Snowmobiling for First-Timers: What to Know Before You Go

Another glorious Maine winter is upon us. Snow-covered fields and trails offer all the inspiration you need to get outside. Perhaps you’re looking forward to trying something new this year. One of the most exhilarating winter sports in Maine is snowmobiling. And the best part is that you don’t have to invest tens of thousands of dollars on a sled and equipment. There are more than a dozen Maine guides and businesses across the state that make it their mission to get newbies out on the trails all over the state. Whether you want to try snowmobiling with friends, with the kids, or as part of a guided excursion, there’s the perfect sled or snowmobile package for you. 

The best sledding in Maine takes place in the northern and western parts of the state, where some of the best snowpack can be found. Maine has the largest snowmobile trail network in New England with an Interconnected Trail System (ITS) of more than 4,000 miles of snowmobile trails to explore. Volunteers at 280 local snowmobile clubs work night and day to keep these trails groomed for riders. 

There are a few safety concerns to consider before hitting the trail. While snowmobiles aren’t difficult to drive, you’ll definitely want to take it slow while you’re getting the hang of it. We asked some outfitters for their suggestions on what new riders need to know before hitting the trails, and here’s what they had to say:

Operate Your Sled Safely

Just like driving a car, snowmobilers must always ride to the right of the trail at all times. And while your snowmobile might have a ton of power, you don’t have to test the limits.  In other words, drive responsibly. 

“Only go as fast as you feel comfortable,” said Lori Lemont from Flagstaff Rentals Inc. in Stratton.

“Speed is typically one of the main factors in snowmobile accidents,” added Scott Lee from the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) in Millinocket. 

Lee suggested that first-timers hit the trails in a group with multiple sleds and learn hand signals to communicate. According to Lee, the leader of the group should know the following hand signals:

• Oncoming sleds: Left arm overhead bent at the elbow, moving back and forth pointing to the right. This means there are sleds up ahead and to be sure you are riding to the right so there’s room to pass.

• Stop: Left or right arm up in the air with the palm flat. This means stop. There may be a deer in the path up ahead, a scenic overlook, or time for a snack break.

• Right Turn: Left arm bent at the elbow.

• Left Turn: Left arm held out straight. 

Above all, the biggest tip is to always ride sober. In the last decade, there has been an average of six fatal crashes involving snowmobiles per winter in Maine, according to Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service, with speeding and alcohol being the most common factors.

In addition, the standard for Operating Under the Influence (OUI) in Maine is the same on a snowmobile as it is in a car. If found guilty of operating under the influence, your license could be suspended and you could incur hefty fines. 

Pack the Right Gear

The weather in Maine can change on a dime, so it’s important to check the weather report before any trip to make sure you have dressed appropriately and have the right gear packed. 

Having the right gear and clothing for the conditions Lee explained can make or break a snowmobile trip. For adults and children, wear underlayers (not cotton), top layers, a face mask, an insulated bib overall or snowsuit, gloves, heavy socks, boots, a helmet, and goggles.

Lee also suggests packing a first aid kit, fire starting gear, a flashlight, water, and snacks in case you get stuck or break down. Cell phone service may not work in western or northern Maine, so pack a durable map and always inform someone of your trip plan and return times. With so many miles of trails in some of the most remote parts of Maine, you don’t want to get stuck outside unprepared. 

Get the Kids Involved

Snowmobiling doesn’t have to be an adults-only activity. Kids can join in the fun, too. “Short trips during good weather are the best way to get young children interested in the adventure,” Lee said. He suggested stopping for a trailside cookout and letting the kids help gather wood and be part of the fun. 

Lemont said that Flagstaff Rentals offer safety belts for children that tether the child to the adult driver. Where they go, you go. If your child falls off the sled, you’re both connected. If you have older children or teenagers, they may be able to drive their own, smaller sled. If your children are inexperienced, they can saddle up with you on a double sled.

Whether you are looking for an afternoon excursion or an overnight adventure, consider a snowmobile trip in Maine this winter for a truly immersive experience.  

Story by Melanie Brooks, a content creator and lover of Maine. She lives in Orono and works at the University of Maine.

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