SHERIFF'S CORNER: A review of snowmobile operating laws

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Courtesy photo

Last weekend, the county hosted the Sled Dog Derby in Baldwin. Yours truly was fortunate to beat out Bruce from the museum in the first heat, however ate snow dust by Jamie from the bank in the second race. It was great to see such a large turnout from the community.

Winter is here in temperature alone, snow ... not so much.  Seems to have been that way these past few years. With only a few weekends of rideable snow, takes a toll on any snowmobile enthusiast. Anymore it is like owning a pool in Michigan. The time, effort and price isn't worth the small season.  

However, it is in fact snowmobile season. In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I want to review the common rules and laws that come with snowmobile operation in Michigan.


A snowmobile, legally, is "any motor-driven vehicle designed for travel primarily on snow or ice of a type that utilizes sled-type runners or skis, an endless belt tread, or any combination of these or other similar means of contact with the surface upon which it is operated, but is not a vehicle that must be registered under the Michigan vehicle code, 1949 PA 300, MCL 257.1 to 257.923."


Anywhere in the state, no. Most northern counties have adopted local ordinances allowing for operation on some or all county roads, provided they ride on the shoulder. That is the case in Lake County.

You are allowed to travel on Lake County roads, provided it is on the shoulder — and most importantly, is "with the flow of traffic."

The local U.S. Forest Service has advised me that national forest roads are not open to operation, unless it is also designated as a snowmobile trail.

The state law does allow for snowmobiles to "be operated on the right-of-way of a public highway (as in M-37 and US-10), except a limited access highway (as in US-131 or I-96), if it is operated at the extreme right of the open portion of the right-of-way and with the flow of traffic on the highway."

Also, it should be noted that when operating on the roadway shoulder, a snowmobile is allowed to travel at the posted speed limit for motor vehicles.


The short answer is you need to display a valid Michigan snowmobile registration (or registration from another state) and a valid Michigan snowmobile trail permit (sticker).

The "registration decals" must be placed on each side of the forward half of the cowl above the footwell.

No number other than the registration number may be displayed on the snowmobile.

The "trail permit sticker" needs to be permanently affixed to the forward half of the snowmobile directly above or below the headlight.

The only time you would NOT need a trail permit:

  1. When operated exclusively on lands owned or under the control of the owner.
  2. When exclusively operated in a special event of limited duration which is conducted according to a prearranged schedule under a permit from the governmental unit having proper jurisdiction.
  3. Used solely for transportation on the frozen surface of public waters for the purpose of ice fishing.


You do not need a driver's license to operate a snowmobile. However, if your driver's license has been suspended or revoked, you cannot operate a snowmobile.


There are some trails/routes that are open to both snowmobiles and ORVs. Some would believe that these are only open to one or the other, depending on the time of year, and that is simply untrue.

It may be common courtesy to not drive your ORVs on the packed snow of a mixed trail, but the law does not forbid it. You can legally operate your ORVs any time of the year.

Be aware that not all snowmobile trails are dual-purpose, meaning there are trails that are only open to snowmobiles. Make sure you are familiar with the proper trail signage to avoid having an issue.


A person under the age of 12:

  • May not operate a snowmobile without direct supervision of an adult, except on property owned or
    controlled by the parent or legal guardian.
  • May not cross a highway or street.

A person who is at least 12 but less than 17 years of age:

  • May operate a snowmobile if they have a valid snowmobile safety certificate in their immediate
    possession or are under direct supervision of a person 21 years of age or older.
  • May not cross a highway or street without having a valid snowmobile safety certificate in their
    immediate possession.

(Note: It is best that all youth riders get a valid safety certificate, so crossing or traveling a road is not an issue.)


  • While under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • At a rate of speed greater than is reasonable for existing conditions.
  • In a forest nursery, planting area or public lands posted or reasonably identifiable as an area or forest reproduction when growing stock may be damaged or any designated wild, wilderness or natural area in the state.
  • On the frozen surface of public waters within 100 feet of a person, including a skater, not in or upon a snowmobile or within 100 feet of a fishing shanty or shelter except at the minimum speed required to maintain forward movement of the snowmobile, or on an area that has been cleared for ice skating, unless the area is necessary for gaining access to the public water.
  • Within 100 feet of a dwelling between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. at a speed greater than the minimum required to maintain forward movement of the snowmobile.
  • Upon the land of another without consent of the owner or their agent, as required by the recreational trespass act.
  • In an area open to public hunting during the November 15-30 firearm deer season from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • While transporting a bow unless it is unstrung or encased, or a firearm unless it is unloaded and securely encased. A CPL is required to transport a concealed pistol.
  • On or across a cemetery or burial ground, airport, railroad or a railroad right-of-way, or within 100 feet of a sledding, skiing or skating area.
  • To chase, pursue, worry or kill any wild bird or animal.
  • In a public or private parking lot in a careless or negligent manner.

— This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. Topics covered are for educational and informational purposes only. As needed, excerpts from other articles are used for reference and/or content. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to