Travel Tips: Safe, Not Sorry

Severe cold demands that snowmobilers dress and act the part
Part of the love for snowmobiling comes from the stimulation of winter and nature all around, and the thrill of operating a well-performing machine. But snowmobiling in cold climates should leave you thrilled, not chilled. Snowmobilers are vulnerable to weather extremes and depend on the reliability of their equipment. With some forethought and a basic knowledge of winter survival, you will ensure safe enjoyment of this exhilarating sport for you and your family.

Obviously, before heading out, make sure your machine is in top running condition. All fluids should be topped off, and the belt and spark plugs checked. As a backup, let someone know where you will be parking, your planned route and destination, and the estimated time of return. And let this person know when you get back.

Create a survival kit and take it along on each and every ride. It's better to have equipment you might not use than to be caught in a bad situation and lack some small necessity that could make the difference. Put it in the trunk, in a tank bag or handlebar bag. Store it in a hard-sided container affixed safely and securely under the hood. Carry it yourself in a fanny pack or back pack. Just be sure to have it.

Keep the whims of winter weather in mind, which can change quickly and drastically. Dress warm and layer.layers trap warm, dry air to create an insulating effect. Keep clothing loose; clothes that are too tight or too bulky tend to restrict movement and circulation, and can produce and trap moisture. Layering also allows you to remove an item or two if you get too warm.

Opt for moisture-wicking material next to the skin to whisk away perspiration. Cotton absorbs and holds moisture against the skin, and nylon is neither absorbent or warm. Silk or wool wick dampness to the outside where it can evaporate; even when wet, wool will maintain its insulating properties. There are a number of high-tech synthetic materials available, such as fleece, which keep you warm and still dry quickly. Remember, if your clothing gets wet it ceases to be an effective insulator.

Wear a helmet! Besides the obvious safety factor, 60 percent of the body's heat is lost out the top of the head. A balaclava can provide immeasurable protection, but at the very least have a scarf or high collar that can be pulled up around the neck and cheeks to contain body heat. A cold face triggers the body to direct the blood supply from the extremities to the internal organs, further cooling hands and feet.

Glove liners can provide an extra layer of insulation, but if the gloves themselves are snug fitting, the extra bulk may restrict circulation and make the hands even colder. Also be sure that using liners inside your gloves won't interfere with the operation of your snowmobile's controls. For passengers, where a loss of dexterity isn't a factor, mittens are a warmer choice.

Beware of the wind and understand how it adds to the effects of exposure. The Wind Chill Chart illustrates the effect of wind and temperature on a dry, properly clothed person. Add moisture and the effect is much greater. Learn to read storm warning signs and heed them.

Know how to avoid, detect and treat frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite most commonly occurs in the extremities of the body -- the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes. Exposure of the skin to the cold can result in crystals forming either superficially or in the fluids and underlying soft tissues. It can range from discomfort to damage of the skin tissue, especially if the area has been thawed and refrozen.

The skin may appear slightly flushed before frostbite sets in, then turn to white or grayish-yellow. Initially the affected part may have a painful tingle but this usually subsides. The affected area will feel intensely cold and numb. Often the victim is unaware of the problem until an observer notices the pale, glossy skin.

To treat frostbite, protect the area from further trauma and quickly rewarm by immersing in warm (102-105 degrees Fahrenheit) NOT HOT water, unless the area has been thawed and refrozen. In this case, warm at room temperature and do not use excessive heat such as a stove or hot water bottle. If water is unavailable or impractical, carefully wrap in warm clothing. Do not massage the injured area as you may damage frozen tissue. Swelling will occur after thawing. Discontinue warming as soon as the part becomes flushed. Note: If the victim's feet are affected and he/she must walk to obtain assistance, do not attempt to thaw beforehand. For anything other than a very minor affliction, follow up with medical attention.

Hypothermia develops when the body's core temperature drops below the level where the body can reheat itself, and if immediate steps are not taken can result in damage to vital organs, up to and including death. Signs of hypothermia include slurred speech, numbness, shivering, mental confusion, impairment of judgment, a stumbling and uncoordinated walk, failing eyesight, exhaustion, and/or drowsiness.

First aid for hypothermia includes removing any wet clothing and warming the body, chest, shoulders, and stomach areas first. Use heating pads, blankets or hot water bottles if at all possible, or use other people next to the victim to transmit body heat. Keep the heat source warm, but not hot, as sensitivity may be reduced or lost.

Put the victim's feet up and head down for quicker circulation to the chest and vital organs. Keep a close eye on the respiratory system. If the victim is conscious you may administer warm liquids, but no alcohol or sedatives. Do not massage any area. Call for medical assistance as soon as possible.

Snow blindness can occur on medium-bright to intensely sunny days. Avoidance is simple: wear a good pair of sunglasses. Symptoms include dizziness, severe headache, and/or sensitivity to light. Treatment is immediate removal to a totally dark area.

Use common sense in dressing for the outdoors, and avoid fatigue, smoking, and drinking alcohol, all of which lessen the body's ability to cope with cold. Stay attuned to both physical signs and mental symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia.

On the trail or in backcountry, think about the route you are taking. Obviously, avoid avalanche or other hazardous situations. If you must journey through avalanche country, travel along the top of ridges, slightly to the windward side - into the wind - which is usually safer than the leeward side. Avoid riding under, on, or otherwise disturbing cornices. If you can't travel along a ridgetop, stay out in the valley as far as possible from the bottom of slopes. You shouldn't cross the lower part of a slope, and always avoid known avalanche paths. You can usually recognize these paths by the pattern of bent or broken timber, or the lack of growth in an area surrounded by trees or bushes.

If you should be caught in an avalanche, get away from your snowmobile. Make swimming motions to stay on top and to the side of the slide. Before coming to a stop, put your hands in front of your face and try to form an air pocket in the snow. If you are the survivor, mark the place where the victim was last seen and search downhill from that point, using a probe or stick to poke the snow. Don't go for help unless there is someone else to continue looking or help is only a minutes away. After 30 minutes, the buried victim has only a 50 percent chance of survival.

If something does occur and it is impractical or impossible to backtrack, stay together. Handle a bad situation by remaining calm, dry and warm, and decide on a plan. Knowing how to use your survival tools can ease a big chunk of anxiety at a time like this. Gather dry or dead wood or brush, or pine needles, to build a fire for warmth and to melt clean snow for water. Choose a protected location that is not under overhanging, snow-laden branches.

Find shelter from the wind and elements. Your snowmobile can be used as a windbreak or as part of a lean-to. Use a plastic tarp, space blankets or tree boughs to make a shelter. If this isn't feasible, seek the clearing at the base of a tree or dig a snow cave facing away from the wind.

Lay out a pattern of distress signals using the standard Ground-to-Air Rescue Signals shown. Make them as large as possible, and do whatever you can to increase their visibility such as outlining them with branches or rocks. On a sunny day, use a mirror or other reflecting surface to signal as often as possible.

Keep eating and drinking. The body loses two to four quarts of fluid per day under exertion, so it is important to ward off dehydration by drinking plenty of liquids. Even though you are surrounded by it, eating snow only provides 10-20 percent fluid content and lowers the body temperature in the process. Food is necessary because the body needs a supply of calories to burn to produce heat.

If you or a member of your party become fatigued or chilled, turn back. Don't be afraid to admit your limitations; there's almost always another opportunity to accomplish your goal.

There is no reason to avoid snowmobiling for fear of winter weather or what Mother Nature might set in your path. If you go prepared and use your head out on the trail, you will maximize your margin of safety and comfort and have many adventurous tales to share with your friends. And if you're prepared and come upon someone else who is in difficulty, you just might save the day (or life) of a fellow snowmobiler.

What to have for a safe ride


If you're in the market for a suit or jacket, keep warmth, dryness and safety in mind. A well-lined suit will protect you against the wind. Leather is known for its warmth and wind resistance. "People like the look and feel of leather," says Bud Olson, manager of garments and accessories for Polaris. "And it's very warm." But leather is an expensive choice: a leather jacket can cost as much as 50 percent more than a nylon jacket. If you don't want to spend an arm and a leg, a nylon jacket with a quality lining will do the trick. Also, look for a double collar to keep off the wind, Olson says. Many of the jackets on the market also feature a reflective material, which is a valuable safety feature.

Hands first become cold between the fingers , according to Roger Heumann, president of Olympia Sports, a New York-based glove manufacturer. "Be sure the gloves are insulated between the fingers," he says. "You can determine if they are by squeezing the fingers of the glove. It should feel thicker if there's insulation there." This extra insulation will make the glove more bulky, but the trade-off is warm hands, he says. Heumann also warns consumers of gloves that say Thinsulate but only contain a small amount of this lightweight insulation. A white hang-tag means there is "some" Thinsulate in the glove, he says. A black and red tag means the glove meets snowmobile specifications of at least 150 grams of Thinsulate. A final tip: Buy gloves slightly too big. Gloves that are too small can cut off circulation.

It's not uncommon for manufacturers to make boots so warm that your feet sweat, so it's important to look for a boot with a lining system that will pull moisture away from your foot, says Tiffany Schilla of LaCrosse Footwear, Inc., makers of Sorel boots. Choose a boot that will protect against outside moisture, too. "Rubber is 100 percent water-proof," she says. Schilla also advises snowmobilers to look at the weight factor when buying boots. "The more lining in a boot, the warmer it will be," she says. "But a lot of lining also means the boot will be heavier." Though not a factor when riding, if you're going to be doing a lot of walking around, Schilla suggests that you wear lighter boots and pack a heavier pair.

Mom was right when she nagged you to wear a winter hat. Besides keeping you safe, helmets will also keep you warm. All of the reputable helmet manufacturers meet DOT standards, says Paul Zambierin of Bieffe U.S.A. Snowmobilers should choose a snowmobile helmet, not motorcycle helmet. That means it should have a double-lens shield with an anti-fog treatment. "From a performance standpoint, snowmobilers need a lens that won't fog," he says. "The most important factor from a safety standpoint is fit." Your helmet should be snug, but without any pressure points. You should not be able to pull it off once it's fastened.


Money for phone call and emergency gas
First aid supplies: gauze, tape, scissors, tweezers, adhesive tape, adhesive bandages, plastic bandage, compresses and triangular bandages.
Signal mirror
Flashlight with spare batteries
Reliable lighter or matches in a waterproof container.
Fire starter cube
Two 12 by 12-inch squares of heavy aluminum foil (use to form a cup for melting snow).
Space blanket, at least one for every member of your group.
High-energy and dehydrated food.
Water, both for drinking and snowmobile cooling systems.

Tools: a variety of wrenches, vice grips, screwdrivers and a spark plug wrench.
Extra spark plugs, at least one for each cylinder.
Replacement belt
Tow rope
Duct tape and/or electrical tape

Off the beaten path?
Pack these just in case

lightweight folding shovel
avalanche probe
nylon cord
plastic tarp
siphon hose
extra gas and oil
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