Based on statistics provided by Transport Canada, there are over 700,000 registered snowmobiles in Canada and more than 161,000 km of snowmobile trails. Perhaps thanks to the country’s long, cold winters, Canadians have fallen in love with the snowmobile. Some families living in rural areas own five or six of them—one for every person in the family—purely for recreational purposes. In the Arctic Territories they are widely used for daily winter travel. In fact, they are the main form of transportation for many families in smaller communities, whether they are going to the store for supplies or just visiting friends.
Gas-powered snowmobiles have replaced the dog sleds traditionally used by First Nations people for hunting and travelling. In the Yukon, for example, dogsledding is now mostly used only for sport, recreation or tourism. While Inuit hunters and trappers still use the traditional “komatik” wooden sleds, they are now pulled by snowmobiles. One of the reasons for the wide-reaching adoption of these vehicles is that it reduces travel time significantly. While a hunting trip might take three months with a dog team, it’s possible to complete the same trip in three weeks with a snowmobile. The downside is the cost of maintaining the machines in remote areas.
The first “snow machine” was created purely to be used as a winter utility vehicle that could take people where motor vehicles couldn’t. This was useful for hunters and workers transporting people and material across snowfields, frozen lakes and rivers.
Other patents were issued for snow machine designs, but these early, utilitarian versions were perfected by a Canadian, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, in 1958. Bombardier designed a machine that could handle the country’s unique “wet” snow. His design featured a "caterpillar track" that worked on the slushy, icy terrain found in his home province of Quebec.
Bombardier’s version—the Ski-Doo (originally called the Ski-Dog, but a printing mistake changed the logo to Ski-Doo and the company decided it preferred the accidental name)—was highly successful. He was the first to market snowmobiles on a massive scale. Before his invention, snow vehicles were rear-engine designs. His machine had wooden runners and a lightweight rubber track that appealed to people both as a utility vehicle and as a fun toy to drive on frozen rivers, forest trails and snow-covered roads. He was granted a Canadian patent in 1960 and a U.S. patent in 1962 for his “endless track vehicle,” and this launched an industry that forever changed how Canadians traversed the snow.
The snowmobile has also shaped Canada’s tourism industry. People fly in from all around the world to go on wilderness snowmobiling adventures—whether they are looking for polar bears or just exploring Canada’s expansive winter landscapes at high speeds. Some of the higher powered modern snowmobiles can go up to 150 mph (240 km/h).
Whether it’s being used as a tool to tame the north or just as a high-powered toy, snowmobiles continue to play a key role in Canadian culture.