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Snowmobile trip

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Preparing for a Snowmobile Trip

I like to say I’ve done a bit of everything in my life. I’ve spent a lot of time at the lake with my family on their boat and my own jet skis; my wife and I owned motorcycles for several years; and I’ve started downhill skiing recently. One thing I’ve never had an opportunity to do until now is snowmobiling. I had an opportunity to ride a snowmobile for a few minutes when I was in high school, but that was only for about 10 to 15 minutes, so I only got a small taste of it. But that small taste was almost 20 years ago, and it’s left me wanting more. It’s not like we get enough snow in Northeast Ohio to justify owning a couple of sleds, right?

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Fast forward to the present day, and my brother has bought a cabin in the Michigan Upper Peninsula on Lake Gogebic. I’d gone to the cabin last fall, and the scenery was nothing short of breathtaking. I thought I knew the definition of quiet, but boy was I wrong. Sitting on the lakeshore fishing with my daughter, the only sound was from the water splashing up against the dock. I knew we had to go back again.

Snowmobile trip
Cabin on Lake Gogebic in the Michigan UP.
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

You see, my brother worked for Polaris for some time. He’d gotten the chance to drive a number of fun “toys” from RZRs to Indian Motorcycles to snowmobiles. He had invited us to come snowmobiling before, but the stars finally aligned this year, and we were able to make the trek. My wife and I had taken the snowmobile safety course at www.snowmobile-ed.com/michigan/, so we felt prepared for what we might encounter out on the trails. My brother had borrowed riding gear from friends and coworkers so we would be warm and — more importantly — safe.

So, we packed up my 2019 VW Golf Alltrack and drove to the cabin. I just recently installed a 1-inch lift kit onto the car as well as a set of snow tires, and boy did we need them. The snow was light but deep, and we needed the added ground clearance in a few spots. We visited with family for the first whole day, and then it was time to ride. Well, almost.

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Pre-ride Checklist

Snowmobiles are capable of taking you to some of the most remote areas in the country. They are powerful, fast and capable, but they are not invincible. They are simply mechanical devices that can break down and leave you stranded, so they must be properly maintained. If you’re planning to spend an hour, an afternoon or a day or more on a snowmobile, there are a number of things you need to inspect before setting out.

Snowmobile trip
Check that your brakes, steering and suspension are in order.
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

The owner’s manual should have a section on pre-ride checklist items. It’s a good idea to ensure that the brakes, steering and suspension components are all in working order. The drive belt, lights, skis and track are also critical to the operation of the sled. Tighten any loose fasteners and replace any missing ones. If you find any worn or broken components, that sled should be grounded: It’s not worth the risk.

We’re not quite done yet.

Are you prepared for your trip? Do you have enough food and drinks for the day? Do you have spare parts, such as drive belts and spark plugs? Do you have a GPS so you can find your way around? And maybe most importantly, does anyone else know where you are going? Check in with family or friends before setting out and tell them when you plan to return. If they don’t hear from you by a certain time, tell them to come look for you or reach out to the authorities.

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Gear Up

As my daughter is demonstrating in the photo, this step can be rather exhausting! There are so many layers and there is so much to consider when choosing the right riding gear.

Snowmobile trip
Only put on the base layers until just before you head out to prevent sweating.
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

Let’s start with your base layers. These should be skintight and should not be made of cotton. Cotton will absorb and trap moisture as you sweat, and this is the last thing you want when riding in the cold. Polyester is a good alternative. The same rule applies to your socks and underwear. Ditch those cotton-blend socks, and wear wool socks instead; also, maybe consider wearing compression shorts or long underwear. Add a neck warmer or balaclava to keep your neck and head even warmer.

It’s a good idea to wait to add more layers until just before you head outside; otherwise you’ll start to sweat, and that will be uncomfortable later. Once everybody is ready to head outside, start adding the outer layers.

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The inner layers will keep you warm, but the outer layers will not. The outer layers need to be completely windproof. Snowmobile suits are a great choice in this category, thanks to advanced materials, and they’re designed for exactly one purpose: riding. A good quality pair of windproof boots and gloves, and you’re almost ready for your adventure.

Last, but not least, wear a helmet. Not only will it keep your face and head warmer, but it will also protect them from low hanging branches out on the trail or in the event of a collision. Full face helmets could be the best option, as they provide the most protection, and a heated shield won’t fog up on you while riding. Consider a modular helmet if you ride in groups often. This style of helmet allows you to flip the face shield up and out of the way, making it much easier to chat on the side of the trail.

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Always Travel in Groups

We always rode in a group every single time we went out. It’s much safer to travel in groups; that way, if anyone runs into trouble, breaks down or has an accident, the rest of the group will be there. If you have no choice but to ride alone, take extra precautions. Pack extra food and drinks, supplies, etc. Like the Boy Scouts say: Be prepared.

Snowmobile trip
Whether you’re experienced in snowmobiling or not, ride in groups when possible.
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

Now, remember that my wife and I had never ridden a sled before, and we didn’t know the trails at all. Since my brother had the most experienced and was familiar with the trails, he led the group. We followed him, but we knew we didn’t need to keep up with his pace if we weren’t comfortable. He would periodically stop and let us catch up, and we would all give a thumbs-up to signal that were good to go for more riding, or we would hold up a closed fist if we wanted to stop and take a break.

We rode on three Polaris sleds. The two blue beauties were 2016 Switchback Pro-S 800s, and the white one was a 2021 VR1 850. These sleds were all pretty new and in excellent shape, but we still didn’t take any chances. We never went out alone, and our family knew where we were planning to ride.

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Take in the Sights

Take the time to plan out your trip before you set out. Familiarize yourself with the trail map as best you can, and pick your destination, your food or fuel stops and a “rally point” just in case the group gets separated.

The bottom line is that you get to plan your ride the way that you want it. Whether you want to travel to a remote location for fishing or hunting, ride the trails all day long or travel to a scenic destination, you can do it all on a snowmobile.

Snowmobile trip
Lake of the Clouds near Salt City, Michigan
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

After the first few days were in the books, we decided to take a longer ride up to Lake of the Clouds near Salt City, Michigan. The scenic overlook is just a quick hike off of a nearby snowmobile trail, and the scenery is simply stunning. It’s views like this one that make the journey that much more rewarding.

Stop to Take Breaks and Do It Often

As I mentioned earlier, my brother led our convoy and would stop periodically to let us catch up. We would stop to take a break whenever one of us held up a closed fist. We might need to stretch our legs, adjust our riding gear or grab a quick drink. The bottom line was, we wouldn’t push ourselves to keep riding just because we didn’t want to ask the group to stop. Riding snowmobiles is fun, but no one will have fun when fatigued, sore, hungry or thirsty. So, don’t forget to take care of yourself out there on the trail.

Snowmobile trip
Use hand signals to note if you’re good to keep riding or need to take a break.
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

Plan a Recovery Day

My wife and I actually learned this one on a trip to Disney World a few years ago. Don’t fill every day with activity: Plan at least one day to do nothing. Or at least, very little. Butters, my brother’s poodle is demonstrating this technique quite well in the photo, isn’t he?

Snowmobile trip
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

But seriously, it’s a good idea to take a day to let your body and mind recover. Pull out some board games, kick your feet up next to the woodburning stove, watch the sunset, or do anything your heart desires. We did all of the above and more. We caught up on some of the 2022 Winter Olympics, played board games and visited with family. Then we woke up the next morning refreshed and got back out on the trails.

Would I Do It Again?

So, would I do it again? Yes, absolutely! Can I go again next week? I could try and tell you that I wasn’t looking at buying snowmobiles after this trip, but my browser history might not back me up.

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I had been looking forward to this trip for so long, and it did not disappoint one bit. If you have ever thought about going on a trip like this, I would urge you to do it. You can find places to rent snowmobiles if you don’t have access to one like I did. That’s an easy way to try it out without a huge investment. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly how my brother and his wife got into this in the first place. They found a Groupon for a snowmobile rental experience, and they were hooked right away.

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I don’t see myself buying snowmobiles at this stage in my life. However, I think that there’s a good chance that I could look at buying them later on down the road, when my daughter is a little bit older and could stay out on the trail with us for the whole day. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see some of you out on the trail some day.

Snowmobile trip
Photo credit: Brian Sexton

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