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Navigation on the trail is an easy-to-learn skill, with several tools readily available. Like any other skill, it is enhanced by regular practice.


A common method of learning a particular trail or area is by following a friend or acquaintance who knows the territory. This usually requires some repetition. The key is noting landmarks that are not likely to change.

Map & Compass

Trail maps are an important tool. Most of the Tug Hill region, much of the Adirondacks, some state parks including Allegany and Letchworth, and numerous DEC land management areas have snowmobile trail maps. Many clubs and county club federations publish maps that cover other areas of upstate New York. Snowmobile trail maps can vary considerably in quality and content. Sometimes changes are made after the map is printed, so always check with local sources for the latest information.

A compass is another important navigational tool. Snowmobilers should know how to use a compass and always carry one. Inexpensive compasses are often included in trail and survival kits, as part of other tools, and even on snowmobile suit zipper fobs. Compasses are available at sporting goods stores and through hunting and hiking catalogs.


A much more high-tech approach to navigation is the Geographic Positioning System (GPS). This system uses satellites and a hand-held receiver to allow you to plot your progress over a trail. It retains manually-entered check points so that users can retrace their route to the starting point. There are some inherent terrain and accuracy limitations, and GPS units cost a few hundred dollars. But they can make long-distance riding much easier. See local sporting goods stores and hunting catalogs for more information.

Celestial Navigation

Celestial is a much overlooked method of navigation. It is totally free and very easy to use as long as the heavenly bodies necessary can be seen. During the day, remember that the winter sun is in the southern part of the sky, and that it progresses from east to west as the day goes on. Simply referring to sun position and movement over time will allow a rider to keep track of the general direction of travel. The same thing can be done at night with close observation of the movements of the moon and stars. Libraries are the best source of detailed information on the night sky.

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The best way to deal with a snowmobile emergency is to avoid it entirely. To do this, maintain your sled, plan your ride, dress appropriately, and ride responsibly. But if an unforeseen problem does occur, be ready to deal with it.

Getting Lost

If lost, backtrack if possible. If backtracking is not possible, stay put and wait to be found. You did tell someone responsible where you were going, didn't you? In case of heavy weather or major mechanical malfunction, build a fire, erect shelter, remain with the sleds, and stay as warm and dry as possible until help arrives.

Medical Problems

Medical problems can present the most pressing emergencies. Frostbite, hypothermia, and snow blindness are some of the most common problems.


is the crystallization of fluids and soft tissues of the skin. The skin becomes flushed, then progresses to a white or grayish-yellow tone. Mental confusion sets in and judgment is impaired. In advanced cases, shock is present and death becomes a real possibility. Minor frostbite is treated by slowly warming the afflicted area. Severe frostbite requires a physician's care. Avoid frostbite by dressing properly and limiting exposure in very cold weather.


happens when the body loses heat faster than it can generate it. This can happen even in relatively warm weather. Symptoms start with uncontrolled shivering, loss of motor skills, sleepiness, and slurred speech. Treat victims by warming them. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to stay dry and avoid consumption of alcohol.

Snow blindness

results from light overload. Symptoms are severe headache, dizziness, sensitivity to light, and seeing stars. Treat victims by getting them into a totally dark area if possible, or at least an indoors, low light situation. Avoid snow blindness by using high quality sunglasses that absorb at least 90% of the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun.

Frostbite, hypothermia, and snow blindness and how to treat them are covered in more detail in the NYS Snowmobile Safe Riders adult education course.

Snowmobilers can be even better prepared to deal with a medical emergency if they have had Red Cross training in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Contact the local Red Cross chapter for more information.

Above all else, in any emergency, clear thinking is absolutely necessary. Stay calm. Stay together. Plan a course of action. Conserve resources and use them wisely. If you can get to help, get it as quickly as possible.

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