Skip the snowmobile skipping: Stay clear of thin, open ice

Snowmobiling: With the late appearance of winter, snowmobiles are finally zooming around. And some are going through the water as their drivers try to skip them over lakes and rivers.
Snowmobiling: With the late appearance of winter, snowmobiles are finally zooming around. And some are going through the water as their drivers try to skip them over lakes and rivers.

It’s finally getting into real winter conditions here in Minnesota, but that still doesn’t mean it’s winter as normal.

Sunday’s snowfall led to three snowmobile crashes on lakes where drivers went through thin ice or open water. In one case, the snowmobile driver died. According to the press accounts, many snowmobile drivers like to “skip” their machines over open water. It got me wondering how this actually works.

It’s actually much like how a stone that is thrown at the right angle and speed skips across open water. Checking the web for snowmobile sites, I found out the specific details.

The snowmobile skip formula works this way: In order to skip, the snowmobile must be going at least 5 mph for every 150 lbs. of vehicle (or fraction thereof). For example, if a snowmobile and rider weighed 780 lbs., it would have to be going at least 30 mph to skip. The distance of water a snowmobile can cross is 2", plus 1/2" for every 5 mph over the minimum skip-speed. If the above-mentioned snowmobile was going 45 mph, it could cross 3 1/2" of water; at 75 mph, it could cross 6 1/2" of open water. There’s also friction, or drag, involved in this formula. A snowmobile decelerates 5 mph for every inch (or fraction) of water it "skips." The snowmobile above, crossing 6-1/2" inches of water at 75 mph, would be going only 40 mph when it got to the other side.

A snowmobile cannot change direction while "skipping" -- it can only go in a straight line. If a snowmobile doesn't make it across the open water, it sinks. It only takes one second for a snowmobile to sink to the bottom of a lake or river.

So, as they say on all the stunt shows, don’t try this at home….or on a lake near your home. Across the U.S. and Canada each winter about 50 people die from snowmobiles crashing and sinking into frigid waters.

Interestingly, a graduate from the University of Minnesota is developing a way to minimize the deaths of snowmobilers falling through the ice. John Weinel is now working with university students to come up with an automatic floatation device that could deploy from a snowmobile, much like an airbag in a car, when a snowmobile crashes into water. That work has already led to floatation equipment law enforcement officers can use at the scene a snowmobile water crash to help keep victims at the surface until better equipped rescuers can get to the scene.

Of course, the best thing to do if you're driving a snowmobile is to avoid driving it anywhere there is a chance to be open or thin ice. You and your snowmobile will be able to get around better and happier if you never go sinking into chilly water.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

MrScience's picture
MrScience says:

Would this be the phenomenom known as "snowmo-boating"? To give you an idea of how dangerous it is, I first heard about it in volume 4 of The Darwin Awards. Seriously - don't try this at home.


"God grant me the company of those who seek the truth. And God deliver me from those who have found it."
-Isaac Newton

posted on Wed, 01/17/2007 - 1:25pm
Danny P #105's picture
Danny P #105 says:

The event is called Water Cross......" The Fastest Show On H2O" Like Sno-cross buy on water.....They actually do an oval around bouys.

The world record for water skipping is aruond 37 miles.............he ran out of gas!!

posted on Sat, 02/24/2007 - 2:13pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

haha 1 skip all the time. im 15 years old and i live in minnesota i skip up at ham lake. it's not nearly as hard as they make it sound. usually i enter the water at upwards of 30 miles and hour and i can ride my snowmobile over open water like a jet ski. it only takes a few hours of practice and junk sled that you can pull out upon skinking and i make sure sure sure that all my fluids and gas tank dont leak so i dont get that junk in the water>.>

posted on Tue, 03/31/2009 - 3:54pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

There is also a form of modifying snowmobiles and driving them in the water during the warmer months. I'm not sure the exact name of it, but did see pictures of it while I was researching snowmobile skipping.

posted on Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:18am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

the 'snowmbile formula' is untrue, and was also taken from another website. snowmobiles can travel great distances across water, and according to that formula, they would have to be travelling at thousands of miles an hour to do so

posted on Thu, 01/25/2007 - 11:41pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what a joke they race a figure 8 track 3 sleds at a time thier speed goes from 20 to 60 mph they do 3 laps per race where did your statement come from check out pictures from grantsburg wisconsin if you dont believe me

posted on Fri, 01/26/2007 - 5:14pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I believe the record over open water is close to 100 miles. The only reason he quit was he ran out of gas.

posted on Sat, 02/17/2007 - 2:13am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This article should be corrected. This is the first "formula" for skipping water I have ever seen. It is definitely not correct,(for one thing, it is in inches of water skipped across, and it should probably mean feet) , I have seen skipping done regularly and machines can skip over hundreds of feet of water, and can be turned around too. I have seen 2WD ATVs skip water as well. This is topic just spreading misinformation.

posted on Thu, 02/22/2007 - 11:15am
bryan kennedy's picture

Well this is why we love to see comments on Science Buzz. It does seem that we were too conservative in our description of snow mobile skipping. I think Thor's formula above assumes that when a snowmobile hits open water it wasn't running the engine to maintain speed.

But as many of you have posted if you are still throttling the snowmobile you can go for quite a while on open water. I had to see this in various sources before I really believed it though.

NPR has a good radio story about people racing snowmobiles on open water in the summertime

Lots of pics of open water snowmobile races

Forum posts over at snowmobile fanatics about skipping

And most importantly here is the website where Henry Beida describes his records for snowmobile skipping. If you believe his stories, he has driving across Lake Ontario and traveled for 101 miles along open water with a snowmobile. I would like to hear from anyone who can confirm this record with a first hand account.

So snowmobile skipping seems much more possible than we've described in the above story. However, it is still a really bad idea to do this during the winter on a semi-frozen lake. People die every winter doing this. Your snowmobile can sink in seconds and hypothermia can kill you in freezing water very quickly.

posted on Thu, 02/22/2007 - 12:46pm
Danny P #105's picture
Danny P #105 says:

Your article says you can cross (skip) 6 1/2 inches) of open water at 75 mph.... Is this correct? I have skipped open water on my snowmobile many times in my life... I have gone 1/4 mile at times....Yes this was intentional and I do not suggest you do this!!!!!!

The article also stated a flotation device for the snowmobile itself......How about a flotation device such as a boyancy compensator vest (used in scuba diving). You would wear it unde your jacket and if you went thru the ice, a cord could be pulled and the vest would inflate.

That's all


posted on Sat, 02/24/2007 - 2:10pm
mikee's picture
mikee says:

hi im only 13 and i water skip all the time on my lake its easy all you have to do is go pritty fast and u can tern by leaning its easy and i never sank once.

posted on Mon, 04/02/2007 - 9:37pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

you dont know what you are talking about for the water skipping thing. so thats why i go down rivers that are open and pick up speed. i start with the skis at the edge of the water and go and i make it every time. and thats a distance of about 1 mile.

posted on Sun, 04/08/2007 - 9:20pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

that is not even close to true i have a 03 pro x 440 and i am 300lb and i can do ovals on open water so its bull

posted on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 5:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

the other day i started on the beach with my skis in the water on a 600 RMK and went 7 miles to the other end of the lake. I did this in July when there is no ice anywhere. Turning is not a problem, just lean into the turn.

posted on Tue, 07/03/2007 - 9:43pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Sun, 08/05/2007 - 3:44pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

those figures are not only conservative but way off the wall

they hold races on water all the time I've even seen sleds jump from land (off the top of a bank about 4 feet high) and land on the water and still able to skip around the whole lake

I think as long as you have room and gas and smooth enough water you could go forever

also this very thing may save your life on thin ice I know a lot of my dads friends even him when they come to a water crossing espically on a river where the water is always moving and doesn't freeze well will get a good run at it and just pin it across so if they do break through they will skip instead of sink dunno if it works or not but they have not broke through since they started doing this

your best bet tho is to just stay off the ice if you think its thin or atleast check it somehow

posted on Wed, 10/17/2007 - 3:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this is not true as long as ou have the power to keep the track spinning at 45 mph than you could skip water for miles the was one guy that went 15 miles

posted on Tue, 11/27/2007 - 9:40am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I skipped 10 miles and im only 13 with the skis right up to the edge of the river bank.

posted on Thu, 12/13/2007 - 8:41am
matt balko's picture
matt balko says:

thats kinda dangerous

posted on Thu, 12/13/2007 - 11:27am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I have skipped several times on my 570 Artic Cat Z and never had a problem. Ive never
went for miles but skip open patches of water that are 30-50 yards all the time when riding the river here.

posted on Tue, 12/25/2007 - 8:29pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The real message should be brakes can kill. I have skipped open water many of times with ease. I am 275 pounds and ride a 500 that is stock. The people that are most likely to fall through are the scared brakers. Know what you are doing and know the area before letting it rip across open water. Drinking and driving ,and getting scared, and braking when you suddenly see an open spot can kill. Stand up see your target and let it rip is what I do. Bottom line skipping is dangerous, but unlike the article above says it can be done easily for very long distances.

posted on Thu, 02/07/2008 - 9:55am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

dont outlaw waterskipping

posted on Wed, 05/07/2008 - 12:14pm
wraithdrudge's picture
wraithdrudge says:

no water skipping is too deadly a sport i say shut it down and outlaw it that way doing is that much cooler!!! long live the outlaws!!!!

posted on Wed, 10/15/2008 - 3:54pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I have a polaris ultra spx 680 wich is a rather heavy sled with 1.5" lugs on the trak and find that it i can slow to almost a running speed, and then accelerate to quite fast on open water but dont recommend it. I think they can easily go as fast as jetskis if not faster! I have also left from a stand still in about 8" of water.

posted on Wed, 12/24/2008 - 9:11pm
sled ed's picture
sled ed says:

i had a yamaha srv 540 it was bored 0.40000,piped clutched and jeted with a camoplast 1.25 challenger track with that sled i could enter the water at a snails pace and as soon as i would feel the sled start to sink i would giver her a squeeze ...that thing would accelerate so fast i would be doin almost 90 mph comin out the other side !

posted on Sun, 03/01/2009 - 7:13pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

thats bull with new sleds you can rip across water 100 MPH and not decelerate at all. its awesome when your on the lake and an open spot of water shows up you let er rip and it feels awesome

posted on Thu, 04/09/2009 - 1:48pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Your calculations are miles off. 75 mph will take you as far as you want to go on open water.

posted on Thu, 01/21/2010 - 4:04pm
william olanna's picture
william olanna says:

i got a IQ 600 but my dad went water skipping and it sunk it just went to waste.

posted on Fri, 03/26/2010 - 12:22pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

why do some sleds sink? Is it more likely with a short track, or studs? I'm sure that a long track would be the easiest way to stay afloat and for the longest distance? Can you still cross water a long distance with a short track and studs?

posted on Mon, 11/01/2010 - 1:18am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

there is rilly know math involved in water skiping all u need to do is have *dangling courage organs* and a sled to skip i do it all the time on lake vermillion in MN and ya u can reck your sled but it is a sport and u always have to pay for fun all i c is cityits saying *words worth nothing more than a small quantity of fecal matter* about stuff they dont do or there afrade to do. ya u can sink with a short track but if u have a nuff pattle u can do anything. most of the time sleds sink is because when ur track spins too fast it pulls water in, or ur skie go under the water or watter on your belt and starts to slip. if u still want to talk *words worth nothing more than a small quantity of fecal matter* about skipping y dont u come up to lake vermillion MN and c how it is done

posted on Wed, 02/08/2012 - 10:26am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I wanted to make sure your input was considered in this discussion, but I'm afraid I had to edit it slightly for an all-ages audience. So, poster and readers, any phrases surrounded by *asterisks* have, sadly, been altered.

posted on Wed, 02/08/2012 - 11:14am

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