What is the Future of Snowmobiling? [Video]


It’s sad to admit this, but it looks like snowmobiling is a declining sport. Do you doubt this?

These are the factors driving the decline of snowmobiling as a sport:

  • Seasons are shorter with fewer places to ride
  • Sleds have become much less affordable than they were in the past
  • Maintaining a sled is more difficult and much more expensive than in years past
  • Snowmobile owners on average get older every year
  • Growing public resentment against snowmobiles
  • Declining sales figures and interest in the sport
  • Alternative vehicles have become more popular

If you own a snowmobile, or are thinking of buying one, keep reading. You may want to know what the future prospects are for snowmobiling!

Shorter Seasons

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the fact is that there is less snow fall year-after-year.

The earth’s snow line is definitely moving north, which means shorter and shorter snowmobiling seasons. In many countries the season has shortened to only 2 months, which is only 8-10 weekends!

Aside from the quantity, the other problem is that snow conditions have become worse and worse over the years. According to Climatecentral.org, it is becoming more and more common for rain to fall during the shoulder months instead of snow.

This has a negative effect on all winter sports, but snowmobiling is the one most affected.

Why?

Although many ski resorts are able to produce their own artificial snow, snowmobiles are forced to rely on natural snow. Furthermore, snowmobile trails are typically at lower elevations and much longer than most ski slopes.

Unfortunately, all this results in shorter seasons with fewer places to ride for everyone who loves the sport.

The other concern is safety. It is essential that there be a sufficient amount of good quality snow for the safe operation of a snowmobile. This is because in low-snow conditions the sled’s track can easily get damaged by stumps and rocks. Plus, their engines overheat much easier as well.

According to a study in Vermont, the number of days each year with more than 1 inch of snow on the ground has dropped significantly over the past few decades. Figures show a drop from 130 days in 1960 to just 75 today.  Thus, members of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers say that if this trend continues, they will likely be forced to give up the sport.

Unfortunately, this trend is not limited to Vermont, but is being seen in virtually every state in the U.S. and in Canada as well.

Each year snowmobiling trails are opening later and closing earlier, and it seems like this will only get worse year-after-year.

Snowmobiles are not Affordable

Another reason for the sport’s plunging popularity is that snowmobiles have become far less affordable.

According to Supertraxmag, the average price of a snowmobile in 1975 was $1,400, whereas now in 2020 the average price has jumped to $13,500.

Many claim that this huge increase in price is simply due to inflation, which isn’t surprising.

So, let’s compare those prices to the minimum wage in those years, with median household income in the same years:

  1975 2020
Average Snowmobile Price (MSRP, USD) $1,400 $13,500
Minimum wage (U.S.) $2.10 $7.25
Work hours needed to buy a snowmobile (at minimum wage) 667 1862
Median household income  $13,720 $66,000*
How many snowmobiles can a household buy on a yearly income 10 5

Using the minimum wage in 1975, we would have had to work 667 hours in order to buy a sled, whereas in 2020 the number of work hours jumps to 1862. This means we now must work 2.8 times more hours to have enough money for a new sled!

Calculating this another way, let’s consider the median household income: In 1975 the average family would have been able to buy nearly 10 snowmobiles on their income, but in 2020 they can only buy half that many.

Finally, let’s determine how much an average 1975 snowmobile costing $1,400, would cost today using an inflation calculator. According to these figures the cost should be about $6,800, which is around half the current price of $13,500.

To summarize, based on all these facts it’s safe to say that today the price of an average snowmobile is about twice what it was in 1975!

Many claim that unlike their vintage predecessors, new snowmobiles are much more powerful, and come with so many more bells and whistles. So, this explains why they are so much more expensive.

These are all valid points. There is no question that the difference between the vintage models and today’s snowmobiles are like night and day.

However, the bottom line is that these hefty price tags mean that snowmobiles have now become way too expensive for a lot of families!

Maintenance is More Difficult and More Expensive

In addition to significantly higher purchase prices, there are two major disadvantages of the increased power and the countless features that snowmobiles now have.

The first is that newer snowmobiles are much more expensive to maintain.

Snowmobiles were never known for their reliability, as they are equipped with many complex systems. The engine, driveline, cooling system, track and suspensions all require constant care and attention.

And compared to their vintage predecessors, newer sleds are equipped with many more parts, which are expensive to replace.

Another problem with newer snowmobiles is that with increased performance you get a shorter lifespan for many of the parts. Ultimately, this results in higher maintenance costs and higher fuel consumption

Let’s now talk about the other major con of new sleds:

They are much more difficult to service at home!

You can find some really interesting things when comparing the owner’s manuals of new snowmobiles with those of vintage models.

In years past, manufacturers provided all the information owners would need to maintain and repair their sleds at home. Those manuals included extremely detailed specs and drawings on the engines, carbs, and all key parts.

Today owners get a much simpler “Operator’s Guide,” which only contains very minimal information concerning maintenance. In fact, the most common solution given in these manuals for solving a lot of issues is, “See an authorized dealership.”

Servicing instructions can only be found in the “service” or “repair” manuals, which are not issued to owners. The reason for this is that the manufacturers want the owners to always take their sleds to a dealer because these services provide them with a good income, especially when you consider the price of OEM parts.

Even if the owners had access to all the necessary information, servicing these new sleds at home is significantly more difficult than servicing vintage models. Now you need special tools, diagnostic cables with software, and so on.

This is the same trend we see with cars. Manufacturers intentionally make cars more difficult for people to work on at home. This is why many owners never even try servicing their snowmobiles at home, and the same goes for their cars.

But having to constantly take your sled to the dealer gets costly, plus it’s very time consuming, especially if you live a long way from the dealership.

Furthermore, aside from the cost of servicing your sled, there are a lot of additional costs involved in this sport.

You will have to pay for registration, a trailer, gas, clothing, accessories, hotel rooms, plus food and drinks to take on your rides.

Yes, it’s clear that snowmobiling has now become a pretty expensive pastime!

Snowmobilers on Average Get Older Each Year

Let’s face, you hardly see any young people snowmobiling out there.

Snowmobiling clubs report low membership numbers in many areas, and many members are in their 50s and older. Many clubs are struggling to find younger sledders to take on.

If they fail, these clubs will have to close once their current members “retire” from snowmobiling.

Of course, younger people cannot afford such an expensive sport. Being optimistic, people will buy snowmobiles once they’re older and able to spend the time and money needed for this activity.  

But the bad news is that most of them probably won’t.

Why?

These are the reasons:

First, a lot of young people are struggling to pay off student loans and/or trying to gather enough money for a down payment on a home. Therefore, there is no way they will be able to afford to purchase and maintain a snowmobile anytime soon.

Another factor is that younger people today are less active and prefer indoor activities. Many will spend $10,000 or more on electronic devices and screens, rather than on a snowmobile. 

Additionally, snowmobiling requires a certain level of mechanical skill. These machines need constant care and maintenance, and this is not something today’s young people want to deal with.

And this is not meant to be critical, it’s just a fact. The world is changing and that includes consumer habits.

Growing Public Resentment Against Snowmobiles

In recent decades, high-performance mountain and crossover snowmobiles have become more and more popular.

Unlike vintage sleds, these machines can operate on deep snow without any issues. As these models became more prevalent, the number of snowmobile violations began to increase significantly.

This is because there are so many mindless riders operating their sleds on private land, which has had a negative impact on the entire sport.

The main problem causing this is that many groomed trails cross private land. When riding on these trails you are not allowed to leave the trail. But there are off-trail snowmobile owners who blatantly ignore the rules and go anywhere they want.

They ride across the trails, all over private lands and wherever they see deep snow!

This practice is not only illegal, but it also has many other consequences as well.

First, many landowners are fed up with abusive snowmobilers, so they no longer allow trails to cross their fields. This has resulted in more and more trails getting closed.

And we have to mention the aftermarket exhaust systems on many snowmobiles are pretty loud and quite disturbing. (This is why this type of modification is not legal in many areas.)

As a result of all these issues, people more often than not call the cops on snowmobilers, even on those riding legally! So, many riders are sick and tired of being harassed by law enforcement.

Even if the majority of snowmobile owners operate legally, it seems as if there are so many irresponsible riders out there that it’s causing the sport itself to develop a bad reputation.

All of this doesn’t bode well for the sport in the long run!

Decreasing Sales and Interest

Unfortunately, all the factors mentioned above have resulted in fewer snowmobiles being sold and less interest in the sport in general.

In the mid ‘90s more than 250,000 sleds were being sold each year across the world. Currently, there are only about half that number being sold worldwide.

Looking at the chart below of the last 25 years’ sales figures, we can see some fluctuation, but the trend is obvious:

* Source of data: International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association

According to Minnpost, the number of registered snowmobiles in Minnesota reached its peak in 2001 with 297,623 sleds. In 2017 this number was down to less than 200,000. (During that same time the state’s population grew by around 600,000.)

Even though Utah’s population has grown by about 77% over the last 20 years, the number of registered snowmobiles in the state has declined. Also, the residents of Utah with registered snowmobiles have an average age of 54.

Aside from these numbers, it’s also worthwhile looking at Google searches for the term “snowmobile.” If we compare data from today’s searches to that of the mid-2000s, we can see that interest has fallen by about a third.

It’s pretty much the same trend that we see in sales figures:

*Source: Google Trends

What does this mean?

Well it’s pretty clear, fewer and fewer people are interested in this sport, which is a good predictor for the future of snowmobiling. 

As a result, manufacturers will invest less money in research and development. We can see this happening with Yamaha, as most of their snowmobiles are now basically the same as Arctic Cat’s. (Due to a cooperation agreement between the two companies.)

Rather than developing new snowmobiles, these companies may put their focus on other types of vehicles. Since every major snowmobile manufacturer also makes other powersport vehicles (like ATVs, UTVs, or PWCs) they can easily turn their attention toward another segment.

Fewer sales and less interest also result in fewer dealerships, service shops, gas stations near trails, and the disappearance of many other related facilities.

Alternative Vehicles are More Popular

You may be wondering if the entire powersports industry is in decline. Economic conditions have been going up and down.

We had the 2008 recession, then the recovery, and now COVID. These are the type of events that can affect an entire industry.

Fortunately, the answer is no. In fact, many other types of powersport vehicles are actually becoming more popular!

For example, if we compare Google searches for “snowmobile” with “jet ski” you can clearly see the trend is going in the opposite direction.

*Source: Google Trends

And with good reason because the shorter the winter, the longer the summer. This is why a lot of snowmobilers are thinking about selling their sleds and moving on to some other type of vehicle.

Just look at all the options: dirt bikes, street bikes, ATVs, UTVs, jet skis, and so on.

But the most realistic alternative to a snowmobile would probably be the snow bike. Simply put, snow bike is a standard dirt bike transformed into a snowmobile with a special kit.

A lot of people are saying that snow bikes are the future of snowmobiles:

Snow bikes have many advantages over snowmobiles, but the biggest is that they can be used year-round!

Conclusion

It seems apparent that snowmobiling is a sport in decline:

Winters are getting shorter and the quality of snow is not nearly as good as it used to be. This results in shorter seasons and worse riding conditions.

Another factor is the cost. The purchase price and maintenance costs of snowmobiles have skyrocketed over the last couple of decades. Thus, snowmobiling is far less affordable than it was in the past.

Additionally, the newer sleds are much more difficult to work on, which means you have to trailer them over to the dealer more often. This is a hassle, not to mention the amount of time and money it takes.

It also seems that the younger generation has little or no interest in this sport. So, average snowmobile owners are getting older and older. Many snowmobiling clubs are closing due to declining membership.

Finally, all these factors mean that there is generally less interest in the sport, resulting in declining sales figures. In fact, many snowmobile owners are giving up the sport and switching over to snow bikes, ATVs or UTVs.

Although these machines are different than snowmobiles, they can be ridden year-round!

As a final word, snowmobiling is clearly an amazing and unique sport, one that is still very popular. But more and more owners admit that it doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on a toy that sits in the garage most of the time!

References:

http://www.econewsvt.org/files/Social_Climate_Change_The_Advancing_Extirpation_of_Snowmobilers_in_Vermont.pdf

https://www.minnpost.com/twin-cities-business/2018/03/decline-snowmobiling-minnesota/

https://www.vpr.org/post/snowmobilers-feel-effects-climate-change-survey-shows#stream/0

http://www.supertraxmag.com/features/are-snowmobile-prices-fair/n3766

https://www.snowtechmagazine.com/off-trail-snowmobile-trespassing-the-devil-made-me-do-it/

https://www.climatecentral.org/news/winters-becoming-more-rainy-across-us-20017

https://www.sootoday.com/global-news/lacking-snow-sask-snowmobiling-season-gets-shorter-with-low-levels-of-powder-1995894

https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/snowmobile-season-off-to-good-start-in-time-of-warming/

https://www.census.gov/library/publications/1977/demo/p60-105.html

https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/1977/demographics/p60-105.pdf

https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/minimum-wage/

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