“Stay on the Trail, or Stay Home” is a trail sign and slogan used by the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails, local clubs, and Fish and Game Conservation Officers here in New Hampshire.
Ninety-nine percent of riders follow this simple rule, but then there is the 1% of riders who don’t. Can this short statement save my life? The answer is YES!!
Is Off-Trail Riding Bad?
Off-trail riding is an issue from Keene to the Seacoast to Pittsburg and all points in between. Why is it so bad? First, off-trail riding closes trails. Second, it damages property. Some riders feel that if they are way off in the woods, off-trail riding isn’t hurting anything. Not true. Sometimes concerns involve a landowner, a local club, a neighbor, the Bureau of Trails, or Fish and Game.
The list goes on and on. Even as I write this column, emails are coming in from staff about off-trail riding and the impact it has on wildlife and regrowth of young forest. A small ride through a clear-cut can destroy new growth for years to come. A short foray through a freshly planted hayfield can set a farmer into a financial tailspin. You get the idea.
I realize that a lot of the new sleds that are being bought are designed for the purpose of off-trail riding. People wonder why they are allowed to sell the machines if you can’t ride them. The short answer is that you can ride them in New Hampshire, but only with written landowner permission. Some other states allow off-trail riding that you can trailer to. That’s why it’s not illegal to sell these machines.
Dangers of Riding Off-Trail
So how does avoiding off-trail riding save lives? Very simply, when trails are cut and maintained by the Trails Bureau or a local club, blowdowns, overhanging branches, and rocks are removed. The trail is groomed and, for the most part, free of hazards.
When you venture off-trail, you don’t know what is under that powder. You are just simply hoping that it is bare, smooth ground. You are likely to encounter anything from blowdowns to large protruding rocks and tree stumps, even stone walls – all the stuff that is cleared from the legal trail.
You also should think about what happens when you get stuck. On February 21 last year in Cambridge, NH, a rider went off-trail and got his ATV stuck; after digging it out with some help from passing snowmobilers, the machine was put back on the trail. The operator climbed on the machine and had a fatal heart attack right then and there.
On March 16 in Stewartstown, a small group of riders on sleds went off-trail riding, and one of the machines got stuck in the powder. While digging out the machine, that operator, too, had a fatal heart attack. Because of the remote location and lack of phone service, it was a long time before help could arrive. It is a somber thought that both of these men might still be here today if they had stayed on the trail.
Stay on the Trail
In January and February of 2017, Fish and Game Conservation Officers were called multiple times into the back country to rescue groups of snowmobilers who were stuck or lost because they had left the trail. Their actions not only put the riders in danger, but also the officers tasked with their rescue. Calls for help usually come in after dark, adding another level of danger and stress that could be avoided if parties had stayed on the trail.
Riding a snowmobile, hiking on a trail, or just getting out in our winter wonderland is fun and exciting and one of the great things about New Hampshire! We just need to be safe and smart when we venture out.
What lies below the soft white blanket of snow has no feeling or forgiveness; it treats everyone the same. A well-marked trail that has been maintained will always be the safest place to be. So go out and enjoy all that winter has to offer, but do it safely and “STAY ON THE TRAIL, OR STAY HOME.”
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