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Avoid ATV Frostbite

We’ve talked about preparing for riding your ATV throughout the winter, but what happens to the ATV trails when snowfall starts? We touch on winter trail maintenance and the signs frostbite so you can stay safe while you’re out enjoying the snow.

Trail Team

As fall comes to a close, trail maintenance crews set out with orange poles, T-posts, and rolls of reflective tape to mark the trails for winter. ATV trails are typically converted for snowmobile use as they are well-mapped, clear of debris and obstacles, and have good signage.They’re safer and easier to create than trails from scratch. But this doesn’t mean they’re snowmobile exclusive! If your ATV is outfitted properly, you can take your four-wheeler out to test out the trails, too.

How It’s Made

Once snowfall begins, crew use a snowcat to groom the trails. These are often seen at ski resorts, though if the trail is shorter and snowfall is limited, snowmobiles can be outfitted with a drag implement that tows behind the vehicle.snow cat

Grooming is crucial. The snowcat levels the trail with its front plow by knocking down drifts and moving piles from the high side of the trail to the low side. The back end tills the trail to break through icy surfaces and remove clumps. As the snowcat rolls over the trail, it compacts the snow into a hard-pack surface. This prevents riders from running into “sinkholes” and getting stuck.

The process typically occurs at night when temperatures are the coldest because snow is easier to manipulate when it’s not being warmed by the sun.

Did You Know…?

Different types of snow provide a different ride. Know what you’re working with before you trek out to a trail that isn’t going to deliver optimal performance.

Powder – Sometimes described as sugary, this snow is soft, light, and doesn€'t contain a lot of water. It€'s fun to blast through at high speeds, but inexperienced riders often sink and get stuck. This is why ATV tires aren€'t suited for the deep stuff.

Wet – It’s heavy and allows for too much traction, often causing vehicles to sink and tires to dig in deeper.Tires spin, and you’re stuck. It’s the snow equivalent to mud.

Frozen – It seems strange to think of snow as anything but frozen, but we’re talking about the crunchy crust that can develop on top of undisturbed snow if there’s been a melt and refreeze. It€'s difficult to operate a vehicle over, even for a powerful snowcat. ATV tire chains come in handy for this very thing!

Layered – The most dangerous of all is snow that’s layered like lasagna. The bottom layers are often compressed, settled, and contain a great deal of water. They’re sturdy. But the top layer is lighter, softer, and over time, builds. When these occur on slopes or hillsides, it’s easy for this build-up to accumulate until the pressure is too great and they all slide off. This is one of the ways avalanches occur.

Prepare for Danger

Whether you’re a skilled rider with years of experience or a novice who is curious to learn how to combat the winter blues, go prepared. Consider a lift kit for your vehicle. The extra height will provide more clearance in the snow. Outfit your quad with quality snow tires for proper grip and power economy. Pack a GPS, check the weather, and know the terrain. Are there ledges? Cornices? Is there a body of water in the area? You’ll want to be alert.


Riding in the cold means you’ll want to be prepared for the elements beyond just a hat and gloves. Frostbite is a real possibility, even when thermometer temps don’t seem that cold. With air resistance and riding in a stationary position, your extremities receive less circulation and get cold faster. Frostbite can still affect you even when you're fully clothed. 

Wear a face mask under your helmet. The helmet protects your head but doesn’t do much for insulation. If you don’t have a tinted face guard, consider swapping out or getting sunglasses. Glare off snow can be blinding.


Frostnip - The outer skin freezes and starts to pale or turn red as sensations of numbness and tingling intensify.

To combat: Stop, stand, stretch, and move around to improve circulation and generate body heat. Warm the affected area using a heating device from your survival kit.

Superficial frostbite - This is serious. Freezing skin will turn waxy or white and may burn or itch with little flexibility in the skin when pressed. Wood-like, large blisters may appear up to 2 days later.

To combat: Warm with heating devices or wrap in warm items. Do NOT rub.

Deep frostbite - Blood blisters, waxy skin, loss of feeling, purple or black coloring, and skin being hard to the touch are all hallmarks of deep frostbite. It is imperative you warm yourself immediately and seek medical attention. At this stage, deep tissue and muscles have been frozen.

What to Do: Use passive warming techniques. Do not apply heat directly to the damaged skin. Instead, use radiant heat from a fire, a car/space heater, or a heat pack wrapped in a towel. Skin-to-skin contact is also an option.

Do not rub! This causes more damage to tissues. Isolate the areas and touch them as little as possible. Separate fingers and toes and wrap with gauze if available. Never use adhesive for deep frostbite. Attempt to warm slowly - this will be painful as the blood flow returns to damaged skin and vessels. Seek assistance from a medical professional. Do not pop blisters; these are crucial for healing and can get infected if opened. 


The best way to handle frostbite is to avoid exposure and keep your extremities warm. Wear loose layers to promote circulation. Dry-wicking materials keep moisture from accumulating close to the skin. Cover your face, nose, ears, fingers, and toes, and use HotHands or similar products when possible. Pack hot liquids in insulated containers and consume while they're still warm. Make frequent stops to stretch and move around.

Stay dry. Don’t be out in the cold too long, especially in windy conditions. Frostbite is a potential indicator of hypothermia, which leads to loss of rational thought, confusion, drowsiness, and in severe cases, can lead to amputation or death. Keep a close eye on your riding partners and if anyone seems too cold, stop and seek shelter and warmth.

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