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Minneapolis St. Paul News, Weather, Traffic, Sports | Minneapolis, Minnesota | kare11.com

With snowmobile ownership surging during pandemic, safety becomes key

The winter sports industry is pleased to see so much interest, but there have been some tragic and high-profile snowmobile incidents in recent days.

ELK RIVER, Minn. — You’ll find the best of the best at ERX Motor Park.

On Wednesday afternoon, some of the top "Snocross" racers in the world practiced jumps in preparation for nationals in a few weeks, as nearby traffic on Highway 169 whizzed through the north metro.  

Kyle Pallin, a professional racer from Michigan, said he’s grateful for the opportunity to do what he loves during COVID-19.

“It’s so nice that we can still get out here and have competition,” Pallin said, “and have some sort of normalcy.”

But it’s not just the professionals.

Families and first-timers are picking up winter sports – specifically snowmobiling – craving COVID-19-proof outdoor activities after months and months of restrictions. As KARE 11 previously reported, snowmobile sales have jumped 19% compared to last year.

Chris Carlson, the co-owner of ERX, said he’s overjoyed to see the increase in interest – but he knows it comes with complications, too.

“All aspects of the power sports industry are seeing a boom. It’s virtually impossible to find equipment because the dealers are sold out. People are tired of being inside, and they want to get out,” Carlson said. “The weather’s been nice, great snow, and more people are snowmobiling – the unfortunate reality is, there have been a few incidents.”

Although the reasons for snowmobile crashes can vary drastically from case-to-case, there have been several high-profile incidents in Minnesota and Wisconsin so far in 2021. Last week, KARE 11 interviewed a Western Wisconsin family that needs help with medical bills after a mom and daughter were injured in a snowmobiling accident. On the night that story aired Friday, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office reported that an 18-year-old died on Gull Lake while snowmobiling; just a few days later, on Monday, the same sheriff’s office had to sadly report the death of a six-year-old snowmobile passenger near Leech Lake.

KARE 11 reached out to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for some safety tips about snowmobiling.

A few keys:

  1. Don’t stray from the marked snowmobile trails
  2. Don’t speed or drink: The DNR says these are the two main factors in crashes and that drinking while riding “plays a role in about 60 percent of those that are fatal.”
  3. Beware of the ice: “In recent years,” a DNR spokesperson said, “every through-the-ice fatality has involved people who were riding a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle when they fell through. There must be at least 5 to 7 inches of new, clear ice to support the weight of a snowmobile and rider.”
  4. Complete the snowmobile safety certification: It’s required for everyone born after 1976, although the DNR encourages everyone of all ages to do it.

At ERX, Chris Carlson said kids should be especially careful.

“We always recommend they ride with adults, and ride in a pack. When I taught my kids how to ride, it was Dad up front, Mom up front, and kids in the middle. So you can stop and talk about the dangers.”

Then there’s the matter of equipment.

Tausha Lange, a 19-year-old professional racer from Minnesota who has been racing since she was four, said you should always wear your helmet no matter where you are – even when you’re in the driveway – and pointed out that professional racers have even more padding.

Even the best of the best like Lange, though, were beginners once too.

So, don’t rush yourself, she says.

“Making sure you know what your comfort level is, and just exploring slowly,” Lange said. “And making sure you know what you’re doing.”