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Snowmobiling is extremely popular in Minnesota, and the numbers prove it. The state boasts approximately 22,000 miles of dedicated snowmobile trails, two major snowmobile manufacturers (Polaris and Arctic Cat), more than 220 volunteer-run snowmobile clubs and about 220,000 registered snowmobiles.

The thing is, snowmobiling is also an enigma for people who haven’t tried it.

We’ve all caught glimpses of the machines while driving in the warmth of our cars. From the corner of our eyes, we see snowmobiles gathered at gas stations and restaurants, or even riding in the ditch next to the road. Then, just as quickly, the machines disappear into the woods or across a field or lake. Where are they going? What are they doing out there?

Vast trail network

There are snowmobile trails in nearly every county of the state, including 224 miles in Hennepin County, 369 miles in Dakota County and 208 miles in Scott County. There are trails that run from Iowa to the Canadian border, trails that cross the Dakota and Wisconsin borders. One impressive trail spans from Duluth to Grand Marais.

Sure, these trails often link together small towns, but snowmobiling is more about the journey rather than the destination. Many trails don’t take the most direct route — instead they go for the scenery, winding between stands of trees, along creeks, over lakes and through the back acreage.

For many riders, sightseeing is the real appeal of snowmobiling.

“It is a great way to break that cabin fever in the winter, and to get out and enjoy our great state,” says Leland Owens, the recreational vehicle coordinator for the DNR’s Division of Enforcement. “For me, it’s refreshing to the soul and you get to go places you normally could not go, such as through bogs and wetlands that are frozen. Trails lead to lakes, lead to beautiful bluffs, ridges and scenic overlooks that are normally not accessible during the other eight months of the year. It’s a great time to spend with friends, family and make some memories.”

Most of the state’s trail network is prepared and maintained by snowmobile club volunteers. For starters, volunteers are charged with negotiating each trail’s lease with local landowners, since most trails cut through private property (it’s considered trespassing to ride off-trail in most of Minnesota). Volunteers also clear brush and downed trees from the trail, build and maintain bridges and line them with reflective signs like those used on roads.

And when the snow comes, clubs are charged with grooming the trails, using equipment much like the ones seen at ski resorts. Trails can be smoothed up to two or three times per week. The average club maintains about 100 miles of trail, but some clubs maintain more than 300 miles of trail; some maintain fewer than 20 miles.

The snowmobile season in Minnesota officially opened on Dec. 1, but trails in many parts of the state still lack something vital: snow.

“The conditions need to be right for trails to open,” Owens says. “We wait for the ground to freeze. And to have a good groomed trail we need at least 12 to 14 inches of snow.”

Check for current snow levels and trail conditions at www.mndnr.gov/snow.

Get the experience

As the owner of McQuoid’s Inn in Isle, Minn., Terry McQuoid plays his trump card whenever guests ask for guided snowmobile rides. In almost all cases, McQuoid acts as their guide.

McQuoid grew up riding and racing snowmobiles, and still rides an average of 4,000 miles per year. As a volunteer, he’s been the trail coordinator and groomer in his local club. “I’m always out checking trails to make sure they’re really nice,” McQuoid says. “We want people to have great riding.”

All types of people are interested in snowmobiling, he says. He’s guided honeymooners, single parents and their kids, corporate retreats and people simply curious about snowmobiling.

There are about a dozen places in the state that rent snowmobiles, many associated with privately owned lodges or resorts. The Brainerd Lakes Area has the most rental options.

Cities Edge Motorsports in Shakopee is one of the few, if the not only, shop in the Twin Cities offering snowmobile rentals. There’s a snowmobile trail running behind the dealership, which makes for easy access to scenic routes along the Minnesota River. The shop even offers a guide service.

First-time snowmobilers need proper gear, much of which can be rented along with the sled. Proper dress is not too different from what you’d wear downhill skiing: snow pants, a jacket with good insulation, a scarf and layered long underwear. Sturdy, mid-calf boots are best, as is a balaclava or neck gaiter and gloves for better finger dexterity for throttle and brake control. Helmets are not required by law for adults in Minnesota, but are a smart way to stay warm and safe. Of special note: A full-face motorcycle helmet will not work, as the lens is not made for winter use. A breath-deflector in the helmet is necessary to keep the lens from fogging.

First-timers should also familiarize themselves with snowmobile safety, techniques and rules by taking the DNR’s snowmobile safety course: There is one for adults, another for kids.

The course isn’t optional for many residents. Minnesotans born after Dec. 31, 1976, must take the snowmobile safety course by law. Many rental operators, such as McQuoid’s, will ask to see the safety certificate.

“Snowmobiles are powerful machines that need to be respected,” Owens says. “It’s wise practice to be prepared for the unexpected when out snowmobiling.”

In addition, most rental operators provide each rider with a brief orientation, covering the basics on throttle and brake control, reading the gauges and operation.

The intrepid can take a map and go, but a guide is a great way for newcomers to learn about safety while guaranteeing a good ride. Getting lost is a common concern of new snowmobilers, McQuoid says.

“A guide can provide a no-worry deal,” he says.

“I know where a lot of the deer hang out. Last year, it was not uncommon to see 15 or 20 deer each time we went out,” McQuoid says. “I had five or six porcupines on the route and we’d see at least three every trip. Some of the kids went bananas over it. There was one, if we stopped, it would climb halfway down the tree to take a look at us. It’s just a fun experience.”

Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.