BushLife - A Guide to Snowmobiling

Introduction to Snowmobiling and Routine Maintenance Tips

So its winter, officially! After the big storm in Ontario, there’s a nice thick layer of frozen white water called snow. That means it’s time to whip out the sled. That is of course if you have one so Introduction to Snowmobiling covers a bit about buying one, taking care of it and all the other bits a pieces that comes with sledding.

At the very end of this post, there is a link where you can download a free, printable, Survival and Breakdown Checklist. It will not ask for your email any information whatsoever. It’s on us no questions asked so please help yourself to it.

Discloure: Posts may contain affiliate links. Purchases made through our links result in a small commission to us at no charge to you. We only recommend products that meet our brand standards based on testing and first hand use by our authors.

A Brief Intro

My first experience ever on a sled was around 12 years ago. A corporate job took me to the mountains in Whistler, BC for a commercial real estate convention. My realtor was my guest at my office’s expense and on the plane he politely expressed his gratitude. Meaning he had secretly booked us for a day in the mountains on a guided sledding tour at his expense. The trip just got a lot more exciting as the pleasure box of the checklist just got ticked.

We were shuttled by bus half way up a mountain to a little off grid log cabin that had the jackets and helmets. After a simple and quick gear up, off we were to tour the upper half of that very mountain. Our guide was quick to analyze our ability and even though we were completely new to sledding, he was confident enough in what he saw to take us on the “challenging” route. It was a day I would never forget as it was one of the funnest I have ever had. It was also an eye opener that it’s not that complicating or hard to drive a sled.

Heads Up: It’s a Short Season

I figured the best way to start Introduction to Snowmobiling is with a stark warning. Unless you live way up north, it is a very short season.

Fast forward my Whistler trip to 2018 and I found myself buying a sled to go with our newly acquired cottage. The lake had froze by mid October and was more than safe by mid December. That was a very good year as the lake was solid safely into late March which provided a full 3 months.We also had a ton of snow that winter.

In more recent years, it’s not until mid January when the lake becomes sled friendly. It also seems to have a cutoff at some point in March which provides a season of 2 to 2.5 months!

To those that are new, snowmobile trails have a lot of water crossings. These trails become very disjointed when those crossings are no longer safe. To complicate matters, the trails themselves need a lot of snow. The snow has to accumulate, pack, accumulate, pack and so on which creates a solid base for the sleds. This process makes the trails smooth let alone rideable. Last year by example, the lake was still fine, it was the snow melt on the trails that ended the season.

Below is a super short video showing a backcountry river in the beginning of February. While not deep, it’s one of those rivers that never freezes, sure is pretty though. We’ll talk about ice safety farther below, just remember that water bodies range from wide open to frozen solid.

A Short Season Means 2 Big Considerations

Cost vs Return

If sledding is your main or only hobby, or you are blessed with cash, by all means spend the money and go nuts on that shiny new one. Failing that, I suggest buying something reliable but affordable so you can enjoy other things outdoors. Instead of making payments on a sled in June, you should be out on a boat…

And sorry to the hardcore sledders out there but my ATV runs 365 days a year. It even plows my driveway or winches things which is called “work” so naturally that’s where I dumped the bulk of my toy budget.

Getting back to sleds, when its minus 20 outside and you are 40 km out in the bush, you don’t want your sled to break down on you either. Other than replacing a belt which is routine maintenance, my sled has never let me down. That’s not bad considering the sled was had for a mere $4000. I am talking pre-covid pricing here and a bit bigger budget to the tune of $6000-$8000 opens the doors to a lot nicer sleds than mine! That is perhaps the kind of budget I would suggest to someone new to the sport.

One also needs to consider the costs of licensing, trail passes, insurance, clothing, gear, maintenance, gas and so on.

Down Time

Make sure your sled is mechanically well taken care of BEFORE the season! If you blow a track (which happened to me last year on our other sled) you could be out for weeks. It can take a while to find and order parts. If you can’t fix it yourself, it may also be challenging to find a mechanic that isn’t buried in other jobs. I also blew a stator on the same sled last year which added some more weeks to the down time. Hope you see where I am going with this.

BushLife - Kawartha Snowmobile Trail
On a bright and sunny winter day, Stelios is riding his snowmobile down the trails in the Kawarthas in Ontario

Between all the costs, potential down time and now the complication of losing trails, I often wonder is snowmobiling in trouble? Things aren’t exactly going the way they should but we’ll hang on for the ride as long as we can.

Let’s Talk About Brands

Ski-Doo

The majority of sleds around here are Ski-Doo (Bombardier). They’ve very successfully penetrated the market and carved out their share. Granted I’m in Canada, maybe its a pride thing or maybe they’re just damn good sleds. I know mine is as 4 years in on a 16 year old, $4000 sled and I’ve only replaced an $80 belt! I failed to mention it had over 11,000 km when I bought it which is getting up there on a 2 stroke.

You don’t have to go with the masses but generally speaking when you see a lot of a certain brand, there’s a reason and its usually price, reliability, styling, etc. Maybe it’s a bit of everything, who knows? My point is that it’s not by accident. What it also means is that parts (including used) will be much more abundant. In the event of a breakdown, there’s also a lot more people around that understand your sled and can lend a hand. This means not just in the shop but also on the trails as you’d be surprised to see how people take care of each other out there.

I also have to say that repairing this sled is very easy. Undoing the clips to open the side access panels puts literally everything you could ever need conveniently right at your fingertips. Routine maintenance and getting to most parts is easily done and placement is very well thought out.

Check out Ski-Doo Canada’s current lineup.

Yamaha

I also see a lot of Yamahas on the trails. Yamaha makes a really good product in general and I speak from experience as between the various toys, we have 5 Yamahas in the family. Our other main sled is a 2006 Yamaha Attak and was trouble free the first year we had it. A breakdown magnet last year.

The Attak however, sports a full 1000 cc, four stroke, racing motorcycle engine which Yamaha had to tame a bit for sled friendly RPMs. It has a dual exhaust that goes under the seat and comes out the back which is very unique. I’ve yet to come across a sled that can make that kind of sexy rumble and watching the steam roll out of both pipes on a cold start is nothing less than magical. I’m serious, if you stand there and wait for it to warm up, you know your in for a real treat as you anticipate your upcoming ride. It’s definitely in the fleet for a reason but I bring it up because it describes some of the things that Yamaha comes up with and why they are such a contender.

It Comes With Some Challenges

BushLife - Yamaha Attak Snowmobile
Underneath the hood of a red 2006 Yamaha Attak Snowmobile

I must admit though, working on a Yamaha is a royal pain in the ass! Just as an example, it takes me 4 hours to do an oil change on this sled. The dealer congratulated me as they do it all the time and it takes them 3.5. I’m sorry but that is not normal. Seriously, it should be a 10 min job!!! It’s as though their engineers have absolutely zero regard for the fact that people need to actually work on these things from time to time.

Not to go off on tangents but our Yamaha side by side is literally and absolutely the perfect machine for what our family needs. I test drove multiple units from all the major brands before deciding this was the one that ticked all the boxes. Several attempts and curse words later, I just can’t seem to adjust the handbrake! They placed the adjuster in the worst possible location and its something that should be very accessible. Yamaha makes great machines that are definitely worth looking at. I guess the moral of this piece is to suggest upping the budget a bit if you take the Yamaha route – in the hopes of not having to work on one anytime soon:)

Yamaha Canada’s current lineup.

Arctic Cat & Polaris

I also see some Arctic Cat and Polaris around but they are nowhere near as abundant as they once used to be. Again, maybe it’s a regional thing but I’m sure they both make good machines as they have been around forever. I just don’t know much about them and I don’t write about things I don’t know.

One thing I do know is in the late 70’s, Arctic Cat was quite the player in the sledding world. We have an old 1978 Arctic Cat Jag in the mix and its my favourite sled to be honest. It’s a $600 buy from late last March that starts, runs, stops which is insane considering covid drove prices to insanity. How do you test a machine like this? Drive it!

Here’s a little teaser video from a 40km backcountry trail run we did the week we acquired the machine:

This machine is a champ and it deserves a blog post of its own so you’ll have to wait for that one. In the meantime keep your eyes open for these older, lesser powered units. They are exceptionally fun and if you have kids that are roaring to ride their own machines, they are ideal.

Routine Maintenance

Here is a list of things I like to do with my sleds. None of which is rocket science nor is it the be all end all, but it should help keep you out of trouble. For anyone that has experience with this, your list may be different but this is what works for me.

1. Inspect Your Belt, Carry a Spare

Check your belt for rips, cracks, tears, etc. If in doubt, change it. Most sleds have a spot to carry a spare and if not simply take some zip ties and add it somewhere in the engine bay, away from moving parts and exhaust.

If anything goes on a sled, it’s usually the drive belt. It’s not super expensive and carrying a spare is cheap insurance to get you home the day you need it. I also suggest you read the manual or watch a YouTube video on how to change yours. Then save that or take a picture of it on your phone if you don’t physically carry or have a manual. Don’t forget, there’s no cell signal in much of backcountry so don’t count on always being able to look things up. I also suggest you practice it at least once so you are not learning this on a cold or wet trail, in the dark when you are exhausted and just want to go home.

2. Inspect the Track

Are there any rips, frayed cords, cracks and so on? If in doubt, get an opinion from a trusted friend or dealer. Mine was almost $1000 so it’s one of those items that you don’t want want to have fail in the bush, but you also don’t want to change if you don’t have to. Also look for missing or loose studs on studded tracks.

Tip: With a little skill and gentle use of a blow torch, any cords (fabric) that stick out of the track can be seared off nicely. This prevents them from tangling anywhere and buys a little bit of time between track changes.

3. Change your Fluids!

Chain Case

Every sled has a chain case. The oils vary from machine to machine so please take the time to lookup what yours needs.

Tip: I usually buy enough for 2-3 seasons, this way if anything goes wrong on a change, I have extra fluid. It’s going to get used sooner or later so why not have it just in case?

Engine Oil

Obviously if its 4 stroke, an annual oil change is a must. If you use it a lot, you’ll require extra changes during the season but I suspect if you use it that much, you wouldn’t be reading an introductory post…

Modern 2 strokes have an oil reservoir and oil injector. It’s not a part of “changing” fluids but do treat this like a part of filling up when you get gas. Don’t be lazy either, you’ll thank me when your machine doesn’t shut down for a low oil alarm in the middle of nowhere.

Coolant

I like to change my coolant every 4-5 years. It can get corrosive for motors that have aluminum parts not to mention it just gets dirty over time. When I do a change, I flush and back flush everything until literally clear water comes through. Then I drain and fill with the correct mixture of antifreeze and water. Check your level and condition before the season and check your level from time to time.

Brake Fluid

Check your brake fluid, if applicable. It should be full and if its not you probably have a problem that needs to be looked at. I drove clunker cars in my poor days and classic cars in my better days but I have never replaced brake fluid in any vehicle. To each his own but my take is it’s hydraulic fluid that contains corrosion inhibitors. Yes, it absorbs water, but it’s in a sealed system. And technically there’s no real exposure to moving parts that would quickly degrade or dirty it. I’m not saying it doesn’t go bad, I myself would maybe consider a change every 5-10 years. However, I’ve yet to keep anything long enough to cross that bridge. If it gives you the warm and fuzzies, feel free to do it more often & just don’t blame me if you don’t.

Scheduling Tip

I usually work on my sleds before the season, probably because it’s exciting. I also can’t seem to get into it in the spring. For what it’s worth, it would be better to do fluid changes before putting them away so they sit in storage with clean fluids. By example with boats, I change lower unit oil in the fall the day I cover the boat, religiously. It has to be done once a year anyways and should there be a leak where water seeped in during the season, why risk a freeze? My point is I have a schedule or routine that works for me. I know what gets done and when. If you don’t have your own routine, it’s probably wise to start. It keeps you accountable for your maintenance efforts.

BushLife - Group Snowmobiling on the Trails
With the snow falling a group of snowmobilers ride their snowmobiles down the trails in Quebec

4. Check your Plugs

If your sled is hard to start, has the occasional misfire or doesn’t haul like it used to, it’s time to change your plugs. Don’t forget to gap them before putting them in:)

Before you toss the old ones, you may want to learn how to read them. Sadly it’s a dying art but reading your plugs will tell you exactly, cylinder by cylinder, what your engine is doing and the state of its health.

Tip: It’s wise to carry a couple spare plugs and a plug wrench on the trail.

5. Fuel Treatment

I use premium on my small engines like chainsaws, blowers, lawnmowers, etc. and I also toss the generators into this group. Not true for my sleds, ATV’s, boats and so on. I just don’t see the need for the added expense. Unless you have a high compression engine that calls for it, there’s simply no need for it. Many people may disagree with me on this and I respect that. But I have NEVER had a fuel related problem.

Premium fuel doesn’t guarantee ethanol free either which is why many people buy it to begin with. Ethanol use in premium varies from station to station so be sure to ask or look for a sign if that’s why you are doing it. I’ll tell you from experience, many gas operators can’t answer that question either. I’ve asked at stations without signage about their ethanol use.

What I do is add some Startron to all my gas cans before filling them. The gas cans end up in my engines so I have a system of constantly dosing and delivering a fuel system cleaner and fuel stabilizer. This way I know the carburetor or injectors, depending on the machine, are always getting a little cleaning. I’m also slowing down the deterioration of the gasoline and ethanol.

6. Fill Up!

A common problem people have is water in the fuel system. When the stator went on the Attak, no less than 3 out of 3 neighbours who saw it won’t start stopped by to tell me I probably have water in the fuel. I am very proud to say that I have NEVER in my life had that problem. Because I fill up after each ride!

Most gas tanks are vented meaning gas goes out, air comes in. If its full of gas, there is no air space in your tank and obviously no room for air – which can condensate into water droplets as temperatures go up and down. I also know for my next outing that I leave home with a full tank. The last benefit is if there is ever an emergency, whatever machine I grab is always ready to go!

I don’t generally trust gauges either and its nice to see the gas come right up when I fill.

7. Check your Battery

When in storage, I usually put an automatic trickle charger on for a day or two and I do it once a month. Always at the beginning of the month so I don’t forget. It’s not good for a battery if it sits for long in a discharged state and NEVER store it on concrete.

Before the season, its good practice to check and clean your battery posts and cables to ensure good contact. Make sure they’re nice and tight as well.

I also have a digital load tester that will give me a percentage of battery life. It is surprisingly accurate and I bought it as I was a little tired of constantly guessing the health of all these different batteries over the years. I can appreciate not everyone has this tool but if in doubt, some shops will check your battery for you if you take it in.

For the roughly $150 that a battery costs, it’s just not worth taking any chances of getting stranded when it reads or acts (if you can’t measure) a bit weak. The Ski-Doo I have has a pull start, but it will not run without a battery! Maybe it’s a digital security key issue, I don’t know. But don’t count on the pull start alone.

8. Don’t Forget Your Lights

A brake light is a safety feature, make sure it works. As to a headlight, you won’t be riding at night without one so double check it. I also suggest checking it before any trip that potentially has you coming home in the dark.

Tool & Part Checklist

Here’s a little infograph with some spare parts and tools you should carry. The later half of the infograph is about taking your parts off the sled and what they can be used for if you find yourself stranded or in a survival situation. A link to download the pdf is at the end of the post.

Snowmobile Tools and Parts - Infograph
Snowmobile Tools and Parts – Infograph

Crossing on Ice, Safely

I don’t care what anyone says, no ice is safe! I’ve gone through myself and while I’m still here to talk about it, I will do my best to make sure it NEVER happens again as believe me, it’s not pleasant! What we can do is make things as safe as possible.

Local Knowledge

2018/2019 was magical on my lake as the ice was several feet thick, providing a worry free ride. There were however parts of the lake where certain narrows that join 2 major sections of the lake were unsafe, even though all looked perfectly good from the surface. It’s due to a lot of current under the ice in this section.

This is where local knowledge comes into play and my advice here is talk to the locals before heading out on unknown (to you) water bodies. You always need to know what areas to avoid. Locals and snowmobile clubs that regularly drill and measure ice thickness will also help with when it’s safe to start venturing out.

Also remember that measuring ice thickness in one particular spot means absolutely nothing a little farther down.

The Floatation Suit

I’m sure there are multiple companies out there that make great snowmobile suits but we use FXR. Specifically, FXR makes a line of jackets and pants under their F.A.S.T. series that has built in floatation. It’s meant to keep you above water and warm long enough to hopefully buy enough time for a rescue.

It completely boggles my mind that we carry life jackets in the boat in case we need them – its also law by the way. Yet when facing the risk of taking a swim in ice cold water, with heavy winter clothes, boots, helmet, etc. most don’t bother to gear up. Without the proper gear, you might last 10-20 minutes in cold water. The shock it gives the muscles is tremendous and you’ve got multiple factors working against you. If you manage to escape and it’s cold enough outside, you may only have as little as 10 minutes to get dry and into a warm place. Please think about that very carefully.

A forewarning that these floating or survival suits are not cheap but then again no amount of money in the bank matters when you are dead. I’d even go as far as saying consider it a part of the initial costs of buying a sled. It’s something I recommend to anyone that fishes, skates, walks or does anything on the ice. I bought one for each family member and I make sure they wear them religiously before going on ice.

Ice Safety Picks

Eagle Claw Ice Safety Picks happens to be a fishing one, but they are all similar and provide the same function. The picks simply dig into the ice to give you enough grip to pull yourself out to safety. When I broke through once, I was close to shore and swam out. It’s a completely different ballgame when you are surrounded 360 degrees by slippery ice.

Basic Accessories

Helmet

A good helmet is must. The law requires a helmet anyways but unless you want your face and skull to freeze to a painful state, don’t skimp on this one. The first year I used an M99 helmet / goggles combination from Royal Distributing. It got me through and is a good helmet, but air always leaked around the goggles. I had no choice but to use a balaclava and would still be cold if going fast across the lake on a colder day. Trail riding was generally fine. It’s now my backup helmet or for guests that don’t have their own.

We use Bombardier helmets in our family. They are a game changer in my mind as the field of view is excellent. These helmets are very well sealed and no air seeps in. Its visor is heated which aids in fogging but you do need to have the corresponding plug on your sled to power it. I use the BV2S myself and love it! It costs a fair bit but is worth every penny if you sled regularly.

Gloves

Your hands are the other main things that will quickly freeze up on you. Use some quality gloves and pray that your handlebar heaters are working. I have several amazing winter gloves yet the only ones that keep my hands warm are by Canada Goose. These gloves are down filled and super warm. As an update to the post, we discovered some heated gloves and it’s a total game changer.

Tip: If you ever find yourself with freezing hands, no spare gloves and no hand warmers to toss in, a quick emergency fix is to warm your gloves with the exhaust. It stinks, it really does but holding your gloves open in the exhaust stream for a minute or so will make them toasty warm and will help you get home if your in a bind.

Essential Gear Checklist

Another infograph with a bigger emphasis on gear. Also included in the pdf at the end of the post.

Snowmobile Gear - Infograph
Snowmobile Gear – Infograph

Yes, you need insurance… unless you stay on your property, you need liability insurance. If you are looking at buying a bigger engine sled like a 1000 cc or so, perhaps call and get a quote before you tie up the machine. Some insurers are weary of bigger engines on toys and will have higher rates. Others may refuse to insure altogether.

You also need a trail pass if you intend on hitting the snowmobile trails. Unlike ATVs, a trail pass isn’t super local. I’m in Ontario and an OFSC trail pass covers the whole province. This is perfect considering many sledders like to do giant loops. I have quite a few things to say about the pass situation but it is what it is.

Free Download

Thank you for taking the time to read Introduction to Snowmobiling. If you enjoy our content we would appreciate if you like, share and subscribe on our social channels.

Click the download button below for your FREE pdf copy of our Survival and Breakdown Checklists:

Thank you for reading my Introduction to Snowmobiling. If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to like and follow us for more helpful content. You can also sign up for our newsletter to stay updated with our latest reviews and recommendations.

Purchase the Items in This Post

Optimate 4 Battery Charger

Optimate 4 Battery Charger

Eagle Claw Ice Safety Picks

Eagle Claw Ice Safety Picks

Share This Post
Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

Articles: 54