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HomeFeaturesTrailside Chatter #2: Indispensable Gear

Trailside Chatter #2: Indispensable Gear

My favorite piece of snowmobile gear: handlebar muffs. Photo

It’s November 1993.

While race-prepping the ZR 440 that he sponsored for me to contest the 1994 ISOC cross-country race season, Brian Nelson adds an accessory that will forever change my snowmobile experience and set a template for every snowmobile that I’ve owned since then.

It isn’t some game-changing clutch secret or revolutionary suspension set-up. Nope, far less tantalizing or exotic: A pair of black Arctic Cat handlebar muffs!

Constructed from lightweight polyester with a thin layer of insulation, plus a couple Velcro attachment straps, these plain-Jane muffs don’t exude trickness or coolness. On the contrary, they appear absolutely dorky.

I am utterly, completely unimpressed.

Looking back at the naïve 25-year old jackass that occupied my body in November 1993, I can’t help but smirk. If I remember correctly, I believe I actually said to Brian some smartass comment about going 2-up touring instead of racing.

Fortunately Brian prevailed on this topic. His argument was that nobody ever won a cross-country race because their fingers were toasty warm, but that many had been lost because of frozen digits.

Who was I to argue with a two-time I-500 winner who had given me a sled to race?

I would come around to Brian’s point of view a couple months later, when I used the muffs for the first time during a bitterly cold January race weekend in Thief River Falls. I don’t remember the temperature during the two-day Ironman 250 that year, but I remember lots of numb racers with frostbitten fingers going to the ER, their hopes for top-finish frozen until another year.

On the other hand, my fingers stayed warm both days and I finished intact and in the top-15 if memory serves correct. It was truly amazing the warmth made possible by the wind-free cocoon of insulated polyester.

Since that weekend 21 years ago, that same pair of ordinary muffs have graced every single snowmobile that I’ve owned and ridden, be it race or trail sleds. They aren’t always on the handlebars – if the ambient temperature is above 15 degrees I don’t need them – but they’re always packed somewhere on the snowmobile, ready for deployment the next time the mercury drops.

These particular muffs are as soft and pliable as jacket liner. Actually, they’re probably made from the same ingredients. The fabric’s flexibility allows the muffs to be attached in such a way that they can be rolled inside-out over the middle portion of the handlebars for when they weren’t needed, but quickly deploy into position (even while riding) if my hands get cold. Likewise, I can quickly pull the muffs back over the center of the handlebars, out of the way if needed.

Untold times I’ve fished the muffs out of the seat storage or backpack to finish a ride in heated bliss. Same for the times I’ve pulled them over my hands during the precipitous drop in temperature that seems to occur at sunset.

Over the years there’s been a constant evolution to the gear that I carry on snowmobile rides, but Handlebar Muffs like these are the one piece of gear has remained constant for the past two decades.

So now I ask you: What piece of gear do you always carry with you while snowmobiling? Is there an indispensable item that you do not ride without? Have you ever scoffed at a particular piece of equipment, only to learn that it’s pretty dang useful?


John Sandberg racing the ISOC Ironman 250 in 1994. Photo by Walton.

A photo of me at the 1994 ISOC Ironman 250 in Thief River Falls, where I learned the exceptional greatness of handlebar muffs.


My favorite piece of snowmobile gear: handlebar muffs. Photo

Arctic Cat ZR6000 HERO Ride Requirement: handlebar muffs.

During last season’s HERO Ride from St. Cloud to TRF, my compatriots and I survived 400 miles over two days with temps in the minus 20s with the cozy help of handlebar muffs.



  1. I always have a hose and container to transfer liquids. I remember a trip to northern Ontario a few years back. I had a brand new F7 and had no idea what kind of mileage it got because this was its maiden voyage. A friend had a Polaris Storm (i.e. gas guzzler). Gas stops were 100 miles apart. He ran out at 60. It was cold. Very cold. I siphoned what I could spare, not knowing if we’d make it.

    Got to our stop 40 miles up the road, filled up the F7 and used motor oil containers to go back to his sled.

    He sat out the rest of the trip….

  2. TekVest: Never ‘scoffed’ so to say at this item, but it has come in handy ever since I started to use it – it also keeps you warm. The worst crash I have had with it was following my then 72 year old grandmother. Spring ride on a gravel road, my 04 F6 hit a soft patch of sand/ gravel and flung me onto the road surface. A lot of hurt, a lot of black and blue, but no broken bones.

    Magnet: After fishing out items with sticks from belly pans of various machines, Jag Z being the worst, an extend’o magnet always rides with me.

    Super Tape: Duct or Gorilla. After a Ride with the Champs where I needed at least 50′ (of tape) to finish, and a stick, I keep a small roll in the tool kit as well.

  3. For super cold days gauntlets are a must as my ego won’t let me put a “bill board” wind screen on yet. I’d say some trail maps and a credit card. I always carry at least one spare belt ( my wife and I have the same sleds) I used to carry spark plugs but with the four strokes now days maybe joining AAA would be better, as I don’t think you can even see the spark plugs on them !

  4. I am with you Tom,use to use shorter windshields but now run the higher ones.Nothing more worst than having 100+ miles left in your day to get back and you are already cold.I have never ran gauntlets but have a brand-new set that have been on the shelf that I will have to pack and try on a cold day.

  5. some of my riding is in very remote areas with little population or cell service so I have a Garmin Montana 600 (loaded with custom trail maps I’ve made) and a SPOT Satellite Tracker mounted on my sled.

  6. Handle bar muffs and a big windshield makes things a lot more fun when the temp drops! I always ride with a small saw. I have cut branches out of the belly pan, cut logs to rescue sleds from bad ice and of course cut firewood for a quick warm up. It rides in the dash bag. I like wear a little headlamp under my helmet visor. You don’t notice it during the day but the lite comes in handy after dark making repairs or whatever.

  7. Trail Riding – A spare facemask, nothing worse than stepping out of wherever you ate supper and youve got 50 miles back home, its -10, and you put on your sopping wet facemask.

    Racing – Large windshield and good hand guards, and plenty of duct tape on the face. And a poly wicking inner layer everything, Cotton Kills!

  8. I always pack a multitool, great for cutting belts out of clutches, zip ties, for stitching hoods and windshields back together, cell phone/camera, perfect for the “hey y’all, watch this!!” moments

  9. After 10 years of pretending to be a SnoCross racer, I can’t go riding without my Safe-Jac, racing boots and shin guards. Even on vintage rides, I wear my race gear.

    I walked alway from way too many get-off’s while racing to feel comfortable without my gear on.

    Handlebar muffs sound like a good idea. Do they fit Liquifires?!

    Also agree with Rowland, high windshields are for old guys, this one included! Staying warm is way better…

  10. I agree on the handlebar mitts. I also like to always bring a first aide kit and a tow rope. I’ve needed the tow rope but fortunately haven’t needed the first aide kit. I also always bring a few quality tools; a couple clean rags; and a pair of mittens which I put on when my gloves aren’t warm enough.

  11. John,
    Cool to see the old photos of your racing. Even cooler to listen to your humility looking back at your youth days, with the experienced veteran by your side. Well written piece!

  12. Hi John,rode to 107 place finish in that 1994 I500,like to think the handle bar muffs i borrowed off a good friend helped me get there.Great job on site and stories even though I ride red.

  13. Wear mittens and you will not have to worry about handlebar muffs.

    I agree with Rob on the folding saw.

    Definitely a high windshield. Stock windshields are a joke.

    Lots of spare batteries for the GPS.

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