Is Snowmobiling in Trouble

Is Snowmobiling in Trouble? Our Best Analysis

If you are into snowmobiling, you’ll know it’s time to buy your permit for the upcoming season. They are available for sale (and on sale) right now. You can still save some money by buying now. We’ll cover that below. It’s also time to start sourcing in some gear. Our kids outgrew their floating suits and it’s not exactly the easiest thing to find. That’s why this post comes up so early. But it comes with a big question, is snowmobiling in trouble? Things are changing and not in a good way.

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Let’s Start With the Permit

Other provinces will be similar but we’ll speak to Ontario as that’s the home of BushLife. The government mandates that all sledders on it’s trail system purchase a trail permit. It’s law. The permitting process is controlled by the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs and they determine the fees. It’s basically the mothership of 183 member snowmobile clubs across province.

Here’s a Table of Their Fees:

Date of PurchaseFee
Oct 1 – Nov 1$200
Nov 2 – Dec 1$230
Dec 2 Onwards$280

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had the pleasure of acquiring a sled right around Christmas. The unlucky part was timing and I was forced to pay the top tier fees. Here’s the problem, it was for trails that weren’t even open yet! All trails were still red and closed for lack of snow. In other words, my usage of the trails was the EXACT same as anyone else but not the fees. If someone were to buy their permit in early February for whatever reason, they would pay the maximum after already losing half the season. If someone from the OFSC can explain how any of this makes sense, I’m all ears.

These fees grant access to a trail network – a network that costs money to maintain. No one will ever argue the fact that fees should be paid. But these fees should be charged fairly and equally. What they are doing is shady. It even feels like a shakedown to grab your money upfront backed by muscle of the government. Let me explain.

The only possible explanation why the big push for funds upfront would be to cover a bad winter. Ie. the weather conditions create for a crappy season and people don’t want to buy in. But in that case, they won’t be working on the trails as much which means not incurring all the usual expenses on things such as grooming. In other words, they wouldn’t be able to justify their fees anyways. Proof of that was in the first year of lockdowns when they were not wanting to issue refunds should the trails get a no go status from the government.

The Costs Are Steep

Do you remember when automobile stickers cost $60? Before the Ford government scrapped them, those stickers ran $110 if I recall correct. That grants you access to roads EVERYWHERE, not just in Ontario. Having a legal plate in Ontario means you’re good to go in Florida. It also grants. you 24/7 access 365 days a year.

Sledding, assuming the max at $280 is good for Ontario. For 2 months! Let’s face it, the majority of the population lives in southern Ontario. We often miss even a part of January if the lakes don’t freeze up fast enough or the deeper snows don’t build on the trails. By mid March, it’s heading in the opposite direction and starts to get dicey.

Multiply this for your husband or wife’s machine and then add maybe one more as the kid doesn’t want to ride with mom or dad anymore. Then add your insurance, gas, maintenance, clothing and so on. You’ll find that the cost of sledding vs the short time frame starts to become very prohibitive. If not a luxury. Then couple that with a bad economy and it’s not hard to forecast numbers drastically going down. Instead of focusing on accessibility and sustainability, the OFSC raised their fees this year.

Further Costs

We have only talked permits at this point. Add insurance as another big one. In fact, there are several other costs and gear you need for snowmobiling, especially for the new sledder.

Back to Permits and Where Does the Money Go?

Trail Groomer
Groomer Maintaining the Snowmobile Trails

There is a split between the OFSC and its member clubs. The money that goes to the clubs is ultimately what you see in terms of running the groomers and so on. I can’t seem to find that split defined anywhere online. One would assume when the government MANDATES these permits, and through a private body, some transparency would be loud and clear. Not to mention easily found on their site. If I were in charge, I would have a big badge right on the home page that says “proudly xx% of your dollars goes right back into the trails”. So what are they hiding?

There is however a proud heading that says there are 6000 volunteers. I also found a post on the OFSC site that says they sold permits for about 105,000 sleds in 2019. So if we take the middle ground at $230 a permit x 105,000 permits, that’s over a whopping $24 million dollars! Backed by an army of 6000 volunteers, where did that money go considering they only have 300 groomers to run???

The Unpaid, Paid Service

Last year, a local posted on Facebook that he pegged my lake and the trail is officially open. Other lakers then commented asking how thick is the ice? His answer, I don’t know. Seriously??? Classic knowledge of the trails here is that when you see the pegs, the lake is deemed safe. That means it’s been checked thoroughly and that’s obviously not neccessarily the case anymore. The club didn’t do their job, the most important job in my mind. And if they did but this guy doesn’t even know what’s going on, what chances do I or other members have of getting any updates?

The man that posted proceeded to say his job was simply to stake the lake. And in doing so that he volunteered his ATV, gas and time. This is all fine, even greatly appreciated. Nor is anyone blaming him for the lack of thickness checks or status updates. But it is sad my money went somewhere, for this very purpose and we didn’t even cut this guy $10 to cover his gas. I think volunteering is great, but it shouldn’t cost someone money to do so – at least not when we are paying for this very service only to have it delivered on someone else’s dime.

We Are Losing Trails!!

I don’t recall if it was last year or the year before but the OFSC seemed to be emailing constantly to stay on the trails and off private property. Many people don’t know that the over 30,000 kilometres of trails in Ontario cuts through a lot of private property! When disrespectful jerks tear up said property, it doesn’t take long for an upset owner to shut it down. And it’s happening more and more. I see it first hand and we’ve lost trails locally, very popular trails. All it takes is one owner to shut down their portion of the trail and a really long run becomes a dead end.

Shift In Population

This change however is also being driven by a major shift in population. As the older folks get either sick or even too tired to live the rural life, they go back to the city in seek of an easier life. The doctors , meds and groceries are closer and that’s perfectly normal. But it’s happening on mass thanks to the boomers coming of age.

Sadly, as the boomer generation moves on, dieing with them is that old school country mentality. You know what I mean when I use words like hospitality, sharing and respect. The folks from the city who seek the country life (recently in droves thanks to the pandemic) are not of that same sharing mindset. That means a lot of land changed hands at a very premium price. A lot of new owners aren’t keen on having sleds cut through their land they just paid a fortune for. What they want is a little bit of piece and quiet on their country getaway. For what it’s worth, we need to understand them as well.

One way or another, with land changes there always comes an attitude change. This generational shift that’s happening is outside of the OFSC control and everyone else’s for that matter. I see it as a big problem – even if all the sledders out there behave themselves.

New Sledders

Compound all of the above with one final fact. There was a lot of new sledders out there. Every outdoor activity or sport desperately exploded during the pandemic. More people than ever bought land and moved, others that always close the cottage stayed and spent the winter. And so on. This introduces a lot of new sledders and without blaming them, they may not know the etiquette. A more likely issue is that when you’re on a trail in the middle of a forest, it’s often hard to tell when land just switched from public to private. Ie. it’s time to stay on the trail and OFF someone’s land! It takes a while to learn the ropes and the terrain.

We Need a Better Vision

Snowmobile Trail Riding
Is snowmobiling in trouble

The OFSC was right that we have a legitimate issue and we need to stay on trails. Got it. What I didn’t appreciate is how they went about it. There were constant emails coming in screaming, demanding compliance. First of all, one would assume that a person who actually buys a pass intends to obey the law and regulations! In other words, they might be barking up the wrong tree. Compound that with the fact that if someone opts to stay on the mailing list, they are a genuine sledder and they know and abide by the rules. Perhaps a multi-media, multi-platform education campaign would work much better. The OFSC would need to spend some money to do that and it’s not as easy nor FREE as blasting your own email list. But that would be in the true interests of preserving sledding wouldn’t it?

Second, when you unleash your furry on people, the usual response is pushback. Quite honestly I’ve never gone off the trails nor trespassed. EVER. And I paid my dues to a group that hasn’t really done much of anything for me. Now when you harass me, because that’s pretty much what they did, over something I didn’t do, it doesn’t sit well.

Lackluster Clubs

When my family started sledding, our local club had a website from the 90’s. I’d be shocked if anything was updated in the last decade. Their Facebook was pretty much dead. In other words, they did absolutely nothing to stay in touch with their members or to communicate things like trail or groomer status. There are pretty much no events, no clubhouse, nothing. We do have a parking lot at a trailhead probably acquired in 1960 and that’s about it. I’m sorry, but you can’t even call that a club.

If money is an issue, they’re no excuse either. Take the girl guides for example. If little girls can go door to door and sell cookies like heroes, what are these clubs doing? The Bancroft Fish and Game Association is something to look up to. They lost power to their barn and faced a $10,000 bill to reconnect it. They got off their ass and hosted several events including a barn sale of donated items and time. Money is something every organization needs to RAISE and earn, not just depend on whatever hand outs come your way.

In my club’s defence, there’s finally some postings on the OFSC club section and Facebook. Hopefully they are figuring out the importance of these things.

A Generational Shift

Sledding may be going through what other things are. The older generation is fading. They don’t want change and they don’t know technology and can’t stay in touch. They probably blame the young generation for not coming to the table to help – which is hard to do when you don’t communicate to them nor cater to their interests which are vastly different than yours.

Case in point, I’m in my 40’s and would love to donate a day or two to help with clearing trails pre-season. But no one asked nor are they the easiest people to find where I can offer. What would give me the warm and fuzzies is knowing other younger folks are doing their part as well. For that you need to organize dates and do this AS A CLUB!

As to the younger crowd, yes, you work, you have kids and life is busy. I get your excuses as they are real. But you can’t expect 60-70 year olds to clear the trails for you so you have a nice cushiony ride on the weekend. So donate a day or stop every so often and actually remove a downed tree instead of finding the easiest way to go around it! That’s how I’ve been chipping in and doing my part whenever I can.

We need to bridge the gap between the old and the young – both sides need to work together and foster a positive next generation of sledders.

Changing Weather Can Bring Sledding to a Grinding Halt

Changing Weather
Is Snowmobiling in Trouble

First the scientists screamed “global warming” and that went on for many years. When record colds hit, I don’t believe the science changed but the marketing did. Now we have “climate change” as the new catchphrase or moniker and it’s great because regardless of what the weather does, we have something to call it without the need for any science whatsoever…

I’m just not a big believer in all the hype in light of the big business climate change has become. One of a million examples is when all kinds of new environmental taxes come in at the very same time municipalities stopped recycling foam or foiled chip bags because “it’s too expensive”. Think about that for a second.

Wait for It…

I live a country lifestyle with a lot smaller footprint than the millions of people in the cities! I also love nature and the bush – and these types of people are generally far more environmentally conscious in their actions than others. Myself included and I’m not here to disagree with the pro climate change folks.

There’s a very big point to all of this. There’s a massive political war going on right now over the environment, globally and it’s actually become a huge distraction. People have become more divided and ready to argue and cancel each other instead of trying to work with one another to find a common ground. Even today, I can’t talk about changing weather without addressing the elephant in the room which is “climate change” as someone, somewhere won’t be happy about it. The truth is, some believe in it, some don’t and then there are those who are in between – and you are all right because you are entitled to your own opinion.

Electric Everything

I’m on board with all of us living even greener, I think everyone is. In this day and age, who wouldn’t be? I just believe that in a free market, instead of banning gasoline vehicles, why don’t you come up with electric ones that are better, cheaper and drive farther? I was once a franchisor running a 100 restaurants and I learned through experience that if you present great solutions to real problems, the outcome is always exactly what you want. Get people to say where do I sign up? and they’ll do it with a big smile on their face. The other lesson I learned is that when you introduce big changes, you need to be realistic of the time frame it actually takes to get things done.

You’ll notice I used electric cars as an example of climate change compromise. That’s not by accident. Let’s understand one thing, right here and right now: that tech will come to sleds as well one day whether you like it or not! At first it will be by choice and one day, it won’t be. But we’ll just keep that in the back of our minds for now as there’s bigger things to worry about right now.

Back to Weather and Sledding

Here’s the thing, whether you believe in climate change or not, it DOES NOT matter in the context of this post. There is something we can actually all agree on: Weather patterns have changed! Southern Ontario winters just aren’t what they used to be. It comes in later and the volume of snow is often nowhere near what it used to be. That means the reliable and lets stress reliable amount of sledding days simply aren’t what they used to be. That’s yet another major challenge to the sport of sledding – and a big factor in asking is snowmobiling in trouble?

Late January Update. It’s Bad News, Really Bad!!!

Interactive Trail Map Guide Snapshot for January 27, 2023
Interactive Trail Map Guide Snapshot for January 27, 2023

The OFSC has an online trail map guide (also available as a mobile app) which every sledder is supposed to check before heading out. Red means the trail is not ready and you are NOT welcome to use it.

This post was originally written on November 7th of 2022. Ie. Pre-season where we talk about weather potentially ruining a sledding season. It’s now almost the end of January, 2023 and that prediction is reality. Nowhere in Ontario’s vast cottage country is anyone using snowmobile trails let alone anyplace more southern where the vast majority of the population lives. You would need to head up to Sudbury to find a patch that resembles “somewhat” of a normal year. We would need a lot more snow to come in and fast in order to turn things around.

The ice is also thin this year which means the thaw will happen that much faster in March or April. When the frozen waterways that connects all these trails becomes unsafe, the trails are no longer a viable network. All of this begs the question what is really left of this season? A season that so far provided, well, nothing…

Is Snowmobiling in Trouble?

Hopefully the post doesn’t come across as a rant because it’s not. These are all real issues and we love snowmobiling. We also highly wish to stress that we appreciate the clean trails after the groomer has made its rounds and we fully appreciate the work from all the clubs. We know exactly what it takes to cleanup trails from all the dead trees that fall on them. That’s never in question.

With the amount of bigger problems and the way things are heading, the snowmobiling industry needs an overhaul. And fast to keep things working in this new era of sledding.

We would love to hear your feedback. Is snowmobiling in trouble? Tell us below by leaving a comment and if you think this is important, don’t forget to share.

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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.

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