The Northern Ontario Snowmobiling Advantage

Can I snowmobile in Ontario this winter? Are lodges and restaurants open? Are the trails still being groomed during lockdown? Snowmobilers have a lot of questions this season, so we've done our best to provide the answers.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is based on information available at the time of writing, which may change at any time.

Grooming to the far horizon and beyond in Northern Ontario

Snowmobilers are masters of the uncertain. Every year, we deal with the snowy fickleness of Old Man Winter. Every ride, we handle the unpredictability of what Mother Nature may do to the trails. We never know what’s coming around the next corner or over the next hill. Or when a deer will jump out in front of us. Or when our sled will break down.

Yet we persist and prevail. Adapt and persevere. We keep coming back for more. We’re nothing if not flexible, determined and eternally optimistic. We live it; we love it.

Photo Credit: Craig Nicholson - Riding fresh snow on a groomed access road.

New Challenges

But the winter of 2021 will test our mettle as never before. The worldwide pandemic challenges us in many unexpected ways. Sure, we’ve bought our sleds, paid for our trail permits, and prepped our gear.

Yes, we’re very ready and eager to ride. But the plain fact is we’re unsure how to do it or where to go. It doesn’t seem that we can control much of anything. Everything is a moving target. Definitive answers are few and far between. Confusion abounds. It really sucks.

Many Reasons To Be Optimistic

Good Things Are Happening: But amid the chaos, there are a few certainties. Snowmobile sales are up. Trail permits numbers are strong. The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) is doing everything possible to deliver as much trail riding as possible while respecting and protecting the snowbelt communities, hospitality providers and residents that serve its trails. OFSC districts and clubs have prepped their trails and stand ready to start trail operations in compliance with public health measures. Meanwhile, tourism organizations such as Destination Northern Ontario, have been helping businesses get on track for the new reality. So, hospitality services in Northern Ontario are also ready for the coming snowmobile season following public health measures. Best of all, as usual Northern Ontario is certain to have the most snow and longest trail riding season in the province.

Photo Credit: Craig Nicholson - Northern Ontario delivers countless trails like this!

Many Riding Opportunities: So, snowmobilers lucky enough to reside in the Great White North have even more reasons to be optimistic. One, your backyard is the largest snowmobiling playground in Ontario. Two, most residents can ride from their home to the trails. Three, Northern Ontario also offers plenty of backcountry riding for local powder hounds. Four, Northern Ontario is covered by 7 large public health regions, which are each big enough to provide lots of day riding opportunities within their own boundaries for local residents.

Dealing With New Realities

Provincial State of Emergency Stay At Home Order to Feb 10: OFSC snowmobile trails remain a permitted recreational activity, allowable across the province, provided that participants comply with all other provincial and local public health unit directives. So, local snowmobilers with valid trail permits are permitted to access any available (GREEN) or limited availability (YELLOW) trails at this time, but only within the context of the provisions of the Stay At Home Order that allows local recreational exercise from your primary residence and within your public healthy region.

Photo Credit: Craig Nicholson - Trail riding through the Canadian Shield

Other Notable Considerations: In addition, all Ontario snowmobilers need to be aware of two other factors for our riding this winter, as noted in a December 21st release from the OFSC. One, “It is likely that all unattended buildings and washrooms (including outhouses and warm up shelters) on the trails will be closed with no access to riders.” Two, “OFSC trails connecting to another province (Quebec, Manitoba) or state (Michigan, Minnesota) will remain closed until further notice.” Many of these connections are located in Northern Ontario. However, with good forward planning, neither of these limitations should have much impact on most riders.

Photo Credit: Craig Nicholson - Northern Ontario trails are wide, sweeping and scenic.

Trail Operations Continue: At first glance, this announcement may have seemed detrimental to snowmobiling, but there’s a silver lining. That’s because the Government also acknowledged that “trails servicing snowmobiles will be allowed to remain open” since “physical activity is an important part of staying healthy,” as reported in a recent release from the OFSC.

So, although everyone is asked to stay home until February 10 in Northern Ontario, local snowmobile clubs can continue trails preparations during the shutdown, and grooming operations can continue as and when weather conditions allow. This means that, with the cooperation of Old Man Winter, the new Stay At Home Order shouldn’t be much of a setback for having trails ready for Northern Ontario residents to ride locally for day rides from home.

What To Expect This Winter

Our Riding: Regardless, no matter where we live in Ontario, it’s also a sure bet that whatever snowmobiling happens this winter won’t be the same as usual. For now, we’re going to do more local riding within our public health regions than provincial exploration. Staging from our primary residence instead of other locations. Day rides instead of saddlebag tours. Likely more shorter distances and different routes. 

Our Planning: We’re also going to get used to carrying more gas & oil, snacks and personal necessities than previously. Last minute planning will be more common. We’ll also get into the daily habit of re-confirming trail availability and calling ahead to double-check that services are open. Same goes for checking with local public health regions for the latest updates.

Our Precautions: And when we do hits the trails, the OFSC has issued a common sense approach for this season called Ride Smart 2021. The idea is that Ride Smart should become part of our everyday riding behaviour, because it reminds us to:

Be Aware of our surroundings to avoid possible virus spread situations. 

Spread Out when stopped on the trail or at trail services.

Mask Up when not wearing a helmet during interactions with others, on trail or off.

Clean Often by sanitizing hands after any contacts with other people or unfamiliar surfaces.

Given its large territory, small population and snowy season, Northern Ontario is best positioned in the province to deliver great trail riding this winter. That also creates a unique opportunity for northern residents to rediscover their own backyard by becoming local tourists. And for visiting riders to enjoy the best trails in Ontario when public health restrictions allow it. After all, in many parts of Northern Ontario, snowmobiling should still be going strong well into March and even early April. So let’s ride within existing guidelines –and be careful out there!

Northern Ontario Tourism Regions By Public Health Unit

Algoma Country

Algoma Health Unit

Includes Communities Such As: Bruce Mines, Chapleau, Dubreuilville, Elliot Lake, Hearst, Hornepayne, Sault Ste Marie, Searchmont, Spanish, Thessalon, Wawa.

Northeastern Ontario

North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit

Porcupine Health Unit

Sudbury & District Health Unit

Timiskaming Health Unit

Includes Communities Such As: Cochrane, Kapuskasing, Kirkland Lake, North Bay, Smooth Rock Falls, Sudbury, Temiskaming Shores, Timmins.

Northwest Ontario

Northwestern Health Unit

Thunder Bay District Health Unit

Includes Communities Such As: Atikokan, Dryden, Fort Frances, Kenora, Manitouwadge, Marathon, Sioux Lookout, Terrace Bay, Thunder Bay.

About Craig Nicholson—The Intrepid Snowmobiler

Popularly known as The Intrepid Snowmobiler, Craig Nicholson is an International Snowmobile Hall of Fame journalist who specializes in recreational snowmobiling activities. Craig has snowmobiled in every region of Canada and many states. His one-of-a-kind tour book, “Canada’s Best Snowmobiling – The Ultimate Ride Guide”, chronicles his adventures, as does his website and Facebook page.

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