The air is crisp and the frozen landscape shimmers in the light. A flick of the wrist is all it takes to be an easy rider in winter, exploring the state's thousands of miles of snowmobile trails. Snowmobilers are a hearty bunch, sharing both adventure and camaraderie.Are you ready to ride?First, you need a valid motor vehicle driver's license or show you've taken an approved safety education class. Snowmobile drivers can be as young as 12 and any driver under 14 must be accompanied by a licensed adult over age 18. Anyone on a snow machine under 18 must wear a helmet while the driver is also required to wear eye protection.Snowmobile clubs make sledding happen. Not only do club members groom and maintain trails on the state system (in summer they build bridges, clear blow-downs, etc.), they also issue trail condition reports, offer safety courses, advocate for snowmobile-friendly legislation, coordinate group rides and host events."The volunteer clubs are the lifeblood of snowmobiling in New Hampshire and most of the world for that matter," says Chris Gamache, New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation's Chief of the Bureau of Trails.Whether it's outside of Nashua or up in the Great North Woods, get that motor running and head out on the state's frozen highways.Impressive FactNew Hampshire has more than 115 snowmobile clubs, according to the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association.Gear BoxTwo-up means sledding with a driver and passenger. The Polaris Trail Touring Deluxe (polarisindustries.com, $6,599) has a push button to go in reverse, comfort and rear seat conversion if you want to ride solo. Keeping the head protected and feet warm are important aspects of snowmobiling. Ski-doo's Modular 2 helmets (ski-doo.com, $349.99) allow a wide range of peripheral vision while offering a number of adjustable shield positions (helpful in the sun's glare). Ski-doo's RXTS boots ($149.99) have a cool snowboarding type of look and are rated to toe-saving minus 40 degrees. Arctic Cat's Premium X-Country coat (not shown) (arcticcat.com, $319.95) is warm, visible and waterproof. The durable and warm Irondog jacket ($169.95) and Premium bib ($199.95) are a heavy-duty combination.Expert AdviceAs the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation's Chief of the Bureau of Trails, Chris Gamache oversees the statewide trail system that includes New Hampshire's snowmobiles trails coordination, ATV and trail bike trails, and the non-motorized trails on state reservations. Since taking that position in May of 2006, he has been the lead in the development of the state's newest park - Berlin's Jericho Mountain State Park. A University of New Hampshire graduate, he and his family enjoy pursuits like snowmobiling, camping and skiing.What is the best way to get started in snowmobiling?Go riding with a friend, colleague, family member or other that rides. Getting a first-hand experience on a sled to confirm that you will enjoy it, which you will, is the best way to go. There are a few tour operators that offer quick lessons and guided tours, but the experience is usually a bit different than a trail ride with folks that ride because they love it.Should I join a snowmobile club and what do they do?Absolutely. The clubs contact the landowners, cut the brush, build and maintain the trails and groom them for riding. They also enjoy social events and are major charity contributors to N.H. If people do not join clubs there will be no miles to ride on your snowmobile.Where and when can I ride a snowmobile in New Hampshire?The state and snowmobile clubs manage about 7,000 miles of public snowmobile trails (2,500 miles more than there are of state highways). Annually the state and N.H. Snowmobile Association produce a map of the major trails (Corridors and Primaries) that is distributed for free. Local clubs also sell their local maps of other trails. Trails typically open, depending on snowfall, on or about December 15 and remain open until the majority of the snow melts (in certain areas of New Hampshire that can be May).What happens if the snowmobile breaks down on the trail?First of all, be prepared to be outside. Don't go riding presuming that everything is great and nothing can go wrong. Make sure your sled has a tool kit with an extra belt and oil. Dress warmly in layers and have a light (it gets dark early in winter). Stay with your snowmobile. In N.H. the trails are the best in the country and typically another rider is not far away or behind you. Slow and stop another rider and ask them for assistance but make sure your sled is in a safe location along or off the side of the trail.How dangerous and loud is snowmobiling?Snowmobiling is a safe and enjoyable winter activity. However, it is an outdoor winter activity that has certain risks associated with it. Learn how to ride safely, do not try to go faster or beyond your limits of safety and experience and always be on the look out for others. There are not a lot of snowmobile accidents but with any other activity that involves the outdoors the potential for an injury is there. Snowmobiles, which are in line with NH law, are not very loud. Your lawnmower or weed whacker makes a lot more noise than the average snowmobile. With your helmet on and your machine in good working order there are no major noise issues.What are some safety tips for snowmobiling, especially for novices?Plan ahead. Know where you are going; insure you have the proper clothing and safety gear to be out longer than you may plan to be. Take water and a snack with you Make sure your equipment is in good working order and that someone knows where you are headed and when you plan to return. Smile, you are headed out for a great day of snowmobiling. If you do what you need to do to make yourself safe and everyone else does the same your day should be enjoyable and memorable. Stay on the trail. The State and clubs mark the trail that you have permission to use. It is also the area that has the most maintenance work done to insure a good trail for you. Leaving the trail makes the landowner mad, increases your likelihood of finding something to ruin your trip and can cause other damages.
This article appears in the January 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine