Safe winter off-roading

Enjoying your winter toys safely

Outdoors enthusiasts have a saying: “There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” We'd add that there are also bad practices when it comes to enjoying wintertime fun.

Dress for the weather, think ahead, and take some common-sense precautions and that pristine layer of fresh snow can be a safe and fun winter playground.


An all-terrain vehicle (ATV) has the name for a reason. They’re designed to navigate everything from sand to snow, but the latter requires more critical thinking — you not only have to protect yourself, you have to protect others. Here’s how to do it.

  • Know the risk. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. No matter what you’re driving, the National Weather Service (NWS) recommends checking the forecast before heading out. Thousands of people are injured or killed every year in accidents related to winter storms. Keep your speed low, avoid sudden maneuvers, and allow for more clearance between your ATV and fixed objects (fence posts, trees, and buildings).
  • Keep to the path. It’s just not a good idea to go off the grid any time of year, but this rule of thumb is especially applicable during winter’s mercurial months. Map your journey and make sure someone knows your plan before you leave. And never ride on paved roads — ATVs are designed to be operated off-highway.
  • Gear up. We shouldn’t have to tell you it’s a good idea to wear a helmet designed specifically for ATV/off-road use. (read: WEAR A HELMET), but the ATV Safety Institute also recommends goggles, long sleeves and pants, over-the-ankle boots, and gloves. Wind protection, hand and feet warmers, and extra traction are other items you should consider packing before taking your ATV over the river and through the woods.
  • Don’t sink in the drink. Avoid frozen ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams. Ice is deceptive, and according to the NWS, you need at least 5 inches of ice to stay safe. Remember that the different colors of ice mean different strengths of ice.
  • Get educated. Take a safety training course. There are hands-on and online options.
  • Don't drink and drive. Never operate any vehicle if you’ve consumed alcohol. Not only is it illegal, you’re risking your life and the lives of others. 


Ask any snowmobile enthusiast and they’ll tell you there’s nothing like sailing through fresh powder on a clear winter’s day. But with any winter driving, safety is your friend.

  • Stay off the ice. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) advises never crossing frozen bodies of water, even if it’s a marginal distance. There can be wildly different variations in ice thickness — even over short distances — so just because the ice is safe in one location doesn’t mean the entire pond or river is solid. Check the National Weather Service's ice safety page for your area before riding out onto water.
  • Dress for the weather. Take a moment to learn about what protective gear is best for the conditions you're heading out into. Helmets, layers, facemasks, eye protection, gloves, boots, and even a life vest should be considered wardrobe.
  • Avoid an obstacle course. In the pursuit of fresh powder, snowmobilers can find themselves in unfamiliar — and dangerous — territory. That brand-new blanket of snow makes for great riding, but it can camouflage fences, trees, and buildings. Pre-map your ride and speak with the landowner before riding on private property — chances are good they can warn you about any high tensile fences, culverts, or low-strung wires that can make your navigation dangerous.
  • Know emergency protocol. If the unthinkable happens and you find yourself stranded or involved in an accident, stay where you are and attempt to call 911 if an injury is involved. If you’re stranded, try to seek shelter from the elements. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), hypothermia is likeliest at very cold temperatures but can also occur above 40 degrees F if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. Travel with an emergency kit — non-perishable, nutritious food, water, first aid materials, blankets, and dry, spare clothing.
  • Stay sober. You know not to drink and get behind the wheel of a car, so apply the same rules to your recreational vehicles. Even one drink is too many.

The information included in this publication was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company and its employees make no guarantee of results and assume no liability in connection with any training, materials, suggestions or information provided. It is the user’s responsibility to confirm compliance with any applicable local, state or federal regulations. Information obtained from or via Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company should not be used as the basis for legal advice or other advice, but should be confirmed with alternative sources.