A Brief History of Snowmobiles and Snowmobiling

snowmobile history

Snowmobiles, snowmachines, Ski-Doos, motor sleds – whatever you call them in your part of the world, these winter machines are a ton of fun to ride. They also have a fascinating history that many riders don’t know about. 

I’m Chaz, a snowmobile enthusiast who has been riding trails and exploring the backcountry by snowmobile since I was a kid. I have nearly 30 years of experience under my belt, and I’ve learned a thing or two about these amazing machines during that time. 

I wanted to write up a section of this site based on snowmobile history to provide my fellow riders with an in-depth look into how far the sport has come in the last 100 years or so. 

While researching, I learned quite a bit of information and will highlight my favorite facts, unique stories, and some rules and regulations I think everyone should be aware of. There is plenty of other information found below that I think is cool and valuable, as well. 

And now, on with the history lesson. 

When Was The First Snowmobile Invented?

Snowmobiles have existed for quite a while – longer than I thought before I started looking into the subject. These machines have been around for basically as long as automobiles – just not precisely in a form you’d recognize compared to modern-day sleds. 

The first patent for a motor sleigh dates back to 1915. This was for a vehicle invented to move over the snow, which had skis up front and a track in the back. Some people even converted old Ford Model T cars to have tracks and skis, which date to around the same time. 

The first machine that I would officially call a snowmobile wasn’t built and tested on the snow until 1935. But the first versions of the converted Model Ts I mentioned above were around in the early 1920s.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Where Was the Snowmobile Invented?

The patent that I mentioned above showed up in Canada in 1915. The first US patent was in 1916. Ask a Canadian and an American where the snowmobile was invented and you’ll get two different answers. 

The first versions of these machines were created out of a necessity to get across areas that saw severe winter conditions. This means a few different versions were developed at the same time in different places.

The vehicle propellor, which led to the development of nearly every sort of motor-powered machine in the early 20th century, was invented in Manitoba, Canada. The first patent for a motor sleigh was also in Canada but was created by a man from Michigan. 

So what’s the official verdict on where the snowmobile was invented? I’m going to say some cold and snowy location in northern Michigan or southern Canada. It’s certainly up for debate.   

Who Invented the Snowmobile?

This is another question that has a few different answers. The modern snowmobile as we know it was a result of a few decades of developments and advancements. It was more than one person’s work, but there are a few people who deserve similar credit. 

A man named Ray H. Muscott was the person who developed the first patents for the initial concept of a snowmobile. Joseph-Armand Bombardier usually earns the official title of inventor of the snowmobile. 

Bombardier was the first to successfully build a machine that looked similar to the sleds we ride today. This initial concept also worked effectively and survived initial test runs better than earlier concepts.

Carl Eliason invented a motor-powered sled in the 1920s. This design used a propellor to push the sled across ice and snow, so even though it was around earlier, it isn’t as close in design to modern machines. 

(The Carl Eliason machine. Image credit: Eliason Snowmobile)

A Russian named Adolphe Kegresse invented the track system somewhere between 1906 and 1916. This was a significant development that would be used down the road as snowmobile designs continued to develop. 

Snowmobile History Timeline

Here’s a look at some of the important points and moments in snowmobile history. 

  • 1895 – First over-snow vehicles developed in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada. These included bikes with grip fins and steam-powered sleighs. 
  • 1905 – The American Motor Sleigh was build and sold as a machine for travel over the snow.
  • 1911 – Harold J. Kalenze patents the Vehicle Propeller. The Aerosani was also first built around this time, an over-snow machine that was propeller-powered. 
  • 1906-1916 – Adolphe Kegresse invents a track system to be used on a variety of vehicles.
  • 1915-16 – First patents for snow machines more resembling modern designs were granted. 
  • 1920s – Carl Eliason creates the first versions of the modern snowmobile. These were first patented in 1927 and later contracted for military use. Model T conversions using skis and tracks also popped up during the 1920s. 
  • 1935 – Joseph-Armand Bombardier invents the first version of the modern-day snowmobile. 
  • 1937 – Bombardier receives his first patent for these machines. 
  • 1941 – Eliason snowmobiles go into official production. 
  • 1950 – The first Canadian-designed snowmobile, the Ingham Motor Toboggan, goes into production. 
  • 1956 – Polaris creates its first widely sold snowmobile, the Sno-Traveler.
  • 1962 – The first Arctic Cat snowmobile goes into production, the Model 500. 
  • 1963 – Rubber tracks begin to be used rather than metal caterpillar style tracks. 
  • 1968 – Yamaha produces the first snowmobile with slide valve carbs. 
  • 1973 – Ski-Doo develops the ski carbide
  • 1980 – The Polaris TXL Indy 340 is the first snowmobile to offer independent front suspension. 
  • 1991 – The first fuel-injected snowmobile, the Polaris 650 RXL EFI, is created. 
  • 2000 – Four-stroke engines begin to appear in snowmobiles
  • 2012 – Ski-Doo develops a rear suspension system
  • 2016 – The Yamaha Sidewinder is the first snowmobile to have an OEM turbo engine.
  • 2020 – Snowmobiling continues to thrive as the sport gains popularity across the world.  

Early Snowmobiles vs. Modern Snowmobiles

The snowmobiles we ride today represent many years of development. Technologies, materials, and capabilities have come a long, long way over the last 100+ years since the initial concepts for an over-the-snow vehicle.

The very first snowmobile designs were nothing more than bicycles rigged up to be capable in the snow. These existed in the late 1800s before the engine was available. These bikes would have runners up front and grip tires with studs or tracks in the back. 

(Image credit: Wikimedia)

After this came the first motor sleighs and motor sleds. Most of these were propeller-driven, meaning that they used an engine mounted in the rear to generate thrust and push the sled forward. 

These early versions were basically a sled with a fan attached. It was practical for traveling along flat, icy surfaces but didn’t provide enough grip or thrust for deep snow or off-road conditions. They were also difficult to steer and control.

Next, people began to convert Model T Ford automobiles to work in the snow. Skis were retrofitted on the front wheels, with tracks place in the year – closely resembling modern snowmobile design in many ways. 

These snow-cars were capable of transporting several people at once and benefited from having a closed passenger area. They were underpowered and also not able to handle challenging terrain and conditions.

Motorcycles were also converted for on-snow use by putting sled runners on a side-by-side type of bike. These concepts didn’t have any sort of track system and were essentially just motorcycles with skis. They would get across some conditions but had apparent limitations.  

Developments started to come quickly in the 1920s. The Eliason snowmobile used a two-cylinder motorcycle engine on a long sled. This engine turned a rotating track that achieved higher speeds and better control in the snow. 

The early Eliason models also had skis up front to float over the snow and effective steering capabilities. This version marked a solid foundation for the future of snowmobiles, and modern design elements still pay tribute to these early models. 

The next major innovation in snowmobile design came when Joseph-Armand Bombardier developed his version of the machine. These represented a significant upgrade over previous snow machines because of the rubber track that was used. 

Instead of an all-metal track, Bombardier used a rubber track that spun along with a toothed wheel. This created immediate benefits and improvements in traction, control, and capability. It was the first version of the modern snowmobile track as we now know it. 

The difference between the Bombardier snowmobiles and modern versions was that many of his models were intended for multi-passenger use. In that way, they more closely resembled today’s Snow Cats. But this track system was critical for on-snow machines moving forward.     

In the mid-1950s, the brand Polaris began to produce some of the first widely available production snowmobiles. The first of these was the Snow Traveler that came out in 1957. This was a bulky, heavy machine that wouldn’t go very fast. But it was a snowmobile. 

Polaris employees created the first Polaris snowmobile in late 1955.

The early Polaris sleds looked essentially like the sleds we ride today: an open driver’s seat, ski runners in the front, and a single track powering the sled forward. This was the basic design that would be improved upon for the next half a century into modern times.

Many new brands would start to tinker and tweak with the Polaris models. These early models still used a 2-stroke engine that would continue until around the turn of the century. These engines were cheaper, weighed less, and were easier to maintain. 

Horsepower and performance began to see major developments in the 1990s. Snowmobiles built from the 1950s into the 1970s could get you across the snow, but you weren’t going to go very fast or have a lot of engine power. 

In the 1990s, engines in the 600cc to 800cc range were put into action, and these generated over 100 horsepower. The age of performance snowmobiles was beginning and would develop quickly. Machines in the 1990s were also the first to use fuel-injected engines. 

With the turn of the 20th century came even more drastic improvements in snowmobile design. Fuel injection was common, and the first four-stroke engines were beginning to pop up. This increased performance drastically, as did more modern suspension components. 

The 21st century also gave rise to the different snowmobiling styles, with snowmobiles built for various purposes now common. Trail riding, snocross, turbo-charged engines, and larger machines were available in all types of models and sizes. 

The most modern sleds found today allow almost endless choices for personal customization. If you want a powerful engine to go fast, you got it. If you want a backcountry cruiser that can handle anything, it’s available. The possibilities available are impressive. 

It will be interesting to see where the future of snowmobile innovation takes us. I’d expect to see electric sleds available in the next few years, and I’m excited to see how fast these can go! 

If the J-curve of progress is any indicator, we can expect snowmobile technologies and capabilities to improve continuously.  

Snowmobile Driving Rules

Snowmobile driving rules vary, depending on where you ride. Every state or country can have its own rules that you’ll need to be aware of. The primary rule, which I’ll touch on more in the section below, is safety. Always ride safe, always. Snowmobiling can be dangerous

A lot of areas require you to have a permit to ride on public lands. There are state-by-state regulations for this in the US. These permits will need to be purchased every year and usually cost around $50 or less. 

You will also need to register your snowmobile in some locations. This is similar to registering a car, and you’ll need to have the paperwork on the sled with you when you ride. Some places require you to have insurance in place as well. 

There are also rules to where you can and cannot ride. If you are on private land that you own or have permission to be on, there won’t be many rules, and you can go wherever you’d like. Most of these rules pertain to public lands. 

Some popular destinations (such as state or national parks) will require you to stay on designated trails or routes. Other places allow for backcountry use, meaning you can go off-trail and explore wherever you want to go.  

Age requirements are another rule that varies location by location. In some places, you don’t need any sort of driver’s license to operate a snowmobile; you just need to be of a certain age. 16 is a typical minimum age requirement to ride.

In other locations, you can be younger than 16 to operate a sled on your own as long as you have an adult riding with you. Again, these rules are usually for riding on public lands, and there are typically no rules for age requirements on private land.

Speed limits are another rule that applies to snowmobilers in certain areas. If you live in a region where snowmobile travel is common during the winter months on established roads, you will need to follow any speed limits in place.  

Before you go out riding on public lands, you should always check the local rules in place. You can get in trouble with authorities and get a ticket if you break these rules, and you might even lose the ability to ride in that area. 

Here is a good breakdown of state-by-state rules and regulations in the US. Make sure that you have a permit and get your paperwork in order ahead of time so you can make the most out of the riding time you have available. 

Other driving rules are similar to driving an automobile and involve using common sense and safety. Don’t follow too close to other riders, know your limits and stay under control, don’t ride in dangerous conditions—more on all of this below. 

Snowmobile Safety & Accidents

Safety is a critical consideration when operating any motor vehicle, and it definitely should be a focus for every snowmobiler. 

Modern snowmobiles are capable of high speeds, quick maneuvers, and reaching terrains and locations that present inherent dangers. You need to educate yourself about the risks and know how to operate your machine correctly to limit any risks. 

First off, always wear a helmet when you ride. This a simple safety precaution that can save your life. I’ll be honest, I’ve ridden a few times when I was younger without a helmet. But I would never do that today. 

Multiple dangers exist when you are operating a snowmobile. The high speeds and the snowmobile itself are something to first take into consideration. One wrong move or mistake at high speeds can have terrible consequences.

Always stay in control and learn how your sled operates before attempting any high-speed or complicated maneuvers. If you want to push the limits, make sure you feel comfortable and capable of doing so. 

Losing grip of the snowmobile is one common cause of accidents. There are no seat belts on these machines, and you are only attached by hanging on to the handlebars. If you lose your grip or are thrown from the sled, it can cause severe injury or worse. 

You always want to slow down when you make drastic turns to avoid rolling the machine or being thrown off of it. I’ve been thrown off a few times and have been lucky to avoid any injury or damage to my machine – but I’ve seen other riders get injured or ruin their sled. 

The other primary safety consideration when you are riding is obstacles that may be in your way. Just like driving a car, you need to avoid running into anything. Since you aren’t always on a designated trail, these obstacles can appear quickly and out of nowhere. 

You want to keep an eye out for trees, rocks, stumps, cliffs, cars, other riders, and even wildlife while you ride. Being alert and staying in control is again important here. Running into any of the above can quickly ruin a day and send you to the hospital. 

Visibility is an important safety consideration to avoid obstacles and limit any chance of accidents. A good helmet with a quality visor is recommended. If you wear an open face helmet, make sure that you have good goggles that won’t fog up. 

If you ride long distances or at night, you’ll want to make sure that the headlight on your sled is in good working order. You can’t ride safely if you can’t see. 

Avalanches, cold weather, and other winter-related dangers are also key safety considerations when snowmobiling. When you are riding in the backcountry, avalanches are a possibility, and you should take a safety class to limit your risk and be prepared for the worst

You also need to be well-prepared for severe weather by wearing cold-weather gear and equipment that will keep you warm and dry on the trails. I always pack a survival bag and first-aid kit, just in case I ever become stranded. 

Using common sense and being well-prepared are the basics of snowmobile safety. There are many snowmobile-related deaths every year, and by staying in control and learning about safety, you can limit the risks involved. Accidents happen, but many of them can be avoided.    

Famous Snowmobile Races

Snowmobile racing is exciting to watch or participate in. These famous races have become an important part of snowmobile history that has created interest in the sport and a chance for the best riders to showcase their skills. 

The Soo I-500

The Soo I-500 is one of the most famous snowmobile races. It has been around for over 50 years now and takes place every year in Sault St. Marie, Michigan. This race pays homage to Indy-car racing and features an oval track with riders doing laps. 

Just as the name implies, the winner is the rider who completes 500 laps of the 1-mile course the fastest. This race makes for a great spectator event because of the enclosed course and high speeds the riders reach.

Amsoil Championship Snocross

This is the official racing circuit that happens every winter season. It features several different races spread out over the year in various locations. Some of the best riders in the world take part in these events. 

Amsoil Championship Snowcross is awesome because it involves traditional racing elements with obstacles and jumps adapted to the modern version of the sport. This race is an excellent way to show anyone unfamiliar with riding what is possible. 

Iron Dog

The Iron Dog is my favorite snowmobile race. This is the longest snowmobile race in the world and it involves riders crossing over 2,600 miles through the wild Alaskan backcountry. Great skill and experience are required to complete this race, and even attempting it is impressive. 

As you can imagine, this is a difficult one for spectators, but the race does go through some larger towns. The race is the snowmobile version of the legendary Iditarod dog sledding race and is well worth exploring further if you’re interested. 

World Championship Snowmobile Derby

Another race that has a legendary history and is still going strong is the World Championship Snowmobile Derby. This event has taken place every year since 1964 in Eagle River, Wisconsin, which is sometimes called the snowmobile capital of the world. 

The race is run on the Eagle River Derby Track, which takes riders around an established course that changes slightly every season. It is a multi-day event with winners of heats advancing until an overall winner is announced. 

(Image Credit: Travel Wisconsin)

Famous Snowmobile Manufacturers and Brands

There have been many different brands that have made snowmobiles over the years. Most of these didn’t last long, but the brands below are well-known and respected in the industry for providing quality machines time and time again. 

Polaris

Polaris was one of the original snowmobile brands, and it is still providing riders with high-quality machines to this day. The company has a long-standing reputation for innovation and puts out some fantastic options. 

One of the original modern snowmobiles was the Polaris Sno-Traveler. Today, you can find many varieties of machines available for sale, and some older sleds make for highly sought-after collector’s items. 

Ski-Doo

Ski-Doo is another famous snowmobile brand that has been around for a long time. The brand was created by some early innovators in the industry who had ties to both Polaris and Bombardier. 

Today, Ski-Doo makes some of the best sleds on the market and is known worldwide. Some places in Canada call every snowmobile a Ski-Doo, no matter the brand. That shows you just how much of an influence the company has had on the sport. 

Yamaha

I’m partial to Yamaha snowmobiles because the first sled I ever drove on my own when I was a kid was an old Phazer. Yamaha is a huge brand that makes many different machines, but their snowmobiles are well known for being reliable and capable. 

I appreciate Yamaha sleds because they are some of the most reliable winter machines I have used. I trust them in the snow and know that they will hold up strong all season long. Check out the Yamaha Sidewinder if you want to see one of the fastest snowmobiles around. 

Arctic-Cat

Arctic-Cat is another top snowmobile manufacturer with a storied history of making quality sleds and developing new cutting-edge innovations. The brand has been around since 1962 and has been an integral part of the success of the industry. 

Arctic-Cat puts out a wide range of snowmobile options, from affordable and practical machines to high-powered sleds that can reach impressive speeds. I don’t have a ton of personal experience with these, but I have some friends who swear by them.  

What is ISMA (International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association)?

The IMSA is an association created by the four major manufacturers I mentioned above. The organization was created to promote snowmobiling across the world through marketing, promotion, and support of the lifestyle in general. 

While you would think that these manufacturers’ main goal is to sell snowmobiles, the ISMA’s efforts show how they are also focused on other areas within the industry that benefit all riders. 

The association has created various committees that encourage snowmobile safety, keep track of statistics related to the sport, and report the growth, economic and otherwise, of the snowmobiling industry across the world. 

They host a variety of events and provide a ton of helpful information for snowmobilers of all types. If you want to have a valuable resource at your fingertips for all things snowmobile-related, IMSA is worth checking out.  

Environmental Concerns from Snowmobile Use

Snowmobiles do pose a few issues for concern regarding the environment. As fun and exciting as the sport is, it can cause damage to the very world in which the machines were intended to be used. 

Air pollution is a primary concern. Two-stroke engines are notorious for putting off considerable amounts of pollution. These are still the most common type of engine used in most sleds, and as the number of machines on the trails increase, so do pollution levels. 

Some options currently exist with four-stroke engines, which are slightly better for the environment. Four-strokes don’t put out as many polluting hydrocarbons. Manufacturers are also attempting to create motors with other environmentally friendly concerns in mind. 

Electric engines solve some of these issues, and I would expect electric snowmobiles to be a viable option in coming years. There are still environmental concerns with the production of batteries for these, but they don’t pollute the air during operation. 

Another concern is the impact that snowmobiling can have on natural lands and wildlife. The noise and presence of snowmobiles can cause disruptions to an otherwise serene winter environment. 

Some areas don’t allow snowmobiling for this reason, while other places have limits on how loud a machine can be or specific trails that don’t affect wildlife as much. 

Final Thoughts

Snowmobiles have a rich history that spans the last century. The modern sleds that we all love to ride today came from the early innovations and inventions of the past. The industry has come a long way to reach current levels of popularity. 

With new machines and technologies still being developed, it will be fascinating to watch what happens with the sport’s future. As more people continue to ride the trails and backcountry regions, the history of snowmobiling is in good hands. 

About Chaz Wyland
I’m a snowmobile fanatic. I live for riding and am out on the trails or backcountry as often as possible during the winter months. I was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains and have snowmobiled in dozens of North American locations. When the snow is falling, you’ll find me on a sled.

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