.”
Those numbers may sound scary, but again, the age of the data betrays the information therein. The National Safety Council says 38,800 car-crash deaths occurred in the US in 2019. There’s no way that many people die on their snowmobiles every year nowadays.
That doesn’t mean that riding a snowmobile is a free pass to get wild. As the last section proves, misusing your snowmobile such as through consuming alcohol or trying dangerous maneuvers is a great way to get seriously hurt or even die.
Like we said in the intro, snowmobiles are about as dangerous as operating any other vehicle. You’re more likely to have an accident each time you get in your car than you are when you ride your snowmobile. You should still follow every precaution you can on your snowmobile for your safety and that of everyone you meet though.
Safety Tips for Riding Your Snowmobile
That’s why we thought we’d wrap up with a bevy of snowmobile safety tips to follow. You want to remember them all each time you set off for an adventure on your snowmobile.
Consider Brushing up on Your Skills with a Snowmobile Safety Course
If you’ve been an avid snowmobiler for years, it doesn’t hurt to enroll in a snowmobile safety course, even as a refresher. You can do this online so you don’t have to seriously change your schedule for a few weeks.
You may not learn anything new, but at least you’ll feel current on all the rules and laws that govern snowmobiling in your neighborhood. That’ll make you a safer snowmobiler.
Use Your Snowmobile at the Recommended Speed Limit
The average snowmobile speed limit is 45 miles per hour, but that recommended speed could be even lower (and sometimes higher) depending on where you ride. We suggest you follow the speed limit signs when riding.
Remember, going slower can be just as dangerous as riding your sled too quickly, as another snowmobiler can slam their vehicle into yours. Fatalities, although somewhat less likely, could occur in such a scenario, as can serious injuries.
Only Ride When of Sound Mind and Body
Anything that can affect your ability to concentrate and stay alert puts you at risk of injury or death on your snowmobile. Whether you had a big fight with a significant other, you’re tired, or you have a work project that’s consuming your mind, if you can’t dedicate your full attention to snowmobiling, don’t ride. It’s not worth it.
Being of sound body means you should be in a good, healthy condition, without serious aches and pains that would inhibit you from maneuvering your snowmobile in any way necessary.
Never Consume Alcohol and/or Drugs and Then Use a Snowmobile
Another element of being of sound mind and body is refraining from drug and alcohol use. By the way, when we say drugs, we mean all drugs, including prescription medication that comes from your doctor.
Read the label of your medication, but if it says not to drive a motor vehicle when on the meds, that goes for a snowmobile too. You don’t want to be mentally and physically impaired from any substance, even if that substance is an allergy medication.
Wear a Helmet
If you remember our post about snowmobiling rules by state, you probably recall how an alarmingly high number of states don’t mandate that you wear a helmet when snowmobiling. The good news is that you won’t get in trouble for wearing a helmet even if it’s not required of you, so please, always bring yours.
Using your helmet can minimize your risk of head trauma, and it could save your life if you’re thrown from your snowmobile.
Always Try to Ride with Another Snowmobiler
Having a buddy you can rely on when snowmobiling is great for a few reasons. If you get lost, the two of you can reconvene and figure out where you’re going. Also, should one of you get buried in an avalanche, you can dig them out and vice-versa.
When Riding Alone, Always Tell Someone Where You’ll Be
If you absolutely must ride your snowmobile on your lonesome, then you need to check in with at least one other person. Let them know where you’re riding, what time you’re leaving, and how long you anticipate you’ll be gone.
If the whole day passes and this person doesn’t hear from you, they can alert the appropriate authorities and launch a rescue mission if need be.
Take Breaks, Especially When Feeling Fatigued, So You Can Stay Alert
Being alert on your snowmobile is crucial. When your head is on a swivel, you can anticipate threats such as roaming animals or another snowmobiler and avoid these without incident. Thus, anytime you begin to feel your alertness is slipping, it’s time for a break.
You can sit and cool down for a few minutes or even fuel up with a snack so you’re ready for the second half of your ride.
Avoid Going Out in Severe Weather
You want snow on the ground when snowmobiling, but that doesn’t mean you should venture out in blizzard conditions. The colder temperatures are a risk, not to mention the reduced visibility and high winds. You need clear weather when you hop on your sled so you can navigate easily and avoid obstacles.
Stick to a Trusted Trail
It doesn’t matter how experienced you are on your snowmobile, heading off the beaten trail is always a risk. You’re now in uncharted territory, which means you have no idea of the threats and obstacles you could encounter. Whether that’s wild animals, a steep drop-off, thin ice, or conditions that could launch an avalanche, the further you go into the unknown, the more dangerous it becomes. Pick a trail that’s well-treaded and ride that instead.
Avoid Riding on Ice
When you see a body of water that’s frozen over, don’t put your life at risk by riding over it. Surely you can find an alternate route that doesn’t involve ice. You never know how thin the ice is and how likely it is to crack.
Even ice that seems stable can only take so much weight, and your snowmobile could be what causes the ice to crack. It’s much better not to risk it.
Snowmobiles themselves aren’t dangerous, but your behavior on them can be. Failing to wear a helmet, riding alone, and trying to traverse tall hills are dangerous maneuvers, especially because the latter can cause an avalanche.
We hope this article has shown that while snowmobiling can be lots of fun, whether in small groups or large ones, that you must be safe to get the most out of every experience on your sled.