Why Do Snowmobiles Have Thumb Throttles?


You go to hit the throttle on your sled, and wait a second, how do you do it? For most snowmobile models, the answer is using your thumb via the thumb throttle. Is this really the most efficient choice for today’s sleds? Why do snowmobiles have thumb throttles?

Thumb throttles are common in snowmobiles for better control of the throttle without sacrificing maneuverability. That said, some sledders experience thumb pain if they use the throttle too much, which is why alternatives like hand throttles have become so popular.

In today’s post, we’ll explain thumb throttles in more detail, including what they are, how they work, and why your sled has one. If you’re thinking of exchanging the thumb throttle for something that works better for you, we’ll talk about your options as well.

Let’s begin. 

What Is a Thumb Throttle?

Okay, so what the heck is a thumb throttle anyway?

Many vehicles have throttles, which allow you to manage the flow of fluid towards the engine. The more throttle you add, the more power the engine receives. By restricting fluid flow, the engine runs less powerfully. 

The thumb throttle, which is featured in many ATVs as well as snowmobiles, will adjust the power your sled’s engine receives with a single finger, your thumb. 

Most thumb throttles are made of a material that’s comfortable on the hand, such as plastic rather than metal. A lever at the end of the throttle is for your thumb to rest on or near. You press that lever when you want to shift the throttle. 

Why Do Snowmobiles Have Thumb Throttles?

Many sledders have wondered why snowmobiles are equipped with thumb throttles rather than twist throttles. A twist throttle removes the lever from the handlebar. Instead, to adjust the throttle, you’d twist the whole handlebar.

This may sound great, but you tend to lack the precision and control you have with thumb throttles. Since your hand is always over the throttle with a thumb throttle, you can boost or cease power to the engine in a moment’s notice. Twist throttles make it much harder to quickly escape danger, leaving you more prone to injury.

Another reason many sleds feature built-in thumb throttles is for convenience. You don’t have to search for a way to lessen your engine power in an emergency, just depress the lever that your thumb is sitting over anyway as you hold the handlebars. 

You may also have better maneuverability with a thumb throttle, even if you happen to shift your weight more towards one side of your snowmobile than the other. Sleds can indeed tip if you’re not careful, so you need a mechanism that lets you make sudden maneuvers without you capsizing, so to speak.

Some experts have even acclaimed the safety of a thumb throttle over other throttles as its main reason for being included in snowmobiles. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have an accident if your sled has a thumb throttle, but the accessibility and maneuverability of the throttle might reduce your accident risk to a degree. 

The Downsides of the Thumb Throttle

As we’ve proven, thumb throttles can be quite beneficial, but unfortunately, not everything about this snowmobile feature is necessarily wonderful. Once you start using the thumb throttle regularly on your sled, you too may have the following complaints. 

Hand Pain

If you stick to the same throttle settings for most of your day, such as when riding a straightforward trail without a lot of surprises, then this point might not apply. For every other type of sledder who’s ascending and descending hills, navigating turns, off-roading, and riding over an assortment of terrain all day, you need to adjust your throttle a lot.

Each time you do, it’s solely your thumb that’s in control. All this thumb movement can leave your hands feeling achy, tight, and sore by the end of the day. 

We’ve discussed on this blog before how snowmobiling works a lot of muscles, but you probably never thought your hands were included in that, right? 

If your hands are completely shot by the time you end your riding session, we’d suggest a few exercises that may be able to help. Here’s what you can do:

  • Reverse curls: The reverse curl requires a barbell of a moderate weight. Hold the barbell in the hand that operates the thumb throttle on your snowmobile. Then, raise the barbell up to your chin, curling it, and then lower it. Repeat.
  • Weighted gloves: Wearing weighted gloves throughout the day forces your hands to work harder, in turn strengthening the muscles so your hands are even better equipped to handle the rigors of the thumb throttle.
  • Barbell wrist rolls: Hold a set of dumbbells or barbells in either hand. Put your arms out directly in front of you and straighten your arms as much as you can. Now, curling at the wrists, move first up then down, doing this underhanded if possible. You want to use lighter weights for this exercise.
  • Rubber ball squeezing: Got a rubber ball lying somewhere around the house, such as the kids’ bedroom? Take a ball that’s about the size of your fist and practice squeezing it off and on throughout the day. Make sure it’s not a stress ball, as that won’t have the resistance you need to strengthen muscles in your fingers and hands.

Many snowmobilers report that they don’t necessarily feel thumb and hand pain when using their thumb throttles after a while, mostly through exercise. That said, in the beginning, this pain can be unexpected and very uncomfortable. 

Cold Hands

Okay, so you can find a way to strengthen your hands, but there’s no too much you can do about ice-cold fingers. Unless you’re wearing very lightweight gloves, then it’s hard to feel the throttle through your winter gloves. Even if you did buy thin gloves, these won’t really protect your hands, making them pointless.

What lots of sledders do is use their thumb throttle bare-handed. That’s why, if you’ve ever activated your snowmobile’s hand warmers, these are included at the handlebars for keeping your digits toasty. The hand warming feature can work to a point, but if you’re freezing cold because you’ve been riding your sled for hours on a blisteringly frosty day, then the warmers might be lacking. 

Handlebar Grip 

Another complaint some snowmobilers have when it comes to using their thumb throttles is the rigidity of the handlebar grip necessary for operating the throttle. Remember, you need to have your thumb near the throttle lever at all times, which doesn’t leave much room for changing your hand positioning.

You could again end up with hand pain as your fingers sit inflexible for hours on the handlebars. This pain can extend to your wrists as well. 

What Are Some Alternatives to a Thumb Throttle?

Thumb throttles are certainly handy, but they also have several painful downsides that have sledders always on the lookout for a more viable alternative. Here are a few options you might consider for your own snowmobile. 

Twist Throttle

We discussed the twist throttle earlier in this article, but here’s a quick recap. Instead of a lever you press down on with your thumb, a twist throttle requires you to twist the handlebar to increase or decrease engine power.

Some sledders have outfitted their snowmobiles with a twist throttle, such as this poster on the forum Snowmobile World. The poster mentioned that a prior motorcycle injury had left their thumbs less mobile, so a thumb throttle was out of the question.

With the twist throttle, this sledder says they enjoy great comfort but at the sacrifice of a heated grip.

Remember though that twist throttles may not be as safe as thumb throttles. Also, operating the twist throttle will be hard on your wrists compared to your fingers. Further, you may not be able to wear gloves even with a twist throttle, as getting the grip on the handlebar you need to twist would be awfully tough to do with winter gloves on. 

Half-Twist Throttle

The alternative to a twist throttle is the half-twist. As the name suggests, you don’t need to twist this throttle nearly as much to control your sled’s engine power. This can spare your wrists, but not much else changes. Your hand still likely has to be bare to control the half-twist throttle. Also, since this throttle doesn’t move as much as a full twist throttle, the half-twist may be more sensitive. Thus, even minor twisting can cause sometimes unintended throttle changes. 

Hand Throttle

By far one of the most popular alternatives to the snowmobile thumb throttle is the hand throttle. Now, you’re probably wondering, what’s the difference? The answer is lots.

Instead of just one finger controlling the throttle, now the pressure is spread out across your entire hand. This may alleviate the pain you usually have in your thumb since it’s not the only finger working to control the throttle.

Hand throttle kits are available for either righties or lefties so your dominant, often stronger hand can operate the throttle. Not only will this likely cause less pain, but it should feel more comfortable for you too. 

Final Thoughts

A thumb throttle is a lever on your snowmobile that you depress with your thumb to add or reduce power to the engine. Toggling with your thumb throttle all day can be painful on the hand muscles and leave your bare skin cold, but these throttle types are safe and accentuate your maneuverability. 

Should you find that thumb throttles are just too uncomfortable for you, you can always try a twist throttle, half-twist, or even a hand throttle. Best of luck! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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