What Is a Snowcat, and How Do They Work?

When winter hits in some areas, we often find ourselves driving through a few inches of snow to get to a destination. Sometimes, the area where you want to travel isn’t paved, and no vehicle can get through the deep snow. Except for one, however, and it’s called a snowcat. What exactly is it, and how did Jeremy Renner get hurt by one?

A woman unloads a snow-covered snowcat
A woman unloading a snowcat | Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Jeremy Renner’s snowcat accident

Jeremy Renner, known for his role as Hawkeye in the Marvel movies, was involved in an accident near his Nevada home. After celebrating the holidays with family members, Renner went to plow his private driveway and help out some of his neighbors using his snowcat vehicle.

The area had seen quite a bit of snow, so a nearby roadway was closed with abandoned cars waiting to get cleared by county plows. 

Renner had gotten out of his snowcat, leaving it running along the path he was plowing. For some reason, the snow plow vehicle started rolling, ultimately running over the actor while he was trying to get back into the snowcat.

Emergency personnel was called to the location, and neighbors tended to Renner while they waited for an ambulance to be able to get through, according to CNN

He was taken to a nearby Reno area hospital, where doctors determined he had suffered chest trauma and other injuries, including some to his face. A routine investigation was opened into the incident, and local law enforcement officials decided he wasn’t intoxicated at the time of the accident, and there were no signs of any foul play. 

What exactly is a snowcat, and how do you use it? 

A snowcat is a specialized vehicle built to traverse snowy and icy terrain where regular cars and trucks can’t go. You might be familiar with the vehicles Antarctic explorers used when they traveled over the frozen tundra to conduct experiments. It’s about the size of a truck and has an enclosed cab sitting on top of a set of two tracks reminiscent of a tank. 

Another familiar way snowcats are used is at ski resorts. These vehicles will perform snow grooming, which is when crews smooth out hills and paths to make a skier’s experience more enjoyable and safer in some cases, according to Perisher’s website. It removes lumps and bumps and carves out turns and bends in the skiing trail. 

According to Popular Mechanics, they’re often used as snowplows by private owners who want access to winter cabins high in the snowy hills. The name comes from Tucker Sno-Cat, the original company that built snow vehicles starting back in the ’60s and ’70s. The name stuck and continues to be referred to as snowcat today. 

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Snowcat vehicles are typically used in commercial and military settings, but no law prohibits a civilian resident from owning one. There are some laws associated with having a car like this, but they vary from location to location.

You will most likely be required to register it, but you can do it as a snowmobile. You might live in an area, though, that asks you to register it as a tractor, agricultural vehicle, off-highway machine, or car. 

When it comes to driving one, you typically can’t operate it on a paved road unless it’s a private one. In Renner’s case, he drove it strictly on his own property, so there was nothing illegal about what he was doing.

If you can register it as a snowmobile, you can access snowmobile trails and operate them there, which could be a lot of fun. It could also mean you probably won’t need any type of snowmobile insurance for it.

If you’re really into the snowcat experience, there’s a festival in Idaho every year that’s dedicated to this snow vehicle. It’s called Snowcat Jamboree and lasts five days, enabling other owners to get together, have fun, and check out each other’s machines. 

Snowcats are fun machines, but you need to be careful around them and follow any local laws your area may have. You don’t want to have an accident as Jeremy Renner did with his snowcat vehicle.