The Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Outdoor recreation doesn’t stop in the winter; for some folks, it intensifies. But because of weather conditions, going outdoors for fun in the winter can require even more attention to safety than at other times of the year. A simple case of getting wet – or getting turned around in the woods – is much more significant when the thermometer reading is into the single digits.
Department of Natural Resources conservation officers remind snowmobilers, off-road vehicle (ORV) riders, hikers, cross-country skiers and fishermen to pay close attention to safety as they pursue outdoor winter hobbies. Their best advice? Make sure someone knows where you’re going, what you’re doing and when you’ll be back.
“Always tell someone where you are going,” said Cpl. John Morey, the DNR’s off-road vehicle and snowmobile coordinator.
“Tell them your planned travel route and expected time of arrival or return,” he said. “Then, if someone is overdue, whoever has the travel plan can contact 911 and give responders a chance to get out and look for them right away.”
With nearly 6,500 miles of designated snowmobile trails – and more than 11,000 inland lakes that offer an appealing frozen surface during the winter – Michigan is one of the top destinations for snowmobile enthusiasts in the Midwest. And although ORVs are often thought of as fair-weather vehicles, they remain popular with some sportsmen who use them during all seasons to get to backwoods hunting or fishing destinations.
The two modes of transportation are not always compatible.
“Conflict arises when ORVs operate on a designated snowmobile trail,” Morey explained. “That is not permitted unless it’s designated as an ORV trail as well. In most places, especially in the Lower Peninsula, snowmobile trails are snowmobile trails – not ORV trails.”
Many – but not all – Upper Peninsula snowmobile trails are also designated ORV trails, Morey said.
“It’s the rider’s responsibility to know whether where he’s going is legal for his intended activity,” he said. “Ensure the area in which you intend to operate your snowmobile or ORV is legally open to such activity.”
Morey cautioned riders to make sure their machine is properly registered and that operators are properly licensed.
“Anyone whose driver’s license is suspended or revoked may not operate a snowmobile or ORV,” Morey said. “Youngsters who are less than 17 must be under direct adult supervision (someone 21 years of age or older) to operate a snowmobile, unless they are in possession of a snowmobile safety certificate.
“And youngsters under 12 may not cross a road on a snowmobile.”
Morey said that while most safety rules for snowmobile and ORV riders are common sense, they bear repeating. For instance:
- Always wear a helmet.
- Slow down.
- Dress appropriately and wear proper safety equipment (gloves, boots, goggles, etc.).
- Keep your lights on.
- Stay to the right.
- Properly maintain your machine.
- Check the weather conditions.
- Only carry passengers if the machine is designed to do so.
- Carry basic safety and rescue gear – including a cell phone.
- Use the buddy system: always travel with someone else.
Although lakes are highly attractive to snowmobile and ORV users, the DNR says that people should never assume that ice is safe.
“Breaking through the ice is a common occurrence,” Morey said. “People go into areas where they are unfamiliar with the ice conditions, like in areas with current or under bridges where the ice is thinner. Don’t. Know what the ice conditions are and the only way to do that with certainty is to get out and check them for yourself.”
Morey said ice should be checked – on foot – as you make your way out. Avoid areas where the ice is discolored or there is vegetation or objects sticking up through it. Use a spud to punch the ice ahead of you (to make sure it is safe) as you walk and carry a rope in case someone should break through. It is also recommended that anglers carry spikes – usually encased in wood or plastic cylinders for handles – so they can grasp the ice with them should they break through.
Breaking through the ice into freezing water is an extremely serious situation. Anyone who finds himself immersed in icy water must get his head above the surface immediately, get breathing under control and attempt to breathe normally, and work on getting out. Get to good ice – generally in the direction from which you came – and get your arms up on the ice. Use your arms to pull your upper body onto the ice while you kick your legs – in a swimming motion. (This is where ice spikes help greatly.) If you can get out, initially roll or crawl along the ice – do not get back on your feet right away – ensure you are on safe ice, and then immediately walk toward heated shelter.
If you are unable to get out, reach out as far as you can, hold on, and yell for help. If you see someone fall through the ice, make sure you do not put yourself at risk when attempting to assist them. “Call 911 immediately,” Morey said.
When attempting to reach someone who has fallen through the ice, distribute your body weight by lying on the ice and toss a rope or reach for them with a pole, branch stick or ladder, which works very well. Do not compound the problem by breaking through the ice yourself.
Morey said there’s no need for Michiganders to hibernate all winter. “Outdoor recreation can be enjoyable, invigorating and fun, but for it to be any of those things,” he said, “it must also be, first and foremost, safe.”