Winter's official arrival comes with the winter solstice on Dec. 21, and Vermont officials are already focusing on the winter sports that go with the season.

With snowmobile enthusiasts preparing to hit the trails, riders should be aware of safety concerns and prepare themselves for unexpected dangers.

In Vermont there are more than 470 miles of national forest trails available as part of the statewide snowmobile network, which also welcome snowshoers, hikers and cross-country skiers.

Trails are open to snowmobilers beginning on Dec. 16, and ending April 15, 2014. The Green Mountain National Forest and the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers cooperate to maintain the trails in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, and encourage riders to put safety first when heading out on their sleds.

In Bennington County, the Woodford SnoBusters snowmobile club offers free safety courses to members of the community who are interested in learning how to ride, or who need to receive their required safety certification.

All riders born after July 1, 1983 are required to complete and pass the six-hour safety course.

"The most important thing that we are there to teach is safety and respect for the sport," said Mark Tilley, instructor and club president.

The course also covers how to dress appropriately for the weather, the importance of riding with a friend or group and respect for the land and private landowners.

"For the sport to continue, consideration of other people and their property is really key," said Tilley.

Classes fill up quickly, with an average attendance of 15 to 20 people.

Those interested in signing up are asked to do so two weeks in advance, to allow time for studying the handbook and related materials.

"Our job - especially for the younger people - is to make sure they understand what they're doing, and the etiquette of being a snowmobiler," said Tilley, who has been teaching the course for nine years and riding for more than 30 years.

Citing inexperience as one of the biggest causes of mistakes made by riders, Tilley said driving a snowmobile is like driving a car. "You need to learn how you're going to stop, how to take corners, hills, and how to turn," he said.

The Woodford SnoBusters club currently has more than 2,000 members, many from out of the area.

"We are the most southern club in the state, a lot of people travel in from Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut," said Scott Daniels, club trail master.

"It was at one time the largest organized snowmobile club in the world," said Daniels, counting a year not so long ago when the club boasted more than 5,000 members.

Located at a high elevation of 2,300 feet above sea level, the club is prime real estate for snowmobilers, who often benefit from lake effect snowfalls.

Trails used by the club are approximately 85 percent national forest land and 15 percent private, according to club officers.

"The trail system is a privilege, not a right," said Daniels, who has been riding since he was 6 years old, and who regularly grooms the trails using large piston pulleys capable of dragging a planar tool.

"The biggest concern we have with riders is failure to keep right. You have to pay attention and not cut corners," he said. "There is no painted line down the middle of the road."

The NFS warns against the dangers associated with driving on frozen bodies of water, fallen trees and other hazards. Vermont also enforces a tough Snowmobiling While Intoxicated law, which covers alcohol as well as drugs, according to John Kamb, acting forest supervisor for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes national forests.

In Vermont all snowmobiles must be legally registered and be covered by liability insurance. Operators are also required to purchase a VAST trails maintenance assessment decal and not exceed the maximum legal speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

For more information visit www.vtvast.org and www.snobusters.com.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.