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Updated on April 9, 2010
Photo by Shalom Pennington
Photo by Shalom Pennington

The snowmobile is a vehicle that moves along over snow on tank-like treads and a pair of skis. Constructed of fiberglass, the snowmobile is powered by a two-cylinder engine that runs on gasoline. Snowmobiles attain speeds of more than 50 miles per hour. They are operated merely by squeezing a throttle lever.

Snowmobiles are used in rural areas to deliver mail, provide police, fire, or medical emergency services, or perform rescue operations. They are used by farmers to patrol their land and by hunters, fishermen, and trappers to reach previously inaccessible habitats of their quarry. The introduction of the snowmobile expanded wintertime recreation in many parts of North America.

Since the early 1960's, when snowmobiles were introduced commercially, driving a snowmobile, or snowmobiling, has become a popular winter sport, particularly in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, where the snow lasts for five or six months of the year. State authorities have become concerned, however, about the dangers of snowmobiling. Numerous injuries and, occasionally, deaths have been caused by snowmobiles. Snowmobiles also pollute the air, create excessive noise, and endanger animal life. Some states have established regulations for snowmobiles, including licensing and registration of the vehicles and the setting up of specific recreation areas for snowmobiling.

History of the Snowmobile

The first snowmobile was probably put together about the beginning of the 20th century by a farmer who used barrel staves and an old motor. Carl J. Eliason of Sayner, Wis., in 1927 was the first person to patent a snowmobile, or motor toboggan. Joseph Armand-Bombadier of Quebec, Canada, followed in 1930 with the first vehicle operated by traction. The early vehicles, developed as a replacement for the Eskimos' and trappers' dog teams, were heavy and hard to maneuver. In 1958, Bombadier Ltd. introduced an easily operated vehicle with a lightweight engine, broad treads, and an aluminum cabin. From then on snowmobiling spread rapidly. By the 1970's about two million were being operated in the United States and Canada. Modern "snow buggies" travel up to 40 miles (65 km) per hour in normal operation and 70 to 80 miles (113-130 km) per hour on straightaways in racing.

During the 1960's snowmobile clubs mushroomed throughout the snow country. The majority were affiliated with the U. S. Snowmobile Association, the governing body founded in Eagle River, Wis., in 1965. The organizations conducted championship cross-country races and closed-circuit competitions as well as safaris, or trail cruises, and other outings. More than 250 major races were conducted annually in North America in the early 1970's, one highlight of which was the 626-mile (1,005-km) race from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Minneapolis, Minn. In the major races, manufacturers enter machines with "souped-up" engines.

Conservationists deplore the damage wrought by snowmobiles. They claim that the extreme noise made by the machines frightens wildlife, and that the machines themselves damage seedlings and young trees made dry and brittle by winter and gouge out ruts that accelerate water flow and contribute to erosion. Legislation adopted or considered by many states focuses on limiting the hours and areas in which snowmobiles may be operated, establishing speed and noise limitations, setting minimum ages for operators, and requiring helmets, seat belts, and other mandatory safety equipment. The operation of a snowmobile on private property without permission is subject to laws against trespassing.

Snowmobiles seem deceptively easy to handle, but accidents, some fatal, have increased along with the popularity of the machines. Medical journals recognize a condition known as snow-mobiler's back, a compression fracture caused by the frequent and severe jolts and hard landings experienced by drivers. Frostbite and damage to hearing are other snowmobiling hazards.


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